As even the casual observer knows, awards season is only partially about quality. Yes, from November to February every year talented people are often rewarded for wonderful film work, but only a fool would argue that those honorees and nominees are definitive. Aside from the inevitably debatable results determined by subjective judgment, there is an ocean of equally great performances and craftwork that simply don't make it onto nomination lists — or onto voters’ radars at all. Unsurprisingly, those overlooked films are usually high-caliber independent releases.
So indie and specialty film distributors with limited resources have to be especially strategic about just how they get attention for the films they think are worthy. It’s often a long shot given what they’re up against, but the effort itself can pay off when it comes to the ultimate goal: getting more people to see the movies.
When Millennium Entertainment threw its cocktail party for Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” Monday night at the Merc Bar in Soho, surely it knew that any effort to get the filmmakers kudos over the next few months is an uphill battle. “Bernie” did receive fairly good critical response, with star Jack Black called out by many for his performance as a gentlemanly mortician who murders an old widow. So Millennium sees Black as a plausible candidate for acting awards. There’s nothing too strange about that — and who knows, it may happen.
But for a relatively new distributor like Millennium, “Bernie,” which was acquired after its Los Angeles Film Festival debut in 2011, is seen more as a great opportunity to play up the company’s ability to do well by a respectably artistic film. Released in April, “Bernie” grossed more than $9 million domestically, a genuine success story even with limited box office and Millennium’s biggest hit by far. The company acquired several more indies at the Toronto International Film Festival this month, and it wants to send a signal that it’s a good home for great indie films.
In that sense, an awards campaign for Black is as much an investment as anything else. The company may genuinely believe that Black deserves recognition, but even if he doesn’t receive the kudos, Millennium needs to put its name out there in an awards context so filmmakers and producers see it as a strong option moving forward. And if Black or the movie do turn up on year-end best-of lists or nomination ballots, people will notice.
“We're passionately behind an awards campaign for ‘Bernie’ because it's right for the film, and we believe it should be recognized,” says Millennium CEO Bill Lee. “Specifically, Jack Black, whose breadth of talent is extraordinary, and Rick Linklater, who is one the greatest storytellers of our time. As for what this means to Millennium Entertainment, the more awards-worthy our slate, the better films from high-quality producers we attract. So this awards campaign for ‘Bernie’ is an investment not only in the film but in our future.”
Newer distributors such as Oscilloscope Laboratories, Drafthouse Films and A24 inevitably try to establish a beachhead in the awards context because it broadens their options for acquiring movies. Oscilloscope did so with “The Messenger” in 2009; Oscar, Globe and Spirit noms materialized for Oren Moverman’s debut drama. And Drafthouse landed “Bullhead” in the foreign-language category last year. Brand new, A24 is hopeful that its recent acquisition “Ginger and Rosa” can stir up attention across the board for writer-director Sally Potter and young star Elle Fanning.
Millennium did score a best male lead Spirit Award nomination for Woody Harrelson last year off of Oren Moverman’s cop drama “Rampart.” A qualifying run in November and limited February release ultimately led to a mere $1 million in domestic box office that saw no bump coming out of awards season. And this year, the company’s flashiest release, Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy,” looks destined for a sweep at the Razzies. So “Bernie” may be its best shot for critical recognition in 2012.
Since it doesn’t have deep pockets for campaigning, Millennium brought Linklater and Black to New York for what may be their only trip east this fall. The pair participated in an Apple talk Monday before the cocktail party and had a National Board of Review screening planned for the next day.
But Monday night, they mingled with a handful of journalists to talk up the film, along with Bob Berney, Cinetic Media’s John Sloss, publicist Matt Labov, iTunes’ Matt Dentler and other guests. After having a good-natured argument about James Bond (Linklater and Black both stump for Roger Moore, apparently) and sharing a half-baked pitch for a sci-fi short film he’s been mulling for years, Black admitted that campaign mechanics are not something he has a lot of experience with.
“It’s all new to me,” says Black, who understands that certain types of promotion could come off as “cheap.” “I don’t think I’m at the Clooney stage yet. But I’d do what they asked me to do — I’m proud of the work.”
One awards expert makes the point that the Academy is a notoriously snooty group and that members have a difficult time rewarding actors who are mainly known as a comedy “personality,” like Black. While Tom Hanks remains the gold (statue) standard for how a comedy actor can transition to a respected dramatic one — his five nominations and two wins put him in league with drama kings De Niro, Pacino and Day-Lewis — Black may be limited to a trajectory closer to that of Jim Carrey.
Carrey won the best actor, drama award at the Golden Globes for “The Truman Show” in 1999 and the best actor, comedy award for “Man on the Moon” in 2000, but both of those films were released by major studios. He also was nommed for the 2004 drama “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which was released by Focus Features, but he has never scored an Oscar nomination.
The foreign press that votes on the Globes is decidedly more eager to reward comedic actors who stretch — Black himself was nominated for best actor, comedy in 2003 for “School of Rock,” also a Linklater-directed film. And “Bernie” seems like a shoo-in for noms at the Spirits for several awards. But the Oscars are almost certainly out of reach. Then again, crude funny guy Jonah Hill inexplicably landed a best supporting actor nomination for “Moneyball” last year, so maybe Academy members are more open-minded than I’m giving them credit for. But, like Carrey, Black remains more a fit for the MTV Movie Awards / People’s Choice Awards circuit.
For his part, Linklater is grateful for Millennium’s efforts to draw attention to “Bernie.” “It’s like the kid at the back of the class saying, ‘Don’t forget about us,’” he says. “I’ve made movies that I thought were pretty great, and they didn’t even send out screeners.”
As an example, Linklater points to Christian McKay’s performance in his previous film, “Me and Orson Welles,” in 2009. Freestyle Releasing, which handled the film, was late with sending out screeners, and it hardly got attention despite BAFTA and Spirit noms for McKay. Millennium isn’t making that mistake — it has already sent screeners of “Bernie” to Academy members in the hope that the film gets viewed before the deluge of year-end hopefuls washes the smaller films under.
Linklater himself may see some recognition for the “Bernie” screenplay he wrote with Skip Hollandsworth. The writer-director was up for an adapted screenplay Oscar in 2004 for co-writing “Before Sunset,” which also received a Gotham Award nom for best film, and he’s been nominated for Spirit awards for “Slacker,” “Waking Life” and “Before Sunset.”
But he downplays the potential this year. “I’m just back-up,” says Linklater, an Academy member who describes himself as “contrarian” when it comes to which acting performances he seeks to reward. “I’m here supporting Jack.”
Over the next several months, Millennium will keep waving its arms. Guild and Academy screenings are scheduled, along with Q&As and press events with Black and Linklater; screeners are going out to critics groups and guilds; additional events are planned for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and other key media; and several private screenings for high-placed industry people that support Black are on tap as a conduit to voters — essentially, everything that is needed to replicate precedential successes from the awards-season playbook.
As another longtime indie-film player observed, however, the essential thing that “Bernie” has going for it is longevity — surprisingly, the film stayed in theaters from late April to mid-September. As a corollary, the 2003 drama “Whale Rider,” which was hardly a slam-dunk for awards recognition, was on screens for six months, June through November, and grossed nearly $21 million in the U.S. via Newmarket Films. Unknown 13-year-old Aussie star Keisha Castle-Hughes then managed to earn a best actress nomination to boot.
So Millennium may be making a shrewd business move, and Black could see his options widen come the spring.
Jay A. Fernandez is Indiewire's senior writer and news editor. You can follow him on Twitter (@writer730) and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.