With only four days to go before Oscar nomination ballots are due back to PricewaterhouseCooper’s offices in downtown LA — and with many, if not most, already sent in — 20th Century Fox’s December 23 release We Bought A Zoo landed in Academy voters’ mailboxes only yesterday, becoming the final screener of the season to be sent out. Some voters I talked to were quite surprised to see it arrive so late as there would be little time left to actually view it even if one still had a ballot. Fox hasn’t made the Cameron Crowe family film an Oscar campaign priority, instead spending the bulk of those ad dollars on their Andy Serkis supporting bid for Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and their animated hopeful Rio. So was this screener entry an odd late-inning strategy to gain Oscar attention for Zoo? NOT! Actually, I am told that for unforseen technical reasons it was delayed. Stuff happens.
Nevertheless, since Deadline informed you who was first with their screeners this year (Summit’s A Better Life got the jump on everyone back on September 7, and so far it has paid off in a surprise SAG nod for star Demian Bichir), it’s only fitting we should tell you what movie you need to complete your 2011 collection. Of course it’s still possible another screener could be coming Academy members’ way if a surprise nominee pops up on January 24 — like Adam Sandler getting a best actor nom for Jack and Jill — but for now this looks to be it.
Summit Entertainment got a head start on on awards season the day after Labor Day, September 6, by sending out DVD screeners of their boxoffice-challenged A Better Life. Because this Oscar hopeful is a small human drama they opened June 24 (the same ”good luck” weekend Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker opened two years ago) the company knew they would have to define it in different ways. It became the first movie of the season to set up Q&As in June with star Demian Bichir for SAG’s then-newly formed nominating committee. Bichir and director Chris Weitz have since been doing receptions for press and awards voters, lots of interviews and generally beating the drum for their “little movie that could.” Both appeared for a Q&A at Deadline’s The Contenders event December 10 at the Landmark. Weitz was blunt about the importance of achieving recognition for the film even though it has been out on commercial DVD since October. “I’m glad some of the gloves came off during the moguls panel about wanting to get nominated. We lost the first round at the boxoffice but we’re going to keep fighting,” he said. He knows the film won’t get a Best Picture nomination but is hoping there will be recognition for Bichir. “The film is giving voice to the 11 million people (illegal immigrants) who will not be watching the Academy Awards, but millions of other people will be watching. I’m betting the President of the United States will be watching as well. This is our moment for the film.”
The movie about an illegal immigrant gardener Carlos Galindo (Bichir) who tries to create a better life for his U.S. born son — while also trying to stay and work in the country himself — has been a long shot. It pulled off a major coup December 14 when the SAG Awards announced their five nominees for Best Actor and leading the list was none other than Bichir who was understandably thrilled. “My name starts with a ‘B’ so I thought if I get it I am gonna be first. It was almost like a joke or something but then it happened,” he told me during a recent phone interview.
Can Presidential politics actually boost the profile of an under-the-radar Oscar hopeful? That could be a scenario the multitudes of awards consultants working on Summit Entertainment’s summer indie, A Better Life starring Demián Bachir might consider as they try to draw voter attention to this well-reviewed June release which grossed less than $2 million in its domestic release. Because the film puts a very human face on the hot button issue of illegal immigration. This is really a touching father-son story about an undocumented Los Angeles laborer trying to forge a better life for his kid while keeping him away from gangs. Its reps hope to gain recognition not just for the pic but also for Bichir in an uphill campaign against much higher profile Best Actor contenders like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Gary Oldman, Ryan Gosling and others. Year-end recognition from critics groups could really help Bichir and this film which now stands at 86% positive on Rotten Tomatoes. Summit’s 2009 Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker also was a low grosser and a June release — but saw its Oscar stock soar when it started winning those critics awards.
At what was billed as a DVD release party this week, but which really served as an awards season campaign kickoff, I noticed several Academy members in attendance. The packed event at Culina in Beverly Hills had lots of political talk, much of it about the GOP presidential debates where candidates are engaged in tough ‘kick em out of the country’ rhetoric on the subject of illegal immigrants in America. A Better Life director Chris Weitz told me he’s outraged by the way politicians are using the plight of undocumented workers to score political points during the Republican debates. He says the whole experience of making the film has really “politicized” him in a way he hadn’t imagined.
From the presidential race to the Oscar race, A Better Life has longer odds. “What can we do to help this film?” one frustrated awards consultant asked me while noting the stiff competition out there. It’s a frequent question I hear from awards campaigners who usually employ parties, Q&A screenings, and getting its lesser known stars (in the U.S. at least) out there on the awards “circuit”. But I say Oscar strategists just might want to look no further than the Hollywood-bashing GOP for some ironic help. After all, Republicans are giving immigration lots of TV time almost weekly during their contentious debates. Tagging on to presidential politics might be one way to keep the film talked about and relevant, even in the shadow of the all the big Academy Awards contenders to come in the last two months of the year. Summit smartly employed that strategy with The Hurt Locker when it hit the Oscar trail by emphazing its topicality and credibility after initially marketing it as a suspenseful war movie.