The intrigue of the season is already beginning and it’s barely September. Late last week while in Telluride, I got a call from a strategist at 42West saying that the film they are handling for Summit Entertainment, A Better Life, would become the first screener of the year to be sent to Academy members with the plan (at that point still to be confirmed) to send it out on Tuesday, the day after Labor Day. Then, over the weekend, Academy members — including some of those same 42 PR strategists — got an obscure movie from Roadside Attractions called The Music Never Stopped, and rival firm PMK*BNC has claimed that is the first screener to be received this year. OK, let’s call this one a draw: The latter film was indeed the first screener to go out, while A Better Life, which Summit and 42West mailed today, is the first to go out from a movie that has any chance in hell of getting a nomination.
I was with reps from Roadside Attractions all weekend and they never mentioned The Music Never Stopped. No wonder: Small cash-strapped indies are not gonna spend big bucks campaigning a movie that was barely a blip in theaters in March and grossed less than $300,000, as is the case with this one. Its barely fresh 62% rating among top critics at Rotten Tomatoes is no cause for celebration either, not for a dark horse with long shot awards potential (in this case a hoped-for, tilting-at-windmills nod for lead actor J.K. Simmons — good luck). Roadside is spending its campaign bucks primarily on Glenn Close’s Albert Nobbs, which got an enthusiastic response over the weekend in Telluride and now heads to Toronto.
As for A Better Life, which opened June 24 and hits DVD on Oct. 18, Summit has high hopes for success, particularly for lead actor Demian Bichir. He is a superstar in Mexico, a co-star on Showtime’s Weeds and won rave notices in this film for his portrayal of an illegal immigrant trying to stay in America with his teenage son. Summit opened the film on the same weekend it opened The Hurt Locker two years ago and hope that’s a good-luck date, at least Academy-wise. The distributor has already done several guild screenings including SAG and plans more along with a sizable awards-season advertising campaign. The film and Bichir’s performance were recently nominated for ALMA Awards. Although the film’s gross to date is less than $2 million, a source with Summit told me that getting the screener out this early should mean many more voters will have a chance to see it before the glut begins in earnest. And with summer over, Summit is thinking voters may be more interested in seeing a serious drama than they were when it was first released in June.
In fact, last year the first screener of the season, Sony Pictures Classics’ underdog Animal Kingdom, wasn’t received until Sept. 30, so campaigners are apparently feeling the itch this year. Perhaps both Summit and Roadside are encouraged by the fact that that first screener last year eventually produced a long-shot Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver despite only a $1 million gross for the film in the U.S.
It pays to be an early bird.