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.