Pete Hammond

It has been common wisdom as this awards race moves into full gallop that Best Picture Oscar may come down to The Social Network and The King’s Speech. But, after this week, I believe we may be adding a new heavyweight contender if mounting buzz is any indication. Academy members who are starting to see Paramount/Relativity’s The Fighter, particularly after Monday  night’s premiere, are starting to talk in ways that make Oscar consultants for rival films nervous.  “It’s a great movie, it really is,” one major writer/director told me last night. An exec close to the film’s campaign says the studios are starting to hear this a lot and points out one director branch member who came up after the film and told her, “I think I’ve just seen the Best Picture of the year.”  This exec says , “I know I should be drinking coffee but I am starting to drink my own Kool Aid. I think this thing is really starting to take off.”

At the premiere, stars Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale came on the Chinese Theatre stage after closing credits to introduce the real life inspirations for the film, Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, and the venue erupted into a big standing ovation. The exec estimates there were about 200 Academy members in attendance which helps make up for the disappointingly low turnout at last Saturday night’s “official” Academy screening. DVD screeners sent to various awards organizations arrived  in the mail on Wednesday.

Now this morning I’ve also exclusively  learned that the Palm Springs International Film Festival will be honoring The Fighter’s director David O.Russell with  the Director of the Year  Award at their annual gala on January 8. Coming as it does right in the heart of Oscar voting, it gives the movie and its helmer some needed momentum. Russell has not always been known as the most popular guy in town, but for the director of movies like Three Kings and I Heart Huckabee (both also featuring Wahlberg), the industry acclaim and acceptance for this “little movie that could”, at least in early screenings and at its premiere, could be a turning point. It’s entirely possible the film could be nominated but fellow directors ignore Russell’s own contribution — which is why any Best Director kudo like this can be helpful to try to steer him into serious contention as well. Of course it’s important that the movie do well at the box office, and it opens in a limited engagement in LA and NY tomorrow followed by its national break on December 17.

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