Here’s the story of an Oscar campaign aiming not to be first, but dead last: Academy members have begun receiving what is believed – and intentionally planned – to be the final screener of the season, Peter Weir’s independently produced and distributed adventure epic The Way Back. For those with short memories, the first screeners mailed this awards season were Sony Pictures Classics’ Mother And Child and Animal Kingdom on September 28th. The Way Back is one of four indie dramas making up the final quartet of 2010 contender releases in limited runs beginning today. The others, all in theatres more easily accessed on the Academy voter-centric Westside of Los Angeles are Roadside Attractions’ Biutiful, Sony Pictures Classics’ Another Year and The Weinstein Company’s Blue Valentine. But awards strategists for The Way Back‘s distributor, Newmarket, decided to hold back mailing the DVD screener to Oscar voters until Monday of this holiday week, the same day nominating ballots were also being mailed by the Academy. The thinking was that, rather than getting lost in the pile of hopeful discs, it would be fresh in mind just as members start thinking seriously about filling out their ballot. As one of the film’s strategists told me today, “We think voters will take notice of it coming at the tail end of the screener process and be curious to watch it, particularly since it is a film by Peter Weir who has been nominated several times for Oscars”.

The film depicts the harrowing journey set in the 1940 of a group of prisoners who escape a Soviet gulag to travel across five hostile countries in search of freedom. Though the pic has had screenings aimed at Guild and Academy members, most recently on December 28th at the DGA theatre in LA, it has been low profile this season since launching its stealth campaign at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend. From there, it skipped Toronto and other fall fests where contenders usually graze. But Newmarket will be doing a round of advertising in Industry publications and on websites next week.

But for Oscar voters who would prefer to see the film in a commercial theatre this week, they will have to trek to Covina, on the outskirts of LA County, for the one-week Academy qualifying run. It’s a place better known for smog than to launch the first movie in 7 years from the director of Witness, The Truman Show, Dead Poet’s Society, and Master and Commander among others, gaining 6 Oscar nominations in the process.

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The choice of the AMC Covina 30 plex for the exclusive run is also intentional: the distrib didn’t want to blow its marketing wad on a December 29th qualifying release date but to save its money for the true rollout scheduled for January 21st when The Way Back will open on several hundred screens, including those probably a bit closer for Acad members than Covina. That would explain the money-saving microscopic newspaper ad heralding the pic’s first theatrical single screen run today. The thinking is also that Academy voters are realistically more likely to watch the film on DVD than in a theatre, so any commercial run is in the second tier of the movie’s Oscar strategy.

This is a sad truth about today’s Oscar process even as the Academy, often futilely, encourages their members to see movies the way they were meant to be seen – on the big screen. (How ironic then that one Los Angeles-area newspaper review of the film saw a line that stated, “The Way Back demands to be seen on the largest possible screen”.) Still, even producer Joni Levin was surprised about the choice of locale. “When we heard, we said, ‘Where’s West Covina?’ But really we just wanted to qualify and didn’t want to spend a lot of our marketing dollars on just this aspect. We hope people will come to our industry screenings, attend the official Academy showing, or see the screener before voting.”