There are two PSA’s that remind me of awesome. The first one everyone saw. It’s the one where the dad comes home to find his child doing drugs, and the son says to the dad "I learned it from watching you!" Even having grown up exceptionally square this was hilarious to me as a kid, and still gets a laugh out of friends when it’s dropped in a conversation. The second is more for Portlanders, or native Oregonians. It involved a character known as Kite-man. Kite-man warned against flying kites near power lines. Portland was never a windy city, and I think I flew kites solely on the beach, so the ad-nauseam playing of this Public Service Announcement was like warning kids in San Diego about the dangers of frostbite with Frost-man. But what all kids from my era remember is that someone says "even frogs?" about the dangers of power lines, and a little girl responds "I like frogs." Her delivery is just bizarre world stuff, and that non-sequitur has stuck with me since time immemorial.
THE HAZY SHADE OF AWARD SEASON
So Telluride, which concluded this week, kicked off what is the four month plunge into the Oscar season. How is this more evident? By the fact that Fox Searchlight has already sent out academy screeners for Once, Waitress, and The Namesake. The prognosticators, like Jeffery Wells, have already started narrowing the field to less than a dozen names. Films like Charlie Wilson’s War, Atonement, American Gangster, Are We Done Yet?, The Valley of Elah, Sweeny Todd, Elizabeth: Young Americans. These are the films we will be hearing about come Oscar time. Or so we’re told. But for the majority of these titles (until this week) nobody’s really seen them except Hairspray (yeah, sure) and those aforementioned Searchlight titles.
It’s a shell game for the Oscar kids, who have had some impact on the horse race that is the Academy season. But, like Heisengberg’s uncertainty principle in colloquial terms, or what is now know as Observer Effect, how much of an influence people like Wells, David Poland, and Sasha Stone carry is hard to gauge. Last year, for instance – regardless of personal opinions – Dreamgirls seemed the horse to beat until the ink dried. I remember clearly being in London, having lunch with Devin and Drew "Moriarty" McWeeny on the set of The Golden Compass and being informed of the results, with Letters from Iwo Jima taking the perceived fifth slot from Dreamgirls. Sacrebleu! But without any real facts, or anything more than the smell of LA air to go on, this had as much to do with the film being perceived as a front runner as it did Dreamworks virtually hiding the film until late December. The academy loves an underdog… to a certain extent, unless it feels it must award an accomplishment. My take on last years Oscars is that if Dreamgirls got into the five, then Little Miss Sunshine would have trumped The Departed, because if it was Dreamgirls vs. Little Miss Sunshine, Sunshine became the underdog, where when Sunshine became the horse to beat, rewarding Scorsese seemed the most noble of intentions (even if The Departed is minor key Marty). I say this because Crash usurped the throne from Brokeback Mountain the year before because the Academy seemed to blanch at the film for its sense of self-righteousness and gayness and instead rewarded a film that said something truly profound about racism. That being Crash, David Cronenberg’s masterful tale of a black car accident victim who likes stump-fucking.
And so the festivals bring many films that will incite controversy, and may benefit from the pans and raves that will accompany their American theatrical release. For better or ill, Magnolia has to be happy that Brian De Palma’s Redacted is getting the most violent of pans and the most genuflecting of adorations for a film that cost five million. Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution are being disseminated as we speak. Of course early word is just that – in that a year ago Hollywoodland had some heat for Ben Affleck and Diane Lane. Critics have been offering their pans and raves from Telluride, but most of the critics in question do not carry much weight, regardless if they are right or not. Lust, Caution received mixed word, but once it hits the festivals this week, the ink will be set. Or at least more settled.
You may ask yourself, why is Dre focusing on this? You may ask yourself, is this my beautiful house? Is this my beautiful wife? And the answer is pretty simple. Awards seasons mean money. Every Golden Globe nomination, every awards circle (which in turn may lead to a nomination), and of course the big boy himself means that a theatrical release may play that much longer, or video sales or rentals spike. For a film like Lives of Others - never mind its middlebrow sensibilities – is now readily available at video stores that might not have picked up a German festival favorite. It’s the best foreign film, damn it. And the difference between a chain buying one copy versus three copies nationally is astronomical.
