Pete Hammond

Coming into December Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, producer Scott Rudin’s third Oscar hopeful this Fall (after Moneyball and December 21 release The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), was expected to become an immediate major player in the Oscar game, but several problems crept up including some last-minute shoots, a new music score and a rushed series of screenings to play catch-up, particularly with SAG whose ballots were in the hands of voters already a few days before the film’s first screening, and well over a week before Warner Bros. could send SAG nominating committee members the DVD screener — a necessity to put it on an even playing field with most other hopefuls which had weeks or months to get their message and movies in front of voters. A SAG nominating committee member who greatly admired the film told me she thinks many ballots were already sent in before members had a chance to see this movie, which she admits she had never heard of.

The film is finally opening Christmas Day on a limited basis in New York and Los Angeles and will go wide on January 20, four days before Oscar nominations are announced. But will it get any, or has all the last-minute catch-up taken its toll?

Although it received four major nominations including Best Picture last week from the Critics Choice Movie Awards (which often mirror Academy tastes) it was completely snubbed for any Golden Globe attention by members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who, according to one ELIC consultant I talked to, didn’t seem to “get” this very American story that tells a personal story of the emotional toll of 9/11 on one family and their 11-year- old son in particular as he tries to deal with the death of his father in the twin towers. More troubling, it was also snubbed by SAG, even for supporting actor Max von Sydow, whose touching wordless performance was thought certain to be a major contender and rival to frontrunner Christopher Plummer. He and co-star Sandra Bullock did two SAG nom-comm Q&As December 2 and 3 (joined by the film’s young star Thomas Horn for the latter) and then appeared with Horn, director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth at a packed first industry screening at Los Angeles County Museum of Art on December 8 that was preceded by a reception and followed by a Q&A (I moderated). Judging by the rather deafening sustained applause at the end credits, the reception was very positive from the crowd which included some press, guild members and numerous Academy voters.  One of them, an AMPAS board member, called me a couple of days later to say he loved the film and wondered why it was so low-profile and why no one was writing about it. But Warners had imposed a strict embargo (which even included tweeting) on press until last week so word of that particular screening as well as the movie in general was muffled. Reviews only started to come out yesterday and its current Rotten Tomatoes rating (based only on a handful of critics so far) is at 50% positive (60% among the top tier) indicating a critical divide, but most have yet to weigh in so it’s still too early to tell.

The film screened again Sunday afternoon at its official Academy showing but attendance, perhaps mirroring the overall down boxoffice weekend, was minimal — filling just a third of the 1012-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theatre which is surprising considering the draw of top-billed Tom Hanks and Bullock, even though both are just supporting roles. Depending on which attendees you talk to reaction was OK to very good, but not as enthusiastic, audibly at least, as the one War Horse got at its official screening Sunday night (it drew half a house, low by Spielberg standards, and received sustained applause according to my spies). One AMPAS member at both screenings told me there was noticeable sobbing throughout Extremely Loud by those seated around him.

A Warners source explains the low turnout as due to pre-Christmas activities and the fact that the film has been heavily screened (so has War Horse) including another one to which Acad members were invited Monday night that included a pre-reception with some of the stars. But at Deadline’s Contenders event Moguls panel on December 10 I asked Warner Bros President Jeff Robinov if the late date and delivery of the film was damaging to its awards season momentum. “Yes, I think we’re a little disadvantaged, the National Board of Review obviously missing that. But we’re counting on having a great film, and counting on great word of mouth, that the Academy and everybody are seeing … At the end of the day we had to be respectful of the filmmakers involved,”  he said of the late date in getting the film ready which also meant not being able to show it to NBR or the New York Film Critics Circle which moved up its voting date two weeks and were denied a special screening of the then-unfinished film. Considering the very New York-ness of the movie, failing to include it in their deliberations would seem to be a real miss for the group.

Indeed as Daldry explained to me he was actually shooting a new scene with Thomas Horn  just five days before that first December 2 SAG screening (shown digitally at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn theatre in Hollywood) which would have coincided the NY Critics voting day on November 29. He said he was still mixing even after the SAG screening and couldn’t even strike a film print until the day before the December 8 LACMA event. Bullock admitted then she hadn’t even seen the film herself.

Then there was the problem of the music score. Nico Muhly’s original score was thrown out late in the game and replaced by one that involved an hour and twenty minutes of music new composer Alexandre Desplat had to create in just three weeks.

Reps for the film lament the tight schedule, but based on what they say is strong Academy member response so far think they have a film that will upset the normal rhythms of Oscar campaigns and prove to be a major player when nominations are announced on January 24 despite the lack of Globe or SAG support. Key signals will be sent on January 3 when the Producers Guild announces its 10 Best Picture nominations and on January 9 when the DGA reveals its final five. Director Daldry has been nominated for Oscars for all three of his previous films – Billy Elliot , The Hours and The Reader — but interestingly  only once for the prescient DGA honor for The Hours in 2002.  DGA ballots were mailed to members on November 29 and are due back January 6. They are the one guild that does not allow studios or distributors to send DVD screeners to their membership, so having plenty of screenings is very important and Warners has scheduled a ton of them over the holiday period. The Academy mails their ballots on December 27.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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