Pete Hammond

James Bond and Abraham Lincoln both were very impressive at the box office this weekend but they also killed at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences with packed turnaway crowds, certainly among the biggest of the year there and a good omen for their Oscar chances.

At Saturday night’s Lincoln screening the 1,012 seat Samuel Goldwyn Theatre was already full with Academy members by 7:10 and the smaller theatre in the building that seats about 80 was also at capacity just a few minutes later. In a rare moment for these official Academy screenings about 50 to 60 were turned away. One member who didn’t make it in and regularly attends almost all the Acad member weekend showings told me it was the first time in all the years he has been going that he wasn’t able to get in. The film reportedly played extremely well with a standing ovation for star Daniel Day-Lewis at the Q&A which also included director Steven Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy, screenwriter Tony Kushner, composer John Williams and co-star Sally Field. I was also told that virtually everyone stayed for the Q&A which often isn’t the case. This intense interest bodes well for the film’s Oscar prospects down the line. An earlier all-Guild screening at the Westwood Bruin also drew a capacity crowd and strong response at the Q&A.

For Lincoln Academy Award attention is expected but now MGM/Sony’s (with Eon) Skyfall, thanks to top reviews and the best business ever for a Bond, is also surprising pundits as an emerging Best Picture contender. The Goldwyn was packed to the rafters on Sunday night and producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, star Daniel Craig and director Sam Mendes appeared for the Q&A. One member told me they felt it is definitely Best Picture material and that was seconded by another, a self-confessed Bond uber-fan who proclaimed it the best ever.

Skyfall marks the 23rd Bond film out of the Broccoli factory and it is the first I can recall getting truly serious Oscar talk, not only for Best Picture but even in acting categories for supporting players Javier Bardem as the villainous Silva and Judi Dench with a particularly meaty turn as M this time around. It currently stands at an impressive 92% fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes survey of critics, the best critical response to a Bond film in decades. Mendes’ smart re-invention of the series after the not-well received Quantum Of Solace (2008) is a big reason why.

In terms of past history Bond films have a very spotty track record at the Oscars being nominated just seven times, mostly in music categories and with only two early wins for Goldfinger’s (1964) sound effects and for Thunderball’s (1965) Visual Effects. But Never Say Never to James Bond and Sony may seriously be looking at an Oscar campaign  across the board. Although there was a spotty attempt made on behalf of Craig’s first go-round as Bond in  2006′s Casino Royale, the venerable series has never had a film with the Oscar pedigree of Skyfall starting with its Oscar-winning director Mendes (American Beauty) and including at least three craftsmen new to the Bond oeuvre and way overdue for a statuette including 9-time nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, 10-time nominated composer Thomas Newman (a Mendes regular) and 15-time nominated Sound Mixer Greg P. Russell. Russell, who attended Sunday night’s Academy screening, told me he is hoping this is the movie that changes both his and James Bond’s luck at the Oscars. “I have been a part of a lot of visual effects-type movies that are tentpoles and it is not the kind of movie that gets your 60-plus-old Academy member out to go see. But seeing this kind of turnout at the Academy was really exciting for me. I have read many reviews and most had the sentiment that this is not only one of the best Bond movies, but one of the best of 2012,” he told me earlier today. He has been going to the Oscars on a regular basis since 1989 and feels this could be his best shot, especially if it gets Best Picture attention.

“I believe that is why the Best Picture category broadened (to 10 nominees), when The Dark Knight came out and didn’t get in the five. Generally as Academy members we are dealing with art films or indie films but the big popular  movie that has critical acclaim too makes a lot of sense for Best Picture. I would love to see a more popular film get in and I think Skyfall fits into that as well,” he said while signaling Deakins, Newman and editor Stuart Baird out for special praise in addition to Mendes.

Another person with similar thoughts is Sony Pictures Entertainment Co-chairman Amy Pascal. At this weekend’s Contenders event where Pascal sat on our Moguls panel with several other studio heads I posed  the question of why the Academy doesn’t take Bond films and other Blockbuster movies of its ilk as seriously as smaller, artier fare. Enjoying record grosses and rave reviews rolling in for the film over the weekend she didn’t mince words. “Well I think the Academy should take big blockbusters seriously. I think the Academy  should take any movie seriously that is the best version of itself,” she said adding genre movies like Skyfall or Dark Knight fit that definition. “I think we all got into this business because of big American movies that we fell in love with, not because they’re small indie films. And I don’t think we should relegate the power that we have as filmmakers and Academy members to the French, or the English or the indies. This is what we do. We should own it.”

If “owning it” means also launching a big campaign, James Bond could be joining Abraham Lincoln as a major Oscar contender at the ripe old age of 50.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.