There are three styles of launching a Best Picture contender that I know about from my *cough cough* two decades of watching the race go down.
1) Get out early, stay dominant with publicity blasts and lots of press and attention. That would mean you launch out of Telluride or Toronto and you hit every festival and you get every interview and you make every list and every prediction. You are locked and loaded. This can work for films that are so strong they have no choice but to be everyone’s favorite, like The Artist and Slumdog Millionaire. But sometimes this sort of saturation can work against a contender — it can simply become TOO FAMILIAR and thus, not an exciting enough choice to win. On the other hand, a lot of times the tried and true can make it all the way through to end. There is just one problem: It just needs to LIVE UP TO THE HYPE. So that when people sit down with it they don’t think, “Really? That’s it?”
2) The fringe that needs blood, sweat, and tears to get through. This is if you have a movie that isn’t a bona fide contender, but that you think is special enough to push hard, maybe through back channels, maybe through bloggers or critics or celebrities who might introduce the film at a screening, for instance. Then, if enough people get on board it can make it into the race. Though this will only work if people like the movie once they finally do make an effort to sit down to watch the screener. Publicists have to work so hard to get movies actually SEEN that nobody wants to watch. This is a job that is hard but rewarding if the film or actor or screenplay makes it through. In a year like this, though, it’s tough. It is better in a “weaker” year. This is not a weak year. This is a very strong year.
3) And then, there is the art of the stealthy Oscar campaign. This is like putting a chicken in the oven hot, at 400, lowering the temperature after 20 minutes, and then never opening the oven door. Just let it cook. Don’t check on it, don’t baste it, don’t move it around – just let the oven do the work. This is a way of surprising voters with a movie that you KNOW has the goods but is just waiting to be put in front of an audience. It’s a shock and awe kind of thing that sometimes takes you (and even me) completely by surprise because “nobody is talking about it.” If bloggers are talking about it, and critics are talking about it, and Twitter is talking about it, it gives the impression that it’s getting buzz. But that isn’t REAL buzz. That’s in-the-bubble buzz, which can sometimes turn out to be fizz. A stealthy Oscar movie is one that is really really good but is just laying low, simmering, doing its thing while the hype swirls around other movies. This can be a very successful way of bringing home a big Oscar movie — let the voters decide, not the tastemakers. Laying low can backfire, though, if it inadvertently just gets plain ol’ forgotten by voters because the more hyped films suck up all the oxygen at the forefront.
Ford v Ferrari is a stealthy Oscar movie. So is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. While it’s making all of the lists, it’s not doing a lot of campaigning. If you notice, The Two Popes is a stealthy campaign – it’s Netflix, but The Irishman and Marriage Story and hopefully Dolemite is My Name are taking the heat of the hype right now. Since Little Women, 1917, Richard Jewell and Dark Waters haven’t yet been seen, they aren’t quite in stealthy campaign mode, since they are eagerly anticipated — but as unknown quantities it the same effect, more or less.
Ford v Ferrari is quite easily one of the most satisfying movies of the year. It is going to make a SHIT TON of coin. Even if some idiot drags out some dumb clickbait to sabotage it, the subject matter is the kind of thing that adult audiences all over the country have been craving. It’s a sports movie but it’s deeper than that, because James Mangold is the director, so it’s a character study, a friendship movie, with a hell of a lesson about what it takes to make something, what it takes to be good at something, and the difference between corporate hopes and individual dreams.
But I think that low-key presence is about to change. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are the two leads – and they will campaign as such. That means it will be harder for either of them to get in because they’re both so good, but who knows, one might slide in while the other doesn’t. It was only a year ago that Bale ballooned up to disappear into the body, voice, and mannerisms of Dick Cheney – and now he’s back as a wiry Brit who doesn’t get along with people but can drive the hell of a race car. It is just him, the car, and the road – what a thrill to watch those scenes. And Matt Damon gets all of the best lines and really holds the film together. Again, nothing but pure joy to watch him in this role that he feels so comfortable in. Tracy Letts as Ford II very nearly steals the whole movie. The whole supporting cast is, well, like a well-oiled machine, to borrow a phrase.
I don’t know where this movie is going – none of us knows where any of it is going right now and anyone who pretends they do is bluffing. It is a wide open year with a lot of options everywhere you look. Lots of strong early contenders hyped to the heavens, lots of fringe films that need a push, lots of stealthy movies flying nicely under the radar ready to surprise those of us who cover the race.
Maybe it will go the distance, maybe it won’t, but watching Ford v Ferrari last night for the second time I was reminded of what a strong film this might be in the Oscar race, as a stealthy, under-the-radar film that voters like. I wonder if the Globes might really go for it and launch it hard out of the gate. I don’t know where it will land but what I kept thinking about last night is Ford v Ferrari is the best movie nobody’s talking about.