Back in the 70s, United Artists released three Best Picture Oscar winners in a row: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” opened before I got there in 1976 right out of college, but I was in the publicity bullpen when we promoted “Rocky” and “Annie Hall” to their wins. (Trivia: If “Rocky” creator Sylvester Stallone lands a nomination for “Creed,” that will mark the seventh time in 87 years that an actor has been nominated for playing the same role.)
This year Twentieth Century Fox is trying to repeat that Oscar trifecta, having won best Picture Oscars two years running for “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman,” but it’s a very different picture. For one thing, UA was UA. Although the company did release some indie pickups and partnered with MGM on such films as “Network,” there was one unified marketing and distribution apparatus.
Fox, on the other hand, like Disney and Sony, is made up of several fiefdoms under the direction of chairman Jim Gianopulos. Main Fox is run by Stacey Snider and her production head Emma Watts, who supervised Ridley Scott’s 3D space epic “The Martian” ($590 million worldwide). “The Martian” was always considered a mainstream populist play for wide release, but it turned out far better than anyone expected and when the studio booked the film at the Toronto Film Festival for maximum junket exposure, it turned into an Oscar contender, and sure enough, collected three Golden Globe nominations this week.
But it was submitted by the studio as a Golden Globe Comedy, where it will compete with Elizabeth Gabler’s Fox 2000 David O. Russell biopic “Joy,” starring Jennifer Lawrence as a Long Island home products inventor. Russell himself is gunning to be in Oscar Best Picture contention for the fourth time running (after “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook, ” and “American Hustle,” which went zero for ten). But after Russell fussed over “Joy” in the editing room under deadline duress, Fox sent out screeners late in the voting period to Screen Actors Guild voters, so Lawrence landed only a Globe Comedy nomination en route to a likely Oscar nod.
With respectable but not great reviews so far, she’s the best chance for a “Joy” nomination, and given that the actress already won for “Silver Linings Playbook,” the three-time nominee would be competing for a long-shot second win. More important perhaps: the movie is entertaining and Lawrence is a huge draw in the only major studio release at Christmas aimed at women.
But with no late screener excuse, why did SAG overlook Damon’s delightful “Martian” performance? Perhaps he made his wise-cracking but vulnerable astronaut survivor stranded on Mars look too easy. Will Globes Comedy contention lend “The Martian” enough gravitas to become a viable Best Picture contender? That is the question. (Fox’s online “The Martian” For Your Consideration ads tout Three Golden Globe Nominations; Comedy is in very small type.)
In the Golden Globe directing category, however, Ridley Scott is competing directly with the studio’s other big Oscar entry, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s $135 million “The Revenant,” which is backed entirely by New Regency, which also partnered with the studio on its last two Best Picture-winners “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman,” which were released by specialty label Fox Searchlight. The Mexican filmmaker had been directing such art films such as “Babel” and “Biutiful” until breakout “Birdman,” which grossed $103 million worldwide.
Searchlight, meanwhile, has notched 12 Best Picture nominations in the past 11 years, more than any other company, and with “Birdman”‘s haul, the company is the industry Oscar leader. This year Searchlight is pushing Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth” (Jane Fonda notched a Globe nom) and a Sundance pickup, Irish period romance “Brooklyn,” whose star Saoirse Ronan earned SAG and Globe nominations. Campaigning for Oscars is what Searchlight is equipped to do.
The big studio seems to be stacking its awards chips on “The Revenant,” Iñárritu’s most ambitious undertaking to date, and one he could take to the bank after his Oscar wins. Luckily for Fox, they did not have to ride herd on the period western, which faced harsh weather conditions but not enough snow, and when it finished up in frigid Tierra del Fuego, which provided dramatic vistas for the film’s last section, went $35-million over-budget. Obviously, New Regency is under pressure to make some of its money back on a movie that is not overtly commercial. But no director has ever won back to back Oscars.
One audience attraction is movie star Leonardo DiCaprio’s haggard, stricken performance as a beleaguered frontier scout mauled by a bear and left for dead, which clearly benefitted from the arduous shoot. Many awards voters from the HPFA to the Globes to the Academy may feel that he’s deserving of a reward after four acting nominations and no wins. And the film is undeniably stunning as a visual filmmaking feat, which the Academy may be happy to recognize, but can Emmanuel Lubezki collect his third Gold Man in a row?
While Searchlight has its own marketing, the studio handles the release and awards campaigns—all with discreet Oscar wranglers— for Fox 2000 as well as its New Regency partner and animation unit Blue Sky. These labels are all fighting for studio love and resources toward winning Oscars, which takes smart strategy and acumen to pull off. The studio is throwing many awards parties aimed at different constituencies: genial pater familias Gianopulos hosted a Sunday holiday party at his Brentwood home attended by all his labels and their stars; later in the week he threw another one celebrating long-time Fox filmmaker Scott’s return to form at at his Beverly Hills RSA headquarters, attended by Watts, Matt Damon, writer Drew Goddard, producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Simon Kinberg, Lionsgate’s Patrick Wachsberger and other well-wishers. They’re rooting for the 78-year-old filmmaker to win his first directing Oscar after three nominations and a Best Picture win for “Gladiator.”
The next day “The Martian” was overlooked by the SAG awards, but the day after that, all six of Fox’s children received some Golden Globes love, including animation entry “The Peanuts Movie” from animation label Blue Sky. Academy voters are now catching up on their screeners, which have all gone out except for Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” which faced an extended 70 mm post-production schedule; Oscar voting starts on December 30th.
Where Fox ends up on nominations morning January 14th is anyone’s guess.