Last week we looked at potential Oscar contenders released in the first eight months of 2011 (see Woody Allen, Brad Pitt, ‘The Help’ And Cast Among Early 2011 Oscar Contenders; Can They Hang On?), but as any pundit worth their prognosticator card will tell you, the game is really played out in the final four months, where the lion’s share of major eventual nominees will open and flourish on their way to the playoffs at the guilds, Globes and critics awards and the finals at the Kodak Theatre on Feb. 26.
So with the all-important official start of awards season kicking off next week in Venice and Telluride, followed closely by the Toronto International Film Festival beginning Sept. 8, here is the next installment of my early preseason primer for the likely contenders. Just keep in mind most of these films are still largely unseen, so take it all with a grain of salt. Once the movies actually are viewed, the landscape can change dramatically, and of course there is always that possibility of a real sleeper coming out of nowhere, landing a distribution deal and opening before the end of the year.
First up, a look at what the major studios have in store.
In recent years, the majors have been largely upstaged in the final vote by those upstart indies. Last year, The Weinstein Co’s The King’s Speech rode a surprise victory at the Producers Guild Awards all the way to a Best Pic Oscar win over the majors’ strong money bets The Social Network (Sony), The Fighter and True Grit (Paramount) and Toy Story 3 (Disney). In 2009, Summit’s little-war-film-that-could, The Hurt Locker, had the smallest gross of any Best Picture winner ever but still ran over the biggest entry ever from a major, 20th Century Fox’s Avatar, the most successful film of all time. Nevertheless, the rule of 10 nominees in effect for both those years certainly benefitted the majors in landing them four of the Best Pic slots in 2010 and five the previous year. Even though the Academy has now tweaked that rule to create a scenario in which anywhere from five to 10 pics can be nominated, the majors for the most part have an exceptionally strong fall slate and should remain a factor as one of them tries to reclaim the crown last given to a pure major studio release in 2006 to Warner Bros’ The Departed. And though major studios seem more obsessed in creating money-minting tentpoles these days than bathing in Oscar glory, the ego still flies on the lots and majors would like those front-row seats at the Kodak just as much as Harvey Weinstein.
Note: Independents owned by majors like Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and Focus will be included in the next installment looking at indie contenders. This one is just for the big boys.
Kicking off Warners’ fall season Sept. 9 and before that at the Venice Film Festival is Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, a serious thriller looking at the fight to stop a major virus outbreak killing millions around the world. Although Warners is just hoping it grabs the grown-up audience and makes some nice change, it could move up in the pantheon of studio Oscar hopefuls if it makes a big impact and gets editorial interest off the entertainment pages.
Warners’ two biggest bets for a fall awards splash are the Nov. 9 release J. Edgar and Dec. 25 biggie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The latter is a post-9/11 drama with serious Oscar cred in stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock and director Stephen Daldry, whose first three films – Billy Elliot, The Hours and The Reader — each landed him a Best Director Oscar nod, a nearly unprecedented perfect track record. As for J. Edgar, it stars three-time Best Actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio, was written by Milk’s Oscar-winning scripter Dustin Lance Black and directed by four-time winner Clint Eastwood, who with Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby has two previous Warner Bros Best Pictures under his belt. Couple that with subject matter revolving around a biographical portrait of the controversial FBI director and you have the stuff Oscar voters usually eat up — on paper at least. After weak Academy showings with Gran Torino, Invictus and Hereafter, the prolific Clint could be due for another dance with Oscar.
The studio also hopes to be back in the animation race this year with the sequel to its 2006 winner Happy Feet Two, which bows Nov. 18.
Other than The Muppets (Nov. 23), which is not likely to garner serious awards attention, Disney’s best bets are invested in their new partnership with DreamWorks, which already opened The Help to great box office and Oscar buzz and has one more giant contender slated for Dec. 28: Steven Spielberg’s screen adaptation of the Tony-winning Best Play War Horse, an irresistible boy-and-his-horse story set in World War I and seemingly tailor-made for Spielberg’s talents. The trick will be to make the film as magical in its own way as the still-sold-out NY show is with its astonishing life-sized puppetry. The trailer is promising, and the film is already on the tip of every Oscar pundit’s tongue.
