HAMMOND: 'War Horse' Campaign Begins; Can Steven Spielberg Win Another Oscar?

The horse is out of the bag. Steven Spielberg’s much-awaited epic War Horse began its industry screenings in earnest this afternoon, Thanksgiving Day, in both New York and Los Angeles by inviting members (via trade ads and website Monday) of most guilds , critics groups,  and, of course, the Academy to special holiday weekend screenings that will continue through Sunday in both cities as well as San Francisco (Fri-Sun).  In addition , as previously announced , there will be public sneaks in NYC and nine other cities on Sunday afteroon (10:30AM in LA at AMC Century City) followed by a Q&A with Spielberg in NY that will be satellited to the other cities as well as streamed live on MSN.com. It is an innovative “one-stop shopping” tactic on the part of Dreamworks (and Disney who distributes)  since Spielberg is on the east coast currently shooting Lincoln and not available for the usual round of campaign activities. Its “World Premiere” will take place December 4th at Avery Fisher Hall in NYC.

The big launch is on now even though the film was completed for all intents and purposes in September. At the Labor Day weekend Telluride Film Festival producer Kathleen Kennedy told me they only had the D.I. to complete at that time, but even though it was ready the film, which opens on December 25, has skipped the festival circuit in favor of its own circuitous route to release. That included the unusual strategy of employing surprise “pop up” screenings Nov 1-10 in small towns like Bellvue  Wa, Leawood and  Olathe Ks, Cleveland Heights Oh, Beaverton Or, Bethesda MD and Plymouth Meeting, PA indicating a “heartland” strategy in order to get word of mouth moving .   That same week Dreamworks started quietly showing the film to select media (including Deadline)  on the big screen at the Disney lot’s main theatre. A strict embargo existed until today right after the first Thanksgiving screening when most media and industry types would have had at least the opportunity to begin seeing it. So expect a lot of industry and media twittering, facebooking and reviews to start almost immediately with still a solid month to go before its Christmas day wide opening.

What Spielberg has wrought is a stunning looking and highly emotional epic that is Hollywood moviemaking at its best, and seems likely to be the filmmaker’s most Academy- friendly work since his Oscar winners, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Is it old-fashioned?  You bet , but in this fast-moving techno culture that may be a welcome thing.  Spielberg is known to be a great admirer of David Lean  and with its sweeping vistas, deliberate pacing and epic story of one horse’s remarkable journey through the front lines of World War I, the film could almost be a tribute to the great director of such classics as Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Just for the craft alone Oscar nominations would seem to be assured for Best Picture and Director,  John Williams’ score, Rick Carter’s production design,Michael Kahn’s editing, the sound work and  Janusz Kaminski’s  striking cinematography. Although there hasn’t been much buzz about the cast which includes Jeremy Irvine, David Thewlis,  Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Peter Mullan, they  don’t strike any false notes delivering fine performances, and Tom Hiddleston’s  Captain Nichols  could even merit some Best Supporting Actor talk  though that category is almost impossibly tough this year. As for the horses there should be some kind of separate Academy Award. They are suprisingly expressive (one of them came from Seabiscuit). The film , in look and execution is easily the best of its genre since Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion in 1979, a movie that earned a handful of Oscar nods but shamefully didn’t even get a Cinematography nomination for Caleb Deschanel’s landmark cinematography.

War Horse is probably too emotional and traditional  to earn much love on the hardcore unsentimental critics awards circuit, but I imagine it will fare very well  at the CCMA’s, Golden Globes, and Oscars, even though some of the Academy’s more recent Best Picture choices, notably No Country For Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire and The Hurt Locker among others indicate a different sensibility than the kind of once-traditional “bigger”, more craft-laden  film the Academy once favored, and a category into which War Horse definitely falls.  Although The King’s Speech triumph last year over the more trendy critics choice of The Social Network might indicate there is still room for less edgy, more “traditional” films in the heart of the Academy voter. We’ll have to wait to see, but the sheer scope of War Horse certainly gives it its own niche against smaller favored Best Pic hopefuls (seen so far) like The Descendants, The Artist, Midnight In Paris and Moneyball.

On the other hand voters might think Spielberg has had enough accolades (3 Oscars, a Thalberg award, AFI Life Achievement and Kennedy Center Honors), plus he’s got another film, the animated The Adventures of Tintin opening just four days earlier than War Horse. Will that one-two punch at the boxoffice inspire admiration – or Spielburn-out? Just three days before Tintin’s release this very prolific film and television producer and director also  hits the milestone age of 65, but there is no sign of retirement any time soon.

He has six Best Director nominations for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) , Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) , winning for the latter two. His most recent directing nod came for 2005′s Munich. Schindler’s List is the only Spielberg film to win Best Picture. He has twelve nominations overall  between Picture and directing nods.  Interestingly both his directing wins came for movies set during World War II. Can a World War I flick bring him the directorial triple crown few, even David Lean, have managed in Oscar history?

