February 21, 2014

OSCARLAND: Rating the Studios


We’ll never know if this year’s Best Picture race is as close as we think it is, since the Academy has no intention of ever releasing its vote totals (something it did back at the very beginning of Oscar history).  Nevertheless, all signs are that this is the hardest race in years to call, given the split among precursor awards and the Academy voting rules, which count 2d-place and 3rd-place votes (and possibly deeper) if no film has a majority after the initial rounds of counting.  As we move into the final weekend of voting (ballots must be submitted by close of business on Tuesday), that makes the strategic decisions of the studios involved in the race at least as critical as anything the actors, directors and other filmmakers are likely to do.

So how well are they handling the pressure?  Let’s take a look.

FOX SEARCHLIGHT:  Searchlight had the clearest task of any studio this year.  12 YEARS A SLAVE entered awards season as the unquestioned frontrunner and critical favorite, and the studio had to make sure there was no loss of momentum as the weeks and months dragged on and new contenders opened.  Along the way, Searchlight has made a couple of strong decisions that will be celebrated if its movie wins, but controversial if it doesn’t.  First was its adoption of the slogan “It’s Time,” which is clearly a call for a moral judgment about the importance of telling the story of slavery in American history that goes beyond a simple Academy Award.  For some the phrase is a cry for justice, while others see it as heavyhanded bullying.  It may well be that those who feel the first way were voting for 12 Years anyway, while those in the latter group weren’t, but in a tight race, even a few votes swayed one way or another can make a difference–at the Producers Guild, remember, 12 Years deadlocked with Gravity.  Searchlight has also put the bulk of its efforts by far into the Best Picture race–and to a lesser extent, Lupita Nyong’o’s for Supporting Actress–all but leaving Actor nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor and Director nominee Steve McQueen on the side.  (Supporting Actor nominee Michael Fassbender made it clear that he would do no campaigning this year, and he meant it.)  This could conceivably come back to bite 12 Years if voters have a problem with following the lead of the Golden Globes and BAFTA, giving the film Best Picture and almost nothing else.  GRADE:  B+.

WARNERS:  The studio made the tough but wise decision to all but jettison a campaign for HER, a wonderful movie that entered the Best Picture race crippled by its lack of nominations for director Spike Jonze and actor Joaquin Phoenix (let alone voice-only actress Scarlett Johansson).  Her may still take Original Screenplay for Jonze, but that’s probably all.  Instead, Warners concentrated on GRAVITY, and has done an excellent job of playing up the “event” status of that film, which could easily have been dismissed as mere “entertainment,” a negative in this context.  Although Alfonso Cuaron is the favorite for Best Director, and the film will likely dominate the technical categories, it’s hurt by the fact that Sandra Bullock is unlikely to win Best Actress, and the lack of even a nomination for Best Original Script.  (As to the latter, though, it’s instructive to remember that the last film to win Best Picture without a screenplay nomination was Titanic, also a popular visual spectacle with a star director.)  The Gravity strategy isn’t necessarily to get the most #1 votes from Academy members, but to take advantage of the voting system and pile on those #2 and #3 votes, reminding people how much they enjoyed and respected the film even if it lacked the weight of its competitors.  That may or may not work in the end, but the studio has kept its film at the front of the competition.  GRADE;  A-.

SONY:  You can’t really argue with the studio’s decision to treat the Best Picture nomination for CAPTAIN PHILLIPS as a throwaway; although it was much more popular than Her, it was similarly damaged by the lack of Academy support for director Paul Greenglass and star Tom Hanks.  (Supporting Actor Barkhad Abdi, however, had a chance this year and should have gotten more studio support.)  Where Sony has really underperformed is in its AMERICAN HUSTLE campaign.  Hustle should have been the most serious competition for 12 Years A Slave, considering its combination of popular success, critical praise, a director more than due for a win (thinking of “it’s time”) and a cast flooded with acting nominations.  In order to make that happen, Sony had to accomplish one thing:  making the case that Hustle wasn’t just a comedy, but a film with something to say about, well, America, giving voters a reason to put it above the quintessentially serious 12 Years.  This is the kind of thing Harvey Weinstein does in his sleep, but while Sony has spent money on its campaign, it hasn’t reached that goal at all, running instead a bland, almost generic series of ads that have no unifying message at all.  The studio also failed to deliver for Amy Adams, whose remarkable run of nominations in recent years, along with her movie’s December opening, should have earned her more credibility than she has in this race, even given how much of a powerhouse Cate Blanchett has been.  GRADE:  C-.

FOCUS FEATURES:  How do you feel about conspiracy theories?  Focus has done a superb job promoting Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, and they’re likely to win the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor awards.  But the studio has barely put up a fight for Best Picture, even though the serious subject matter of DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and general critical support seemed to make it a natural contender.  Some might wonder if the current Focus leadership, which has replaced the group that actually greenlit and produced Dallas, are happy to win awards for its cast, but not as interested in currying praise for the film itself, which might lead observers to remember the good old days of the old regime.  GRADE:  B.

PARAMOUNT:  Again, this was a studio that needed to set priorities, and it was clear that despite its multiple nominations in major categories, NEBRASKA wasn’t going to be the favored child this season, with real effort only put into Bruce Dern’s campaign for Best Actor… although even that seems to have lost steam since the nominations were announced, and one wonders why June Squibb didn’t get more resources in a Supporting Actress race that could have had an opening for a dark horse.  But given the choice between a win for a tiny black-and-white movie that might not break $20M at the US box office, and the behemoth of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, the decision was understandable.  Paramount started by plugging Wolf aggressively for Best Picture, but seems to have realized that the film just has too many negatives for Oscar purposes, from its length and near-NC-17 content to the problems some have with its morality.  If Scorsese were still looking for his first win, things might have been different, but this wasn’t going to be his year.  The studio has thrown all its effort behind Leonardo DiCaprio for Best Actor, and with good reason–he couldn’t be more due, he’s completely committed to the campaign (he co-produced the movie himself), and his performance has been widely praised.  Unfortunately for him, he’s run into the buzzsaw of McConaugh-mania, and will probably have to wait until next time.  GRADE:  B-

THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY:  Harvey Weinstein is doing what he does best, but he just doesn’t have the horses this year.  PHILOMENA is unlikely to win, not seen as being in the same class as the other major contenders, despite all the times that the studio prominently runs Rex Reed’s hyperbolic praise for it.  Still, you have to give Harvey and his team credit:  faced with Judi Dench’s lack of campaigning facetime (she’s had health issues and has also been working), the decision to make use of the real Philomena Lee was inspired, and getting her an audience with the Pope was a masterstroke.  If Philomena loses, it won’t be for lack of effort.  GRADE:  A-.

And an Honorable Mention to:

SONY PICTURES CLASSICS:  Even though Sony Classics was shut out of the Best Picture race, it’s still very much in the game thanks to BLUE JASMINE.  The studio faced a potential stumbling block when the 20-year old accusations against Woody Allen were thrown back into the public eye, and both it and Cate Blanchett dealt with them with simplicity and dignity, making it unlikely that the mess will effect her chances at all (if anything, some resent the actress being dragged into the story in the first place).  Allen’s script and Sally Hawkins’ supporting performance were unlikely to win in any case.  GRADE:  A-.  


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."