20th Century Fox
In recent years, Fox has seen most of the Oscar glory in the company go to their indie division Fox Searchlight. Then there was the tremendous disappointment two years ago when Avatar lost to The Hurt Locker in a pretty bitter contest despite public niceties by the ex-Mr. and Mrs. James Cameron. If buzz starting to come from all corners of the lot is any indication (and who knows if it is at this point), Big Fox could be on the comeback trail after coming up zero last year. Cameron Crowe’s We Bought A Zoo, in which Matt Damon plays a man recovering from the death of his wife by revitalizing a rundown zoo, has all the elements of a family feel-good film to warm the Academy’s heart. Or so it would seem, which is a good thing since the talented Crowe hasn’t been a contender since winning Best Original Screenplay in 2000 for Almost Famous.
Paramount surprised pundits by skipping the fall fest circuit with Jason Reitman’s new dark comedy/drama Young Adult starring Charlize Theron, once again toning down the glamour for what I am told could be an Oscar-bait role. With Reitman’s Oscar-winning Juno scripter Diablo Cody again writing, the two-time directing nominee may be contending again, but Paramount is holding it back until closer to its Dec. 9 release, a strategy that worked just fine for both of their late-inning Best Pic nominees last year, The Fighter and True Grit. By peaking so early at Telluride and Toronto and given early front-runner status, Reitman’s Up In The Air had a hard time maintaining momentum over the long course of the season. This strategy could be a smart one, pegged closer to actual Oscar voting.
Par also has Martin Scorsese’s 3D debut, the live-action boy-and-his-robot story Hugo, which uncharacteristically provides a real departure for the Oscar-winning director by bringing him fully into the realm of family movies. Even though voters tend to shun fantasy flicks, attention must be paid because it’s Scorsese, although despite Par’s best campaign efforts last year the Academy paid no attention to his biggest moneymaker ever, Shutter Island, but that came out in Oscar’s no-man’s-land of February. Hugo is set for Nov. 23.
Then there is the small Sundance pickup, Like Crazy, a unique love story set on opposite sides of the world in London and L.A. as Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones try to keep the sparks alive despite all sorts of obstacles. This is the kind of tiny film voters will need to discover on their own, or at least Paramount needs to make them think that’s the case.
The studio, which already has two animated films in the race in homegrown Rango and DreamWorks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 2, will try to add two more to completely dominate: another DWA sequel, Puss In Boots, the first spin-off from Shrek, and Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson’s first entry into the genre, the 3D performance capture CGI adaptation of Belgian artist Herge’s popular The Adventures of Tintin, which has a look reportedly very faithful to the originals.
Sony is a partner on Spielberg’s Adventures of Tin Tin as well, distributing internationally where the property is much better known. The studio has its own domestic animated entry this fall with Arthur Christmas, a holiday-themed ‘toon that I hear from at least one animation uber-expert could be a real spoiler in that race. We’ll see.
On the live-action front, Sony is coming back strong with a slate of potential contenders to avenge its Social Network Best Picture loss, starting with Network director David Fincher’s apparently very intense English-language version of the Swedish phenomenon The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. That doesn’t get unveiled until Dec. 21. Sony’s three other hopefuls are all hitting the fall fest circuit beginning with the Venice fest opening of George Clooney’s political drama The Ides of March co-starring Ryan Gosling. Buzz is already major on this Oct. 7 release, and Clooney is an Academy darling (and just a few weeks later, he’s back starring in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants). Brad Pitt, who has earned some Oscar talk earlier in the year for The Tree of Life, is back in the baseball yarn Moneyball, which debuts at Toronto and will try to overcome Oscar’s aversion to most things baseball. Soderbergh was originally to direct but came to a parting of the ways with Sony and Capote’s Bennett Miller took over.
Finally there’s Roland Emmerich’s 17th century costume drama Anonymous, opening Oct. 28 but playing Toronto first. It already sounds like a front-runner for Costumes at least.
The studio is apparently leaving its heavy Oscar lifting this year to indie division Focus and in fact handed them Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, their one bona fide contender this fall. That is unless Oscar show producer Brett Ratner can convince the studio to do a campaign for his Ben Stiller/Eddie Murphy November release Tower Heist.
Coming Next: A look at the Fall Indie contenders.
Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.