EDITORS NOTE: This is the first in a series of indieWIRE Awards Watch articles tracking the ups and downs of awards season. Links to individual predictions are included at the end of this article.
As grotesque as Christmas decorations hung in department stores before Halloween, Hollywood's annual awards season seems to come earlier and earlier each year. But now, it's November and the newspapers have published their holiday movieguides chock full of large ads touting serious films. So, whether we like it or not, awards season is truly underway. In fact, if awards season is actually a marathon that begins over Labor Day weekend at The Telluride Film Festival (and really gets going days later at the Toronto International Film Festival), then we are already at about Mile 10, with under 16 weeks to go until Oscar night. After a cutthoat October that saw more than a dozen so-called prestige films vying for audience attention each weekend, moviegoers will be asked to buckle down even more over the next eight weeks as distributors and marketers try to carve out a path for their most important films of the year. Films must be released by the end of the year for consideration. And even before most of these new films screen for a single paying customer, insiders and observers will have already dissected and analyzed the films' chances of becoming a contender for year end honors.
At 7 p.m. this past Sunday night -- when the gala L.A. premiere of The Coen Brothers' "No Country For Old Men" was scheduled to begin -- an on-stage organist at the El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Blvd. played hits from famous film soundtracks, mostly to an empty theater. Attendees were mixing and mingling in the lobby while snacking on free popcorn and soft drinks. Miramax president Daniel Battsek worked the room gladhanding guests and nearby Paramount Vantage president John Lesher did the same. Agents buzzed about the looming WGA strike inside, while famous faces walked the red carpet outside.
Casey Affleck, Julie Delpy, John Malkovich, Gina Gershon, Hugh Laurie, and eventually the film's stars Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Tommy Lee Jones made the scene. "That's Entertainment" and then the theme from "Star Wars" eventually drew guests into the auditorium and nearing 7:30 p.m. the organist delivered a rousing rendition of "Hooray for Hollywood." As he and the organ mechanically receded into the stage's orchestra section, the full-house cheered and Miramax's Battsek quipped, "I wish I'd brought my top hat and tails," and then Ethan Coen added, "Thanks to the organist who learned the entire score of the movie so quickly." On with the show, this is it.
Both Battsek and Lesher, whose studio specialty divisions joined forces to make the Coen's "No Country for Old Men" (with Miramax handling domestic distribution) have a lot to gain in the next two months. "You seem to have a hit on your hands," indieWIRE told Battsek as he scored some snacks from the concession stand prior to the premiere. Smiling, he let out an audible gasp of hopeful uncertainty. Anticipation is cleary high for the Coens film, which opens this weekend, but no one at Miramax wants to jinx things by sounding too confident. Some insiders wondered after Sunday's screening how the more mainstream critics would react to the violent, distinctive new film, which just may be the best movie of the acclaimed Coen's career (in an indieWIRE review today, Michael Koresky praises the new film).
"There definitely isn't a front-runner," Battsek recently told the Wall Street Journal, "That's a good thing, and it also makes us that much twitchier." The Coen's film, as well as Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton" are the current leaders of awards season, observed informed Oscar watcher David Poland of The Hot Blog and Movie City News, in an email conversation with indieWIRE on Monday. However, he cautioned, "Even with those two films out front, either or both could fall from grace. It's that kind of season. And neither film is being positioned as a front runner." And, equally informed Sasha Stone of AwardsDaily.com agreed that "No Country" is currently a frontrunner (also citing Marc Forster's "The Kite Runner," Joe Wright's "Atonement," Jason Reitman's "Juno," and Sean Penn's "Into The Wild" as contenders).
Notably, that means a number of films from Lesher's Paramount Vantage are currently leading the pack. A future frontrunner may very well be Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" from Vantage, which few have seen. Those who have had an early look are calling it a shoo-in for end of year attention, lead by what is apparently a stand-out performance by Daniel Day Lewis. Paramount Vantage, which scored last year with a best picture nomination for "Babel," has a number of solid horses in the race, including the aforementioned "Kite Runner" next month, its share of the Coen Brothers' film, along with the upcoming "Margot At The Wedding" from Noah Baumbach, which was in the spotlight at AFI Fest over the weekend. And then there's Sean Penn's "Into The Wild."
Buzz about the Penn film began two months ago at Telluride where it stirred audiences. Penn was a fest fixture over Labor Day weekend, warmly greeting attendees and talking at length about his passion project during Q & A sessions and panel discussions. Since then he's opened up about the movie on talkshows like "Oprah" and "Charlie Rose." One of the few awards frontrunners already in theaters, the film has earned more than $10 million at the box office since opening in late September and this past Friday night here in Los Angeles, Vantage kicked its awards campaign for the film up a notch.
On stage alongside the film's lead actor Emile Hirsch -- whose performance as Christopher McCandless is the heart of this captivating film -- Penn greeted guests at a post-screening party on the Paramount lot. Chatting briefly, he introduced Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, who created ten new original songs for the "Wild" soundtrack. Smiling, he called Vedder a, "guy that every guy wants to be and every woman wants to..." After the six song set, Penn made the rounds, warmly chatting with moviegoers; included in the crowd were Mark Ruffalo, Winona Ryder, and even Ringo Starr. Praising the movie in the email interview with indieWIRE, AwardsDaily.com's Sasha Stone observed, "It kind of harkens back to the '70s when films were really organic and a small crew and a couple of actors could go on the road and make a great film without needing a large scale budget. It is gorgeous to look at without having the look of being overproduced. Sean Penn really lets the landscape sing. The only stumbling block will be if voters are turned off by Penn or by the main character."
This time of year, awards films seem like the raison d'etre for studio specialty divisions like Vantage. But, the flood of new serious titles that are all fighting for audiences has made this year's fall movie season seem particularly treacherous. In a conversation with The New York Times, Vantage's Lesher noted that the awards attention for "Babel" last year, "helped brand the film." Continuing in the article, he added, "It is less about making a prestige film than the fact that actors want to do good work in addition to making blockbusters. The best, most interesting careers do both."
David Poland noted that the emergence of one film to dominate awards season this year seems unlikely, "It may be the most balanced season in decades, with few 'big' movies and constituents for a lot of really good smaller films, all of which have problems that they will have to overcome. It should be interesting."
Asked to reveal a few of the underdogs to watch for as awards season continues, Sasha Stone suggested keeping an eye on "Once" at this stage, telling indieWIRE that it could be an upset entry in the best picture race. And, Dave Poland cited a number of performances, including Ellen Page from "Juno," Hal Holbrook from "Into the Wild," and Phillip Bosco from "The Savages," also adding Marisa Tomei from Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. He explained, "The reason they are possible is that they are all very strong performances and are equally unexpected. But I think that enthusiasm in the media is fickle and it's a bit early to be too sure about any of them."
Finally, as Sasha Stone noted, awards season is currently competing for attention with the current Writers Guild of America strike. "It is going to be greatly impacted by the WGA strike because all of the heat is suddenly taken off of the awards, which I haven't seen happen in the seven years I've been doing this," Stone told indieWIRE. "I will be curious to see how all of that plays out."
On their blogs today, two members of the indieWIRE team survey the frontrunners and underdogs in the current Oscar race for best picture, director, actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress):
Eugene Hernandez, blog: eugonline
Peter Knegt: blog, The Lost Boy