Pete Hammond

OK, I’ll say it: If the Oscars were held today (nearly two-thirds of the way through 2011) Woody Allen could have another Best Picture winner. Of course the 84th Academy Awards aren’t being held yet and we are still four and a half months away from the end of eligibility. But as I embark on the fall season beginning with the Venice + Telluride + Toronto film festivals it’s time to take a look at where things stand and where things are going. First up in this series of posts: Is there anything released so far in 2011 with a realistic chance to ultimately win Best Picture? Or at the very least earn a nomination? Remember, new rules say from 5 to 10 films could be nominated, meaning each nominee can’t get there without receiving at least 300 first place votes in the nominating process. Conventional wisdom is that films released in the first 8 months of the year are at a tremendous disadvantage to those coming out in the fall and holiday season. Last year no eventual winner in the top 8 categories was released before October — and 7 of those winners came out on or after Thanksgiving. Then again some recent Best Pic winners like The Hurt Locker (2010) and Crash (2005) came from the first half of their respective years. Other classic Best Pic champs like Patton, The Godfather, The Silence Of The Lambs, Gladiator, Braveheart, and yes, Woody Allen’s first Best Picture, Annie Hall (1977), were all released in the first 5 months of their respective years so it would be foolish to downgrade the chances of movies we’ve already seen this year. Or would it? Indeed 4 of last time’s 10 Best Picture nominees were released in June and July.

But other than animated films like Rango and Rio there were no solid Best Pic possibilities until we hit the Cannes Film Festival in May. Slowly simmering Best Picture talk was sparked by the fest opener, Allen’s rapturously received Midnight In Paris and Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner The Tree Of Life which both went on to later May domestic releases. The Allen film has become his most financially successful film ever and it will hit the $50 million benchmark this weekend. Its official Academy screening was packed to the rafters (“the best turnout I have seen in years”, according to one member) and was extremely well received. “I liked it but some members I know got mad at me because I didn’t love it,” another voter told me. ”I haven’t seen anything that’s gotten that kind of response.”

One awards consultant with no connection to Sony Pictures Classics or Allen’s film asked. “Who would have thought Midnight In Paris would be the first film cemented [for a nomination]?” But some contend that it is just too lightweight to go the distance and will fade. Still, to get those ever-more-crucial first-place votes, a film has to have a passionate uber-enthusiastic following. And the vibe I am currently getting from numerous members is that Woody hit this one out of the park. And let’s face it: with Woody’s career tally of 21 nominations and 3 wins, the Academy is friendly territory for him, at least when he’s on his game. His last directing nod was in 1994 for Bullets Over Broadway. His most recent writing nod was 6 years ago for the drama Match Point. With SPC planning a major campaign, nominations are not out of the question for Picture, Directing, Supporting Actress (Marion Cotillard) and one is already locked for Original Screenplay.

Fox Searchlight’s The Tree Of Life has experienced a more divided reaction from some voters. But those who are passionate about Malick are really passionate. Others, not so much. An actors branch member: “I think Brad Pitt’s great, really wonderful. I think that section — I call it the mushroom trip — lost a lot of people when I saw it at the Academy. It was about 2/3s full and there weren’t many walkouts. But lukewarm applause.” Despite split verdicts like that it can’t be discounted, even though Malick’s only previous Best Picture nomination came from 1998′s The Thin Red Line and the last Palme d’Or winner to take Oscar’s top award was Marty back in 1955. A lot will depend on how Fox Searchlight campaigns the film. The savvy company could position it as too important and groundbreaking to ignore. Filmmakers admire Malick for being able to get his own vision on screen, and don’t forget the Cannes jury that awarded it the top prize included Academy members like Jude Law, Uma Thurman, and Robert De Niro (who praised the film for its obvious ambition).

Older members in particular may prefer Dreamworks’ The Help which drew an estimated 95% capacity house at its AMPAS screening last weekend and “massive” applause for Viola Davis  and other members of the ensemble cast. It’s the kind of entertaining yet socially conscious movie that the Academy has fallen for in past decades and there may be a taste for that again. ”If it got a Best Picture nomination I would not be sorry at all,”  said one normally hard-to-please member in attendance. A recent SAG nominating committee screening at the Arclight in Hollywood featured a Q&A with the six principal female stars who drew multiple standing ovations. A Dreamworks source told me they hadn’t planned on dealing with Oscar talk too early, just hoping to open the film successfully. (They did with $35 million in the first five days.) But the response has moved up their timetable. Expect a major campaign with hoped-for nods including Davis as Best Actress and Octavia Spencer for Best Supporting Actress, and a SAG Cast nomination would seem to be in reach. If the film continues its strong box office run, then comparisons to The Blind Side which scored a Best Pic nod and a Best Actress win for Sandra Bullock two years ago will be inevitable. Of course that was when the Acad had to nominate 10 pictures. Despite a 74% fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes, critics groups will probably not be of much help. But when the Academy embraces something with its heart as it did Blind Side and reigning Best Pic winner The King’s Speech, all bets are off.

Among summer blockbusters with Best Picture aspirations, Warner Bros will launch an aggressive campaign for the final franchise film, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2 with hopes of landing a Best Picture nod as recognition of the critical and box office success of the entire series (a la Lord of the Rings although the comparisons aren’t really that apt). And Paramount is plotting a campaign for J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg’s Super 8, with the studio planning to remind voters of the warm feelings the film generated “even though it opened waaaaay back in June”. Due to its themes it could have strong appeal to filmmakers — it’s sort of E.T. meets Day For Night meets Aliens, all Oscar winners – even though most pundits will probably write off its chances when more serious fare opens. Two years ago, the August release District 9 won a rare sci-fi Best Pic nomination (again there were a required 10). The studio is also hoping to gain attention for supporting actress Elle Fanning and has already started on a pre-nominations screening series for Academy and the Guilds.

20th Century Fox might seriously be thinking about mounting a Supporting Actor campaign on behalf of Andy Serkis who plays lead ape Caesar in the smash Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. But many in the acting branch and SAG still openly fear the effects of the performance capture process which blends CGI with actors’ movements to create a character. Some critics have been openly calling for a Serkis nomination but some actors are wary it could be the beginning of the end for the profession. So it’s a long shot. The role actually requires great talent, and Serkis would be an inspired choice. The film played to about 70% capacity at its official AMPAS screening on Saturday night and was well-received I am told by an impartial Academy member who was there.

More likely actors will go with 81-year-old Christopher Plummer’s touching performance as a man who comes out of the closet right near the end of his life in the June release Beginners. He would seem to be a lock on a supporting nod. And hopefully voters won’t forget Mexican star Demian Bichir’s great work in June’s A Better Life or Rachel Weisz in the current The Whistleblower — even though both indie films failed to ignite at the box office in any major way. The Weinstein Company’s Sarah’s Key could also draw attention, particularly for the overdue Kristin Scott Thomas.

Areas with bountiful candidates to choose from in the first eight months of 2011′s film crop are Animated Feature (led by Rango and Rio), Documentary Feature (Buck, Senna, Page One: Inside The New York Times, Project Nim and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams) and of course the Visual Effects category always friendly to summer blockbusters has now been expanded to 5 nominees.

The bigger challenge for films with a January through August birthdate will be staying front of mind when the real competitive onslaught begins next month.

Coming up: A look at the Fall and Holiday contenders from the Major Studios and Independents.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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