By Ben Travers | Indiewire July 19, 2013 at 10:17AM
It may only be July. The Oscars may still be seven months away, and the heat of the race won't really hit until November. It may seem too early to be thinking about the Dolby Theater, black tuxedos, and brilliant ball gowns — but someone has to. Right now, that someone is Harvey Weinstein. The perennial Oscar hopeful always stacks his fall release slate with enough awards contenders to keep his name in almost every race, and this year is no different. Well, almost. He's got at least eight serious contenders -- like usual -- but more than a few are already under fire.
The latest issue comes from an unexpected challenger at an unexpected time in an unexpected area. Warner Bros. stepped in at the eleventh hour demanding the title of TWC's upcoming film, "The Butler," be changed. They won their appeal with the MPAA's Title Registration Bureau on July 2, and the contentious ruling has yet to be overturned. On top of that, the Sundance winner "Fruitvale Station" has to deal with the touchy Trayvon Martin situation. And James Gray's ambitious period drama "The Immigrant" received mixed responses at Cannes. With "Fruitvale Station's" expanding today -- here's a list of The Weinstein Company's Oscar hopefuls and expectations for each film.
"August: Osage County"
John Wells' adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning play is easily TWC's best shot at Best Picture in 2014. Starring the dream duo of Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, "August: Osage County" has incredible appeal for Oscar voters. First and foremost is Streep, who's only two years removed from her last gold statue for "The Iron Lady." It took everything in Harvey Weinstein's bag of tricks to get Streep to the podium after her film was met with less than favorable reviews. Don't expect the same for "August." In addition to its two leading ladies, the Southern drama features Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shepard, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Dermot Mulroney, and Chris Cooper. Any one -- or four -- of these well-respected thespians could bust into the acting races along with Roberts and Streep.
The only issue facing "August" early on is its director. Letts himself adapted the screenplay from his own novel, leaving Wells as the only somewhat inexperienced creative entity on set. He has a wealth of production work in his background (dating back to the 1988 TV show "China Beach"), but has only directed one other feature, 2010's under-appreciated workplace drama, "The Company Men." That must have been enough evidence for Streep & Co. to sign. So far the only footage screened has been the trailer, which looked promising enough. Nevertheless, "August" is in prime Oscar position with expectant buzz and a coveted Christmas Day release date.
Didn't this article start by purporting bad news for TWC? Oh yeah. "The Butler." Though it showcases just as much Academy appeal on its surface as "August: Osage County," but Lee Daniels' historical drama is hiding many flaws under its star-heavy visage. First off, it's never a good sign when the director is making excuses for his film almost a year before its release. Then comes the whole title fiasco and everyone on "The Butler" is busy talking about problems instead of talking up their picture.
It was a brilliant move by Warner Bros., though. After taking home the Best Picture prize at last year's Academy Awards with their political thriller "Argo," Time Warner's entertainment arm made an early play for Oscar by ambushing a competitor early on in the 2013 race. When Warner Bros. filed a grievance with the MPAA Title Registration Bureau calling for a name change to The Weinstein Company's awards hopeful, "The Butler," it was done with the intention to harm the film financially, thus damaging its path to the Dolby. If the film loses out on box office dollars due to confused theatergoers -- which it absolutely could given a last minute name change -- it's dead in the water. Summer releases need to make a splash on their release to remain relevant for winter awards races. "The Hurt Locker" may be the exception that proves the rule, but the rule still remains.
It's been widely reported -- mainly by Harvey Weinstein himself -- the move was made to get TWC to drop its right to the Warner Bros' property, "The Hobbit." Though likely true, leave it to Harvey to spin a negative into a positive. He's gambling he'll get to keep the name while using the issue to gain as much free media as he can. It can pay off he wins the appeal and keeps "The Butler," or if he loses. By now, if the name change happens, every entertainment outlet will be cover it as follow-up to their previously-written pieces. Though extremely pricey if the title actually has to be changed at this late date, the free press is a PR dream for a film going up against summer's biggest blockbusters. Can the notoriously vicious awards campaigner make the story work for him? We'll find out in a few weeks. "The Butler," or whatever it will be called, opens August 16.
Talk about your reversal of fortunes. Prior to last weekend's gangbusters opening weekend, Ryan Coogler's Sundance winner was running on fumes from a very successful January. Then its opening weekend came around and boosted the racially-charged drama to the forefront of Oscar pundits' prognostications. The aforementioned early numbers proved the film's public appeal -- though its potency will truly be tested once it expands nationwide July 26 -- but it was the verdict in George Zimmerman's trial that may prove the deciding factor to Oscar voters. Academy members tend to vote for what they feel is the best and most relevant film of each year. They're not always right (*ahem*), but they still try to choose films focusing on current social issues.
"Fruitvale Station" has become such a film. The film tells the story of Oscar Grant, a young black man shot by a white police officer who ended up serving a minimal sentence to the outrage of social activists everywhere. Clearly, the independent drama echoes an issue that's currently at the focal point of American culture. Whether or not the issue will remain front and center in voters minds for the next six months is unpredictable, but if Academy members are looking for a film to mark where we are as a nation in 2013 then "Fruitvale Station" is it. The strategy to use tragic current events is tricky from a PR standpoint, so expect Oscar campaigner extraordinaire Harvey Weinstein to let it happen naturally. The American public can't always be trusted to put two and two together, but they will this time. The question is whether or not it will be enough.
