During out latest podcastof Oscar Poker, Jeff Wells and I contemplated the idea that this could be a year where the Best Picture race might depart from last year’s lineup of small earners. Indeed, we could be looking at a year where many of the films vying for Oscar are $100 million plus blockbusters. With the Telluride festival looming on the horizon and Toronto right after it, the festival films will maneuver for their usual place in line and are set to mostly dominate the Best Picture lineup, either for nominations or for the big win. That’s certainly possible, probable even, given the short season.
There is, however, potentially another scenario that might take hold and that’s if the Academy embraces the kinds of films they don’t usually honor these days: big studio films and blockbusters. There are quite a few being crammed into the later part of the year that could easily earn upwards of $100 million or more, making this one of those years where the public has actually seen many of the films nominated.
The first of these to make bank would be Mad Max: Fury Road, which has already been discussed in various circles and has a lot of good faith behind it, at least as of now. It has several advantages heading into the race, namely its strong female-driven cast, which is unlike any other movie heading into the race with the notable exceptions of Joy (which will likely be a $100 million movie as well), and Suffragette (which will probably do well but not hit a jackpot). Mad Max will also stand out for being one of the few films that uses practical visual effects, which we know traditionalists in industry appreciate and may want to reward. Fury Road has earned $152 million domestic and $221 worldwide.
Next up would be Everest, which could be headed to Telluride and already has good word of mouth from embargoed preview screenings. With dazzling visual effects, an emotional story at its core and relatively timely subject matter, Everest could, at the very least, be “in the conversation,” especially if it’s a big Telluride film. That would give it festival cred along with its massive standing as a big studio movie. The trick will be giving it a shimmer of respectability, elevating it from its general audience stature and into the “prestige pic” zone.
That will also be the problem for the holiday release of probably the most highly anticipated film of the year for Joe Popcorn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This film will have two stigmas attached heading in — the first is that it’s based on the film that birthed the tent pole and “ruined Hollywood.” That’s how a lot of the old timers will see it even though they themselves nominated it for Best Picture in 1977 (it was too big to ignore). But JJ Abrams is trying to do something a little different with The Force Awakens. He’s trying to wrestle back the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas’ muddied legacy that went a bit sour after the original Star Wars trilogy. Sure, many fans do not care but the old timers who vote on industry awards will care. Kathleen Kennedy is the producer, which lends much credibility to the project and Abrams himself will imbue the film with nostalgia for the old Star Wars movie. That can help elevate the film from mere blockbuster to potential Best Picture nominee. It seems like a long shot but it is not outside the realm of possibility and should be taken very seriously at this stage, even if it is a space movie.
There is also the trailer just released for Concussion, starring Will Smith, which will probably make a good deal of money and be widely seen. The Walk by Robert Zemeckis is another big effects movie that will make money and could be in the race for Best Picture. Steven Spielberg can always be counted upon to be a big earner and Bridge of Spies will do well — most likely hitting $100 million or thereabouts.
We know Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant is going to make bank as will Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. We’re also counting on Steve Jobs to be big — edging close to $100 million very likely, given the popularity of Jobs overall.
All this means is that the smaller films could be sidelined this year to make way for these massive studio pictures. If so, that would be a stark departure from last year’s slate of Best Picture nominees when the Academy chose films that made no money but had strong publicity teams and good reviews behind them over films that made lots of money, a reflection of public enthusiasm.
How did those movies do overall in terms of Oscar buzz helping their overall take? Let’s take a look:
Obviously given a big assist by Oscar season was American Sniper, which would have done well with its target demo anyway. The Imitation Game doubled its money when it got the Oscar’s seal of approval. Selma took in the bulk of its earnings post-nomination because it was in limited release until January. There is no doubt that the publicity around Selma help drive its box office. The closer to the end of the year the film is released, the bigger the Oscar bump. It doesn’t look like the Oscar heat itself is necessarily driving people to go to the movie theaters and see these films, though.
2012 was a very good year for Oscar and box office, with 6 out of 9 making over $100 million. These high grosses are not necessarily BECAUSE of Oscar, though.
What factors will determine which way the wind blows this year? The critics make a big difference, not so much in how they review but how their awards help shape the conversation and the buzz. That can sometimes be in conflict with what the industry prefers, and what the pundits think, but usually the Oscar race is driven more by “prestige” than it is by likability or even capturing the zeitgeist. The Oscar voters, and industry voters, discover their favorites the way the critics do now — in dark theaters under ideal circumstances. They tend to be privileged, mostly white, mostly male across the board.
The critics can sink a movie late in the game, especially when that movie doesn’t have anywhere to go. How can you bypass them? You can do it the way Warner Bros. did with American Sniper if you have the deep pockets and high impact celebrity that someone like Clint Eastwood or Bradley Cooper brings. A little movie could never rally in the 11th hour the way that movie did. They showed it to voters way before critics even had a crack at it, completely bypassing the usual circuits. Thus, the film was nominated everywhere because there were no voices trying to shape its buzz early on. Though it was named early on by AFI as one of the top films of the year, it didn’t get a major nomination from the Critics Choice or the Golden Globes. But it did get Producers Guild recognition.
When it finally screened at the AFI Fest (immediately after Selma that night) the reaction from critics was muted, perhaps in comparison. Thus, few people were naming it as a nominee heading into the beginning of the race. I do remember (I’ll never forget, actually) a brief email exchange with Anne Thompson who said “how can you be predicting American Sniper?” That was how little we pundits viewed its heft in the race. You could feel it, though, because the film had managed to slide under the radar and did not allow its buzz to be shaped by the noisemakers. That was smart. The movie made a lot of money and was the only film the general public had really seen by the time the Oscars took place.
Conversely, Selma was also screened very late. It did not have the deep pockets the WB had in terms of sending out screeners early and often. The film was attacked right at the peak of voting and it never really had time to recover because it landed so late. No one was really paying much attention to the American Sniper controversy because they were all busy shouting down Selma. In the end, both would get a Best Picture nomination but Sniper would get the Best Actor, Screenplay and Editing nod.
Last year was an interesting one in that the front-runner was somehow Boyhood, because people like me felt confident that this industry would never allow a film that good created with such devotion over 12 years be passed up for Best Picture. As it turned out, how wrong we were. The industry resisted it almost completely, awarding Boyhood a single Oscar for Supporting Actress in the end. This was in stark contrast to the critics and even the British film industry. But Hollywood is about the studios and the five families. It is also about self-preservation and Birdman represented everything Hollywood wants to be about, and more importantly, what it doesn’t want to be about. That thread of the anti-super hero movie was enough to push it over the edge. Boyhood had too long a slog between Sundance and the Oscars. Despite how hard the team worked to bring recognition to their dedicated, hard-working collaborators, Hollywood all but shunned those efforts. It was a true head-scratcher. Still, Birdman was simply more well-liked overall and more accessible.
That is why being the frontrunner often caaries such a heavy albatross. How much easier it is to breeze in with low expectations and very little baggage and claim the prize. Even if you’re a massive Hollywood blockbuster like Gravity you can still look like the “little movie that could” up against something like 12 Years a Slave if the micro-budget film has the label of “frontrunner” stuck to it. We don’t yet have a frontrunner at present. By the end of Labor Day weekend we might.
If you look over predictions now and stay on top of the way things shake down throughout the season, you’ll see that most will continue to predict “prestige pics,” like Brooklyn, Carol, Youth, etc. It is wise to stick with what we know about Oscar voters. But keep an eye out for the bigger blockbusters this year. Many of them might surprise us with how high they go and where they land.