Certainly War Horse comes with the pedigree.  It was a best selling book first issued in 1982, then became an international theatrical hit winning five Tonys including Best Play earlier this year for its smash Broadway run which is still continuing at Lincoln Center. When I saw the play in May I wondered how any filmmaker could replicate the magic of the production and its extraordinary use of full sized horse puppetry of the amazing Handspring Puppet Company. But as Kennedy told me in Telluride, “War Horse could be the subject of a great Masters Thesis in showing how to take a book, a play and a movie and give them each their own uniqueness, even as they came from the same source material”. It is also unique in having three different writers.  Michael Morpurgo wrote the book, Nick Stafford penned the play and Lee Hall and Richard Curtis did the screenplay.   Spielberg’s challenge was to how to make the story cinematically compelling without tarnishing the memory of the book or play. If the Academy feels he succeeded , War Horse could become the first project to win both a Best Play Tony and Best Picture Oscar in the same year of their opening.

  1. I think he will definitely be picking up an Oscar next year but not for Best Director, instead for Tintin for Best Animated Feature. Honestly, he looks like he has that in the bag.

    1. Hell no. I’m tired of this it’s Spielberg it must be great shit. His last great film was Private Ryan and it was not better then its other war competition.

    1. Munich was amazing, but too controversial for the Academy. Spielberg really criticized Israel and to some degree the Arab world too so…

      1. It was boring as shit…

        the only person he pissed off were those who spent on money on it.

        leave the politics out — the film has still gotta hum.

  2. I wasn’t expecting much–especially after the let down of Tin Tim. But War Horse is amazing. Don’t miss seeing it on the big screen.

    1. I can NOT WAIT to see it tomorrow, and wouldn’t be surprised if I was at CC at 10:30 on Sunday, too…..thank you for the heads up, I imagine I will need to bring plenty of Kleenex??

    2. Looking forward to seeing it. Looking forward to owning the Blu-ray. Finally – a real movie; it’s been a while.

    1. Yu-ma right. Spielberg big man. He make movie good. Smoke big cigar. Don´t need Oscar. Only need tatanka and healthy stock portfolio.

  3. “Great admirer” of Lean’s? You mean “slavish imitator,” just as he’s done with every other Hollywood original he’s committed to memory and then re-hashed. Without Lean or Wyler or Ford, there would be no Spielberg…but they didn’t need anyone to ape.

    1. Ever seen Fred Niblo’s 1925 BEN HUR?

      Wyler “rebooted” it in 1959. Several sequences are shot-by-shot and other scenes Niblo did better.

      Wyler was a tremendous director, but everybody has influences.

    2. I am not a Spielberg cheerleader. However, he is a good old fashioned storyteller, which I find sorely missing in films these days. I am thoroughly looking forward to seeing War Horse. I appreciate most of his films and can totally relate; often it’s a pleasure. I think then, that he’s done his job.

  4. If the movie is great and touches audiences people shouldn’t be able to use the excuse, “He’s already won before.”

    That seems weak.

    Judge it on its own merits, I say.

  5. A few people I know who saw War Horse were pretty disappointed by it. They said it’s very slow and sappy at times. While it may appeal to older Academy members, and could connect commercially like The Help, they said it’s not Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan caliber. Then again, what is?

  6. For the record, it’s Bellevue, WA and it’s not a small town. It does have a really great theater complex though – Lincoln Square Cinemas.

  7. Spielberg is a great man and a great filmmaker, but he will not win, nor will WAR HORSE.

    Why? Because WAR HORSE is not a labor of love, it is a great piece of art that has been co-opted and made into something nice, but it’s pretty easy to cherry pick something successful as opposed to say, take Ben Mezrich’s lukewarm book and turn it into THE SOCIAL NETWORK.

    More importantly, Spielberg’s Dreamworks is responsible for making terrible movies, and terribly geeky sci-fi fare that is helping destroy the industry. COWBOYS and REAL STEEL and everything that’s not THE HELP is just cynically made garbage for foreigners, not Americans. If he made stories with human beings instead of nerd, sci-fi garbage like I AM NUMBER “TWO”, he’d engender more goodwill. But WAR HORSE? Really? When people are making THE DESCENDANTS and THE ARTIST? Taking chances? Look, THE DESCEN. might be overrated, it’s just a lot of dialogue, but that’s what people want. They want human stories, they want 70′s films, not nerd board games and such. Yeah, some of it makes money, but a lot of it doesn’t. If Steven wants an Oscar and wants current day respect, he’ll make Scott Rudin movies, not this robot/sci-fi nerd crap that appeals to people in China, but not New York or Missouri.

    1. Of course you realize this ISN’T a robot movie right?

      Scott Rudin gives garbage all the time. hell look at the claptrap he has coming out later this year

      1. Yes, I realize it’s not a robot movie, but step away from your Dreamworks paycheck and read my post again. He’s cherry-picking a book, a play, that had a huge following. He’s not making original movies, his studio produces nerd fare. Yes, THE HELP is very obnoxious in the sense that it’s a black story only told through the lens of a white woman, but at least it’s real people.

