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Oscars: How Does Fox Searchlight’s Surprise ‘Hitchcock’ Shake Up The Award Season?

Oscars: How Does Fox Searchlight's Surprise 'Hitchcock' Shake Up The Award Season?

Surprisingly, the Toronto International Film Festival, which in years past has seen previously unregarded pictures like “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Millionaire” break out into Oscar front-runners, didn’t really provide an out-of-nowhere shocker this year. Sure, there were “Argo” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” as we discussed on Monday, but they were both mostly considered to be strong candidates even before they screened, as was Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “The Master.”

But if anyone assumed that we’d see no more surprise entries in the season (we have to confess, we’d sort of assumed things had settled in by now), they were wrong. Rumor had it among Oscar-watchers that for several months now, Fox Searchlight had been flirting with the idea of moving “Hitchcock” — Sacha Gervasi‘s film about the director during the production of “Psycho,” starring Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins as the filmmaker — into Oscar season, despite the film having gone before cameras relatively recently (it started lensing in April).

Initially, we’d heard they’d ruled it out. Then we’d heard they were considering it again. And yesterday afternoon, they made it official, announcing that the film — which also stars Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel, among others — will go into limited release on November 23rd, only two months from now. Presumably, this means that the film is ready (or will be soon), and that Fox Searchlight like what they see enough to think that it has serious awards possibilities.

Unusually, the studio — who’ve had great success in recent years with films like ‘Slumdog,’ “Black Swan” and “The Descendants” — seemed to have a relatively light slate this year. Early-year release “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” is expected to be a player, but it mostly seems it will be a Best Actress play, while “The Sessions” will also follow into acting categories (and “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” could well join them). But none look like Best Picture locks, but with “Hitchcock” now in the mix, the big question is how far it’ll play.

The studio pulled a similar surprise with “Crazy Heart” a few years ago. They moved the film up, having planned it for a post-Sundance release originally, to highlight the performance of Jeff Bridges, and we suspect the main motivation here is the same. John Hawkes in “The Sessions” is generally deemed a lock for a Best Actor nomination, but most have questioned the relatively unknown actor’s ability to challenge Joaquin Phoenix and Daniel Day-Lewis (the latter admittedly sight unseen) for the win.

Hopkins certainly stands a better chance — he’s already a winner, but hasn’t been recognized in several years (“Amistad” in 1998 was his last nomination, and “Nixon” in 1996 his last for lead). Furthermore, it looks to be a transformative (aided by heavy prosthetics) turn, and impersonation of a famous figure. And not just a famous figure, but a beloved filmmaker — one who never won an Oscar for directing, it should be noted. If “The Artist” last year proved anything, it’s that Hollywood loves movies about movies, and in a year where Hitchcock has been much talked about (including being the focus of another film, Toby Jones-starring HBO/BBC drama “The Girl“), it couldn’t be better timed. Unless Fox Searchlight’s faith is severely misplaced, we’d certainly expect Hopkins to be among the five nominees.

But what about the film? Well, it’s anyone’s guess. Director Sacha Gervasi is hardly a well known quantity — this is his first feature, after documentary breakout “Anvil! The Story Of Anvil.” But the script is well liked, the cast starry, and the subject matter ever popular. The Thanksgiving release date (which saw both “The Artist” and “Hugo” bow last year) certainly suggests real confidence in the movie. Our gut says it might be more of a “My Week With Marilyn” type film, with nominated performances (and a make up nod seems certain too), but not much else, but we’d be delighted to be wrong, and it turns out it has Best Picture qualities as well. There aren’t many festival bows left (AFI or Rome are the only real possibilities), but if it was announced for one or the other, that would certainly make us take it even more seriously as a bonafide contender.

One problem the film doesn’t have, which some of its competition are facing, is a lack of lead time on the nominations — the Academy announced this week that ballots will close on January 3rd, only just after the holidays, with nominations announced on January 10th (before Sundance, and the Golden Globe Awards, for the first time). For a film like “Hitchcock,” which will have over a month’s head start, that’s just swell. But for late-release films like “Django Unchained,” “The Promised Land” and “Les Miserables” (which moved to Christmas Day only hours before the Academy announcement), it could be a real problem. The films, which all wrapped very late in the year, are already rushing to meet their release dates, and are so unlikely to be able to be screened in completed form significantly early.

As such, they’ll have only ten days to get their movies out in front of voters, be it in theaters or on screens, which may be an issue. Perhaps less so for “Les Miserables” (which released a video today that only reinforced our belief that it’s a potential juggernaut), but for ‘Django,’ already a tough sell to voters, or the smaller-scale “The Promised Land,” it could be troublesome. We’ll see how things play out (or if the films move up a bit), but it’s another exciting twist on what’s proving already to be a very entertaining Oscar season.

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