The Weinsteins have long followed the same Oscar playbook: line up a thick stack of Oscar-worthy potential contenders, give them a shot and see what sticks. They're usually pretty sharp about what's going to play with Academy voters. Nobody does it better. But this year things may not be panning out as they had planned. The studios have mounted an arsenal of powerful players for the fourth quarter that have been eating into the indie share of the adult audience.
Last year The Weinstein Co. was rocking "The Artist" from Cannes all the way through their five Oscar wins including best picture. (Not that the film was ever a huge box-office grosser: it topped out at $44 million domestic.) But this year the Weinstein films in the Cannes Competition did not call out Oscar–from "Killing Them Softly" to "Lawless." Instead Harvey Weinstein wowed the press with a dazzling show reel of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master."
As the year played out, it became clear that first release (financed and controlled by Meg Ellison's Annapurna), Anderson's "The Master" (September 14) was a critical favorite, but did not play as well for filmgoers (compare Metacritic reviewers and users). The movie now needs a boost from critics' groups to get beyond acting nominations for Joaquin Phoenix (strictly a phoner kind of guy), Philip Seymour Hoffman (busy) and Amy Adams and a possible original screenplay nomination. While 2007's "There Will Be Blood" scored eight nominations and two wins, this film leaves viewers struggling to figure out what it means. (One director suggested to me that Anderson was missing the narrative clarity provided by his former D.P. Robert Elswit, who won the Oscar for "TWBB," now replaced by Mihai Malaimare, Jr.). TWC says it will continue to suport an Oscar push.
Next up was $21-million "Silver Linings Playbook" (November 16) which successfully built buzz in fests like Toronto, where it won the audience award (as did "The King's Speech") and played well at its Academy screenings, but has been slow to take off at the box office (cume to date is $6.5 million). Part of the issue is its hard-to-define genre (comedy drama romance?) which makes it hard to nail in trailers and TV spots. But it played well in previews. And sure enough the film earned an A- Cinemascore and shows regional strength beyond the major cities. The film is luring audiences the old-fashioned way: word-of-mouth. It's playing well everywhere. This is a tried-and-true, gutsy slow-and-steady-wins-the-race Weinstein play.
Meanwhile five sturdy bigger-budget studio Oscar contenders seem to be surging ahead of "Silver Linings" in the best picture race: they all boast scale, scope and gravitas across multiple categories: "Lincoln," "Argo," "Life of Pi," "Les Miserables" and "Zero Dark Thirty." They also have momentum. But it remains to be seen how "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Les Miserables" fare with moviegoers. One is a tough CIA procedural without much action (until the finale), while the other–which is radical in its emotive live-singing close-ups– will play best to actors, theater and musical lovers, not the steakeaters who dominate the Academy.
There's nothing wrong with "Silver Linings," although some folks find its idiosyncratic characters irritating. This film nurtured by the Weinsteins for seven years also needs critical support from critics groups and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, who will likely give it a comedy Golden Globe slot, in order to place on the best picture scoreboard along with likely acting categories, where Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and Jackie Weaver look competitive. "Silver Linings" scored big with a welcome five Indie Spirit nominations on Tuesday. Russell should easily earn an adapted screenplay nod. But look at the congested best director category: it is quite possible that Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hooper, Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg will wind up with those five slots. And I thought Russell was a lock. He does have some support from the tony Academy directors branch; admirer J.J. Abrams moderated his DGA Q & A.
Not so fast, say the Weinstein Company, who are quite invested in making these films work. They point out that in recent years the Academy has solidly supported the little auteur over the studio competitor, from Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" vs. James Cameron's "Avatar" (gravitas beats epic tech achievement) to Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech" vs. David Fincher's "The Social Network" (heart beats head), not to mention Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" (exotic Indian heart-tugging romance), Paul Haggis's "Crash" (socially conscious ensemble drama) and Michel Hazanavicius's "The Artist" (old-Hollywood silent heart-tugging romance). "Playbook" should pick up through the holidays, building momentum with Globe nominations and roll into Christmas into January. "There has been many a time that a small fresh voice picture beats out the big boys," says TWC's David Glasser. "It depends on the year."
Also well-received in Torontovwas "Quartet" (December 19), targeted at Academy seniors by member-of-the-club director Dustin Hoffman and starring Maggie Smith and Billy Connolly, which many have yet to see (I screen it this week). Will this be high on the voter screener piles? So far it is flying under the radar. And French pick-up "The Intouchables," whose Omar Sy beat Jean Dujardin for the Cesar, is already a sleeper summer hit ($13 million domestic, $400 million foreign) and frontrunner for a foreign Oscar nod. TWC also scooped up Norway's Oscar entry, survival adventure "Kon-Tiki," which has beeen screening well.
And last up is another Civil War era period piece, "Django Unchained" (wide release December 25), which is an audacious Quentin Tarantino epic that finally left the Todd AO final mixing bay Tuesday at 7 PM. At last report, the film was heading past two and a half hours and was ultra-violent. Several early guild screenings were canceled. The unveiling starts this Saturday December 1 at the LA Directors Guild, for DGA members and guests only. But the Weinsteins will need three more weeks to get their screeners up and out, which is really really late. Word is lead actor Christoph Waltz and supporting players Leonardo Di Caprio and Samuel L. Jackson steal the bloody show.
A vengeful spaghetti western about the ante-bellum South starring Jamie Foxx may not seem to be an Academy play, but who expected "Inglourious Basterds" to earn eight nominations and one win (supporting actor Waltz)? In that case, Tarantino debuted the film to much success at Cannes, which helped to change perception. That might have been a smart move in this case: audiences are going to have little preparation for this provocative slave subject matter, which is a long way from the Steven Spielberg/Tony Kushner approach. From the beginning I thought the Weinsteins were rushing this into Christmas when waiting for next year's Cannes might have been wise. Why not give Tarantino the time?
They probably needed to collect some holiday grosses.