And for many who are already sending out their screeners, a single nomination means that they will get that attention. And since theatrical is no longer the end-all be-all, it may also lead to double dips and provoke people who are curious – but only so much so – to traipse (and as Roger Ebert said, I do not use the word traipse lightly) into films they feel should be watched. A producer, a smart one, once told me that most audiences see one or two foreign films a year, and instead of being provoked to see more, feel that they’ve done their part. And such is the problem with fair-weather foreign-and-art-film enthusiasts, too often swung to see something like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and disappointed when they see something like the Dardenne’s L’Enfant, even if they’ve felt that by the Criterion’s and Janus’s shiny moniker they’ve done their good work in watching Mouchette. And so this audience is more provoked to see something like Brokeback Mountain, that crossover art film that then gets penalized for being too successful.
The awards season is frustrating and the Critics awards are also compromised by politics (last year Army of Shadows won in at least one location because of a stalemate between two other titles. Not that AoS isn’t one of the greatest films of all time, but just the same). The politics of these awards are important because so many films suckle at the life-blood of critical and awards acceptance. No matter how many critics screen certain off season films ahead of time, this game must be played, because the studios are always stuck with certain films that need that affection. Which leads to the other side of the awards conundrum: Ego. Or, that is to say, never doubt that when Michael Bay made Pearl Harbor that he didn’t have some Oscar glory in the back of his head. As great as The Fountain is, Hugh Jackman probably wouldn’t have partook if he didn’t think it wouldn’t increase his chances at golden glory (again, probably). And winners know that they can throw some weight around, even if Hillary Swank seems to have hooked up with Richard LaGravenese for better or ill.
If you look at the slate in December the schedule reads as if it were summer. I am Legend, The Golden Compass, Walk Hard, National Treasure 2 and AVP 2 dominate the month. Films like No Country for Old Men and the aforementioned front-runners are going with much earlier limited releases. Only Charlie Wilson is poised to have a limited launch at the end of the year. December is no longer the month of the serious Oscar movie. Million Dollar Baby was able to sneak-attack at Christmas-time, but Munich was more harmed by its late December release date than helped by its Oscar nominations. Some would suggest (as would I) that Dreamgirls‘s late December launch ultimately worked against the film, as the awards season has now moved up to the point of internet saturation. Films don’t get to breathe in the public as they once did, and if the Academy has to wait until the very last weeks of the year for a film that thinks it’s a pretty princess, well, waiting can only hinder. And so, partly because of the earlier Oscar date, distributors are now going for September-October launches, and so it’s possible by November the field will be properly surveyed
IF TOO MUCH BLOOD RUSHES TO MY PREDICTIONS I PASS OUT
This week there are no great Oscar titles in limited or full release. The Brothers Solomon is hitting less than 700 screens, so obviously Screen Gems think they have a winner on their hands, while the battle is between 3:10 to Yuma and Shoot Them Up.
This is interesting because New Line had 9/7 to themselves until 3:10 got a bump and shuffle (it was once slated to be a 08 release, but Lionsgate was scared that The Assassination of Jesse James might scare people off westerns or something), and so Lionsgate seems hellbent to give themselves a horrible year. Both films are competing for the same audience, and so Lionsgate will be lucky to break even with the $70 Million budgeted western, while Shoot Em may then prove more remunerative come DVD, though word of mouth is excellent. All this on a week that is usually regarded as one of the biggest dumping ground slots of the year.
The winner looks to be Yuma, the sneaks this weekend helped, but otherwise, it could be close. Expect both to top Halloween, which should drop and give you ten. Or less. Hell, a 70 plus drop is more than likely. And Superbad should cross the 100 mark come Saturday or Sunday.
1. 3:10 to Yuma – 16.8 Million
2. Shoot ‘Em Up – 13.1 Million
3. Superbad – 8.1 Million
4. Halloween – 7.8 Million
5. The Bourne Identity - 7.1 Million
And then I’ll check in come the end of the weekend. But only if you’re wearing your Sunday best.