        WAR HORSE may not be sci-fi crap, but he’s not making a movie about a guy who lost his wife, he’s not make Scott Rudin type stuff. Does Rudin fail a lot? Sure, I guess, but he makes movies out of books, he makes movies about real stuff. Spielberg is another one of these nerd/sci-fi geeks, who just make absolute crap. It’s fine when you construct the stuff well, as a good story is a good story, but they take these REAL STEEL type movies, spend two weeks on the script, and then sell it to people in China.

        All this nonsense about film preservation is just that. Start making movies that are well-crafted, because younger generations are finding entertainment on YouTube for 30 seconds, and they’re pirating everything else. People will go to the theater is it’s a group outing on a Friday night, so long as they know that what they’re getting is something worth seeing. But no one cares about what Spielberg and Dreamworks is putting out.

        They don’t put out AMERICAN BEAUTY anymore. They put out COWBOYS and CRAP.

    2. Man you must have your head up your ass and really dislike Spielberg. If nobody likes his movies, why do they make money? The movies your quoting as great are seen by maybe a thousand people in the world and like by a few like you.

  8. My two cents is – if its anything like the play it will be amazing. Even in the play you know whats coming and damn if it doesn’t get you. Oh course the movie won’t have the magic of that production , but I’m sure its going to tug at peoples hearts. When I saw War Horse with a friend he whispered I’m not going to cry and he borrowed the tissues being passed around my row. There more red eyes leaving the theater than I ever remember seeing

  9. I saw the original play War Horse at the National Theatre in London. it was beyond powerful and brought me to tears. It brings a wooden horse to life and gives a goose on wheels a personality! lets see if Mr Spielberg can do the same with real animals!

  10. “If the Academy feels he succeeded , War Horse could become the first project to win both a Best Play Tony and Best Picture Oscar in the same year of their opening.”

    So when your place in cinematic history is pretty much assured, your goal is to be the answer to yet one more trivia question?

  11. Thinks Spielberg should win. It’s not every director who can get a horse to emote so powerfully for those trailer shots.

  12. Does anybody just set out to make a good movie anymore? It seems it’s all about prizes or money these days.

  13. Pete, I really enjoyed this article but was disappointed that you mentioned John Williams, Rick Carter, Michael Kahn, and Janusz Kaminski by name for their contributions before adding, “and the sound work.” A quick IMDB check would have told you that the sound work in WH is designed by Gary Rydstrom, who has won 7 Academy Awards for sound, four of them working with Spielberg. But that’s okay, because no one gives a crap about sound anyway, right?

    1. One issue here is that Deadline Hollywood Daily is as horrible about understanding how films really get made as the Hollywood Reporter and Variety.

      Filmmaking literacy question: on a micro-budget indie, which people involved actually get paid enough to, for example, keep their cell phone service going?

      Hint: it’s usually not the actors, and definitely not the writers, director or producers. The “producers” are the insane people hemorrhaging money to get the film made so that it can play in two festivals in North Dakota.

      The people who almost always get paid, and paid well, are the sound people, the lighting people, the makeup artists, the editors, and other people in the technical credits. When trade pubs focus almost exclusively on the actors, directors, and producers, they’re overlooking about 75% to 90% of the movie business.

      On the other hand: in real life, the people responsible for the technical credits aren’t necessarily any better about caring about the people who made all the magic happen. If they actually watch a movie just for fun — not because they worked on it, a friend worked on it or they’re studying it so they can suck up to the people who made it — they come away talking about how good or bad the characters were, or the funny lines, or how disappointing the plot twist at the end was. My technical credit-earning spouse has never once come away from a movie saying, “Well, that story was horrible, but those footsteps sounded just gorgeous! Who did those beautiful footsteps?”

  14. A real movie, and I look forward to it.

    Interesting, how the curving sweep of the horses’ head gives a dynamic movie poster. The colors and the processing make it look like those classic, hand painted movie posters, and there’s a kind of subcutane promise in that: no prefab story elements, but epic sweep!

    There are few movies that give you that great epic feel that is so great about American movies.

    That feel that are missing from super hero junk and theme park rides.

  15. If you’re going to slam Spielberg, who hasn’t made a good movie since 2002, you’d better really slam Scorsese, whose last good movie was in 1988.

    1. Wrong. Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) are great movies. Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004) and The Departed (2006) are good movies (not great though).

  16. I worship Spielberg. In an industry flooded with charlatan directors, he’s the real deal. I get chills watching his craft – whether you like them or not, his films are truly by the hand of this director.

  17. I hope that Steven’s campaign is successful. After losing the Best Picture Award when “Saving Private Ryan” should have won hands down to “Sheakespeare in Love”, it’s about the fight to win it on the PR front.

    Really, does anyone really remember Shakespeare in Love??? The true classic stands the test of time. It was Ryan and along side it will be War Horse.

    GO STEVEN!!!

    1. i was dumbstruck when i saw the trailer for ‘war horse.’ a stupider subject for a movie i cannot imagine.

  18. Look at that poster?! Look how pretty war is?! Watch the pretty colors in the trailer… what a nice looking movie. When did Spielberg – and I am usually a big fan – become so offensively tone deaf?! How can WAR HORSE be taken seriously in a post THE HURT LOCKER world?!

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