With its one-two punch now of Best Film and Best Director wins from the first two voting bodies on the so-called critics awards circuit — the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review — Sony‘s Zero Dark Thirty directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal is establishing itself as a powerful and promising early force in the race and only stands to add to the total as a tsunami of critics awards are unleashed over the next couple of weeks (including LA, Boston, etc, later this week). In many recent years critics groups have tended to follow each other like lemmings, and sometimes — especially if it is a nearly unanimous choice like Bigelow and Boal’s The Hurt Locker in 2009 (although NBR virtually ignored that one) — it can definitely have an impact on Oscar voters. Academy voters at the very least will be rushing this year to see everything they think they should see in time for the earlier voting period starting December 17 through the holidays to January 3rd. Big early wins like this won’t go unnoticed.
Of course there can also be a great divide as we saw in 2010, when critics groups (including NYFCC and NBR) almost in lockstep chose Sony’s The Social Network right through to its victory at the Golden Globes (the HFPA often likes to go with a perceived winner). That film was then completely upended at the Producers Guild and subsequent industry awards by upstart The King’s Speech, which of course went on to win four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director for Tom Hooper.
Although Sony should be feeling very good about the way things are going right now, this studio which had high hopes based on that torrent of critics awards for Social Network was obviously none too happy as that season played out the way it did — especially since it looked so good in December and most of January. My guess is with that in mind they are going to grab this early momentum for Zero Dark Thirty and run with it. It recently hired Michael Kupferberg of Strategy PR as a consultant. Isn’t it ironic that again one of their major competitors is a Hooper film, Universal’s Les Miserables. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate Sony bummer if he were able to come along and again rain on the studio’s parade when the guild shows roll around?
Of course it is still very early in this phase of the game but Sony, like Universal, seems to be playing it very smartly so far. Like Les Mis they used the Thanksgiving break to debut the film to guild and Academy voters in a blitz of screenings generating lots of good word-of-mouth. And in a very shrewd move they recently changed their release plans for Zero, switching from a wide to limited December 19th release and going wide January 11th — one day after Oscar nominations are announced and just as the Critics Choice Movie Awards and Golden Globes will be front of mind that weekend. With a much longer period this year (six weeks instead of four) between Oscar noms and the ceremony, a movie like Zero is perfectly positioned to exploit nominations at the box office and with voters, so this awards heat combined with their launch plan is creating a perfect storm for Sony.
Sony also will be throwing their official world premiere of the film Monday night, a week before Oscar ballots are sent, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood — the site of the Academy Awards — with a big reception to follow at the Ray Dolby Ballroom — the site of the Governors Ball. Hmmmm. Could that be a subtle suggestion that this movie may also be making a return visit to the Dolby venues on, oh say, February 24th?
In addition to the NYFCC and NBR awards the film received for Film and Director this week, the NBR gave a nice boost to Jessica Chastain’s visibility as a strong Best Actress contender. But this remains one of the most wide-open Oscar races I can remember with an extremely tight contest so far between frontrunners Lincoln, Argo, Les Miserables, Life Of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook and now Zero Dark Thirty. Academy voters I speak with seem to be all over the map in terms of favorites. I get no consensus — yet. And again it’s important to remember it’s early, even with the shortened pre-nom season. And though the NYFCC has some legitimacy, the National Board of Review is a film society, not a critical body; its membership and voting methods are dubious. They basically received attention because they were first. Now they are second. As one consultant told me earlier this morning before their announcement, “nobody takes the National Board of Review very seriously”. That is, unless you win.