"Grace of Monaco"
Can Olivier Dahan do for Nicole Kidman what he did for Marion Cotillard? The director of Oscar-winner "La Vie en Rose" has brought another actress to the Academy's attention, though Kidman certainly needs no introduction. The three-time Oscar nominee's one win came for the Weinstein-backed "The Hours" in 2002, and Harvey is already pushing one of his favorite stars on voters by having Kidman appear at the company's Cannes-set 2013 preview. The event featured a five-minute montage of "Grace of Monaco" footage with a strong focus on Kidman's unveiling as Grace Kelly, the iconic film star-turned-princess. Yet the push did not get off to a great start. Indiewire's Nigel Smith said "no one should expect a transformation akin to what Marion Cotillard did as Edith Piaf," and buzz remained low for the film after the screening.
Controversy plagued the Cannes premiere of James Gray's period picture starring Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Renner. Enough so the director made a rather rude statement to critics and Indiewire's Erick Kohn labeled it "the most divisive film in Cannes competition." Anne Thompson said the script "was undermined throughout by clunky, expositional dialogue," and "Jeremy Renner was unconvincing as a street-smart magician." The Hollywood Reporter and Variety gave it positive reviews, but a 50/50 split isn't ideal for the Academy voting process.
Marion Cotillard shouldn't face that issue. The female lead of "The Immigrant" earned glowing reviews even from critics who didn't care for her film, including Thompson, who said "she speaks Polish like a native," and labeled her "one of the most facially expressive and beautiful actresses working today." Cotillard has felt like a perennial Oscar contender since she won in 2007, including last year when she just missed out for her role in "Ruse and Bone." Her greatest challenge this year will be overcoming any negative stigma attached to the film.
If anyone can help overcome that blemish, it's Harvey Weinstein. This is the man who pushed Meryl Streep to the podium for her much-reviled film "The Iron Lady." Getting voters to look at exactly what he wants them to is Harvey's speciality -- even if it means looking away from something unsightly.
It was just four years ago audiences saw Morgan Freeman portray South African President Nelson Mandela in a well-received and Oscar-nominated turn. Is that long enough for Academy members to pay attention to another actor in the same role? TWC is betting yes. Though similarly-themed films going head to head hasn't ended well for the latter picture of late (or ever), four years might be long enough for audiences eager to revisit the great leader so soon after his recent health scare.
The toughest issue facing the biopic is its lack of Oscar credentials. Its director (Justin Chadwick) has a background mainly in television, and the film's two leads have never entered the Oscar picture, let alone vied for a win (though we all know Idris Elba is perfectly capable). Screenwriter William Nicholson has earned two Academy Award nominations, but none since "Gladiator" in 2001 (and John Logan has received much of the credit for penning that Best Picture winner) and the recent release of the film's teaser trailer did next to nothing for its buzz.
Let's not underestimate the Weinstein factor, though. The aforementioned first footage notably kept Idris Elba out of view. It could've been anyone walking down that dirt path, and it wouldn't come as a surprise if Harvey is carefully waiting to unveil his best Best Actor candidate (not forgetting Michael B. Jordan of "Fruitvale Station," mind you). If that's the case and Elba delivers the performance we all know he's capable of, then "Mandela" could make everyone forget about "Invictus" entirely.
Believe it or not, it's been six years since Judi Dench last received an Oscar nomination ("Notes on a Scandal"). Prior to her current drought, Dame Dench had been nominated back-to-back years in 1998 & 1999, 2001 & 2002, and 2006 & 2007. She notoriously won for "Shakespeare in Love" despite being on screen for only eight minutes, thus solidifying the Academy's love for the veteran actress. She got some buzz for her turn in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" last year, but it never materialized. Now she's the best shot at Oscar love for TWC's drama, "Philomena."
Or is she? Penned and co-starring the British comedian Steve Coogan, "Philomena" centers on a woman searching for her adult son after years of forced separation. The premise itself is certainly dramatic enough for Oscar, but the rest of the cast is full of relative unknowns. Still, some industry insiders think Dench's drama is TWC's ace in the hole. It hasn't been given a U.S. release date yet, so expect to hear more about this one on the fall festival circuit."The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet"Not much is known about Jean-Pierre Jeunet's latest fantasy film other than its appealing plot and leading lady. Helena Bonham Carter stars as Dr. Clair, the mother of a 12-year-old cartographer who flees his family's ranch to hop a train and receive an award from the Smithsonian. Intriguing, no? Jeunet made a splash in the early aughts with "Amelie" (for which he earned a screenwriting nomination) and "A Very Long Engagement" after misguidedly dipping his toe in the blockbuster pool for "Alien: Resurrection" in 2001. His last effort, 2010's "Micmacs," played the festival circuit after premiering at TIFF in 2009, but earned no Academy attention.
Needless to say, Jeunet is the most marketable Oscar asset for Harvey Weinstein. It would be a big surprise if this film emerged as any kind of frontrunner, but it could score a screenplay nod if it hits the festivals hard and plays well nationally. Based on the international trailer, its scope is certainly epic enough and Jeunet's now-expected innovative visuals could lure the same voters who were wooed by the 3D eye candy of "Hugo" a few years back. It's a steep hill to climb given its limited marketability, but that's why it's got the big gun, er, guy behind it.
These aren't all the films TWC is expected to release this year. "Snowpiercer" is expected sometime in 2013. The documentary "Salinger" shouldn't be counted out of the Best Documentary race. Wong Kar Wai's "The Grandmaster" and Keanu Reeves' "The Man of Tai Chi" just aren't contenders -- the former doesn't seem to be trying while the latter is also aspiring towards other goals.
What do you think dear readers? Which of the Weinsteins' films has the best shot at Oscar? Is there a multi-category smash among them? Will "August: Osage County" live up to the hype? Does "The Butler" name change actually damage its odds, or will the free publicity outweigh the detriments? Let us know below and keep checking in for more updates on all of Harvey's films.