Not to be outdone by aggressive campaigning from its rivals, Focus Features this week moved boldly ahead with an Oscar campaign plan on two fronts for Friday’s release of Anna Karenina, which had its L.A. premiere last night, and its late-breaking December 28th entry, Promised Land, which is launching its awards bid with some private screenings for some very big heavy hitters.
Regarding the latter film, what do you do when you are the very last major movie of the year? Director Gus Van Sant only delivered the final cut of the film in the past two weeks, and knowing they are under the gun in getting this one seen in time for the earlier Academy voting (now taking place ten days earlier than usual with ballots in the mail December 17 and due back January 3rd), Focus is trying to get the word out within the industry. So before even showing it to most of the press they began an early “influencer” campaign that has featured private screenings and receptions at the plush theatre inside L.A.’s Soho House. Tuesday night Cameron Crowe held one with guests including Meryl Streep, Sam Mendes, Colin Firth, Kate Hudson, Ben Affleck (coming over after getting his GQ man of the year award) and other academy voters who were able to mingle with star and co-writer (with John Krasinski) Matt Damon. Earlier in November Aaron Sorkin hosted a similar screening that drew Demi Moore, Jennifer Aniston and SAG President Ken Howard among others.
Focus chief James Schamus told me last night the early screenings are a necessity in order to build buzz especially since Oscar nomination voting will be nearing its end just as the film debuts and gets most of its newspaper reviews. Many other awards groups such as the Globes, Broadcast Critics and other critics orgs will have already announced their nominations and/or winners well before the film’s opening. In terms of additionally putting an awards spotlight on the film that critics are just starting to see is a Matt Damon tribute at the November 26th Gotham Independent Film Awards in NYC with the entire cast in attendance. LA and NY premieres will be held first week of December in order to be a key part of the conversation. “The reaction so far has been tremendous,” Schamus told me and he was clearly proud enough of the film to move it into awards season despite the tight post-production schedule. Obviously the company will also be blanketing the town with DVD screeners very soon too.
At last weekend’s Deadline Contenders event where Focus debuted the first look at a scene from the film, Van Sant revealed he only came on board 11 months ago when Damon decided he didn’t have time to direct it himself as originally planned and turned to his Good Will Hunting (1997) director to step in. He said Krasinski, who also co-stars, kept writing even as the cameras rolled while Damon mostly stuck to acting. He is first-rate in the lead role of a corporate salesman who comes to a small town to get the economically-challenged citizens to accept an offer for drilling rights to their properties. Also standing out are Frances McDormand as his co-hort and Hal Holbrook, very touching in just a couple of potent scenes. Focus’ desire to get the film out there is not a bad idea considering some of the blowback from corporations already labeling its treatment of fracking (the lingo for the drilling practice) as the stuff of liberal-minded Hollywood. Schamus bristles at that, pointing out that none of these corporate entities have even seen the movie they are trying to attack.
Although there is a strong political edge to the film, at its heart it really recalls a movie like 1983′s delightful Local Hero with Burt Lancaster or especially the prime of Frank Capra whose films often pitted small town values against bigger outside forces. I asked Van Sant about the Capra connection and he seemed to spark to the comparison. “I think the Capra aspect was very strong. He always walked a fine line as well. He was a little bit of a guide as far as the story and the sentimentality in it,” he said adding that finding just the right tone was key to making the movie work as well as it does. Van Sant’s last outing with Damon won 9 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Director and Actor and picked up two Oscars including one for Damon and (and Ben Affleck’s) original screenplay. Focus is obviously hoping lightning strikes twice for this pair.
They are also hoping for the same thing for another director/actor reteaming in Joe Wright and Keira Knightley who previously won lots of Oscar attention for their Focus Features literary adaptations, Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). The pair have been all over town this week doing extensive guild screenings, talk shows and interviews drumming up interest for this unorthodox Karenina which sets the classic Tolstoy novel in a theatre, a move that has won varying reactions from critics but is a visual feast with a sharp script by Oscar and Tony winner Tom Stoppard. Knightley is being tipped for her second Best Actress nomination and likely will get it for taking on the most challenging role of her career, the Russian heroine or anti-heroine depending on how you look at it. She’s been fascinated by the response so far. “It has really been quite fascinating to see how people react to the film and it has really made promoting it such a great experience for me, different from my other films,” she told me at last night’s premiere party at Greystone Manor. Knightley has seen it twice and thinks it works but skipped the movie after walking the red carpet and headed for dinner instead. “I think if I were to see it again I would just start picking my performance apart in bits and pieces so twice is enough.”
With May’s Moonrise Kingdom deep in the awards hunt , their animated ParaNorman and Bill Murray’s unexpected turn as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the December 7th release Hyde Park On Hudson, Focus has its dance card full this Oscar season.