Pete Hammond

With a shortened nominating season (Oscar balloting starts December 17, 10 days earlier than usual), the Thanksgiving holiday period as well as the Christmas/New Year’s break won’t much of a break at all for many campaigns, which simply can’t take the time off or slow the momentum they are trying to build. After all there are just 3 1/2 weeks to go before those ballots land in Academy voters’ hands (or in the case of the new electronic voting this year, in their computers). So it is all stops out from here on in. And that means studios like Universal and Sony in particular will be using the long Thanksgiving weekend for an assault on guild and Academy members for their big December releases Les Miserables and Zero Dark Thirty, respectively

On Saturday, Universal’s Les Miz plan swings into action with an unprecedented six screenings — all featuring either in-person introductions or post-Q&A sessions with director Tom Hooper and “cast members”. The screening program will not let up until the film’s Christmas Day opening, which comes in the middle of the voting period. Universal is determined to get this film seen on the big screen by as many voters as possible despite the time crunch. The director only just locked Sunday night at 10 PM, according to an internal memo that carried instructions for delivery of the DCP materials for the digital projection. It’s a very precise, carefully orchestrated operation, and as the memo says “failure is not an option”. That’s certainly true in an awards race as tight as this one and particularly for a film as anticipated as this one.

“The reality is we’re going to screen this movie like nobody’s business the minute it’s ready and would have regardless….We’ll start screening  the movie the day after Thanksgiving and are going to screen  it, pretty much non-stop from there, until time of release. So between the screening program, its commercial availability beginning Christmas Day and for those who get the screeners, we think there’s abundant opportunity”, Universal chairman Adam Fogelson told an audience of Academy and Guild members attending the Moguls panel at Deadline’s recent all-day The Contenders event. He added that for smaller films the timing could be more of a challenge, but “not for any of the films here which are on everybody’s list”.

One of those films is the December 14th launch of Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial Zero Dark Thirty, which deals with the military operation to hunt for Osama bin Laden. The film was only just finished a week ago and select screenings began immediately. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association saw it on Friday, but it will also launch in earnest for Guild and Academy members over the end of the Thanksgiving weekend with at least three screenings, all featuring Q&As with Bigelow, screenwriter-producer Mark Boal and stars Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke.

These two films, along with two other big December awards hopefuls — Warner Bros‘ The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (12/14) and The Weinstein Company/Sony’s Quentin Tarantino Western Django Unchained (12/25) — all have running times in the neighborhood of 2 hours and 40 minutes, meaning an extra commitment for those voters trying to find time to see everything. Both those films will begin screening for the industry at the end of the month. And starting next week there will be a series of studio parties — in many cases hosted by the studio chairs — designed to bring attention to their movies and encourage voters to see them in the short window before balloting.

For critics groups, time is even tighter. The Gotham Awards are Monday and the New York Film Critics vote and announce on December 3rd, signaling the floodgate of similar groups making their voices heard. That’s in addition to nominations in mid-December for Golden Globes and Critics Choice Movie Awards. Studios are hurriedly trying to get DVD screeners out to both Academy and critics groups. Warners sent out its quartet of Argo, Cloud Atlas, Magic Mike and The Dark Knight Rises over the weekend to select critics organizations. Paramount was expected to do the same with Flight. Rather unusually, the Warners slickly designed screeners also came with a white envelope containing a personal letter from Magic Mike director Steven Soderbergh addressed directly to members of the Broadcast Film Critics. “I’m breaking my longstanding embargo regarding pleas for recognition because the core creative team of MAGIC MIKE really hopes  people  are reminded at the end of the year of Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Dallas, which we found to be completely bananas in the best sense of the word,” he wrote in part.

While the usually reluctant Soderbergh seems to be in the spirit of the campaign season, a couple of notable Best Actor contenders — The Master’s Joaquin Phoenix and Hitchcock’s Anthony Hopkins — have lashed out at what Hopkins called the “disgusting” nature of the whole campaigning process. Phoenix recently backtracked a bit on his initial comments, however, and quite frankly Hopkins hasn’t been totally immune to the process either. He and Helen Mirren, working together on another movie in London, recently participated in a satellite Q&A for SAG members that helped promote Hitchcock‘s November 23 release date and certainly didn’t hurt the awards chances of either. The use of satellite technology has been a boon for some movies with contenders who are busy making other movies and unavailable. Fox Searchlight did another Hitchcock satellite Q&A for SAG nominating committee members who saw the film Saturday on the Fox lot in Los Angeles and got to interact with Mirren and some of the supporting actors who were beamed in live from the New York junket.  As previously reported, movies like Flight and Lincoln have also used the interactive satellite approach to get the most bang out of their buck for Q&As in order to reach as many potential voters as possible. Hitchcock also hopes to lure as many guild and Academy voters as they can to its LA premiere tonight at the Academy.

Not to be lost in any of this is the most famous campaigner of all, Harvey Weinstein, who has made sure his Thanksgiving holiday release Silver Linings Playbook is front-and-center during crunch time even though The Weinstein Company scaled back the initial wide release plans to about 400 screens beginning tomorrow to allow word of mouth — sure to be great for this major contender — to build. The company has also platformed the film since last Friday on 16 screens to good initial box office. Last night it threw another quasi-premiere at the Academy, inviting lots of guild, Academy and HFPA voters among others with a Grey Goose reception following. Stars Bradley Cooper and Chris Tucker mingled afterward along with writer-director David O. Russell and producer Bruce Cohen. Reaction from Acad voters I spoke to was extremely positive. Jennifer Lawrence was also there to walk the red carpet and talk to the crowd during the intro to the film before hopping on a plane back to Atlanta to resume shooting the next Hunger Games film. She literally flew in Sunday morning to spend her one day off promoting the film and participating in activities like a packed Sunday afternoon Q&A for SAG nomination committee members. Academy members also saw the film Saturday night with about 600 or so attending for the official screening followed by a Q&A with Russell and Cooper. Life Of Pi director Ang Lee also hit the Academy screening for his much-awaited film on Sunday, where about 500 showed to reportedly highly enthusiastic response. He has been in town all week on the guild screening circuit also hitting SAG, DGA, PGA and others who can help make or break the awards fate of so many contenders.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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