The one thing that really matters in a successful Oscar run is momentum: Who has it and who lost it. It’s a tricky maneuver for movies to grab it, and more importantly, keep it going in a very long season that can start as early as May at the Cannes Film Festival. One studio head cornered me at a recent event and said, “Anyone who thinks they can go to Cannes and keep their film on ice for four months is kidding themselves.” This executive has turned down opportunities to take a major film to Cannes for that very reason. It is simply too hard to maintain the forward movement that long, he explained. In the case of movies that play the world’s most famous film festival in May but hold back their release until fall, it’s challenging to recapture the magic.
Two recent examples are Paramount’s Nebraska, which played Cannes but didn’t open domestically until November 15, six months after its initial reviews came out; and the Coen brothers’ Cannes Grand Prize winner Inside Llewyn Davis, which doesn’t open in the U.S. until December 6. This same executive, who works for a rival studio, didn’t think either film could possibly keep the buzz on their side that long after Cannes.
There is a point to that. The media gets bored quickly and likes to move on to the next thing, so keeping their interest in a movie they might have reviewed in May is difficult, especially when that movie keeps turning up at festival after festival.
So what does a long-distance runner of a film do to keep itself fresh in the minds of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters? CBS Films is renewing the heat on Llewyn Davis not just by showing the film at fall fests such as New York or AFI, but also by staging musical events, both public and industry, adjacent to them. It’s a way of setting the film apart and getting media to notice. At Deadline’s November 2 Contenders event, star Oscar Isaac and T Bone Burnett didn’t just sit and talk about the movie, they performed music from it in front of an audience heavy with Oscar and guild voters. Nebraska, on the other hand, has adopted an almost stealth-like strategy of keeping the film alive since early summer by throwing small screenings and dinners followed by cast and filmmaker Q&As. Using an intimate venue and inviting Academy voters—who are perhaps impressed to see a film so many months before release—can be enormously effective. Nebraska has been on the local circuit longer than any other contender this season, and it could just pay off. “I don’t know any trick to it. We are just trying to be slow and steady, just keep it going,” Nebraska producer Rox Yerxa says.
Sony Pictures Classics copresident Michael Barker says there is a definite strategy to fanning the flames of his company’s acclaimed May release Before Midnight and Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, which hit theaters in July. “Each picture is very different,” Barker explains. “The way to keep Before Midnight alive is that it came out on home entertainment a week ago. It’s like a whole new lease on life with the home entertainment and video-on-demand. Also, the director and two lead actors (and cowriters) are doing so much press for the film it just helps to keep it breathing,” he says.
SPC is trying a novel advertising strategy, too, recently gaining attention by buying several ad pages in the Los Angeles Times to highlight a host of rave reviews for a movie that’s been out of theaters for a while. In making the ad spend, SPC also is making a statement to voters.
In the case of Jasmine, Barker says the film is still playing in hundreds of theaters because it had great word of mouth. “It’s still very much alive in that way,” he says. “It’s not an accident that movies like (last year’s documentary Oscar winner) Searching For Sugar Man and Midnight In Paris played for 10 months. I feel very good about Before Midnight and Blue Jasmine in that we didn’t open them at the time of year people would expect movies like that to open. The fact that we opened them early made them a breath of fresh air—people remember that. A lot of it has to do with the quality of the films, where we feel confident the word of mouth is almost exponential in support of the film. If you have a film where you think you aren’t going to get that, it’s more difficult to maintain momentum,” he says.
On the other side of the forward-motion equation, Barker points to his December 25 release, The Invisible Woman, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes, with Felicity Jones in the lead role. He says the film’s massive publicity push, along with the support of its stars, makes voters aware of a movie that is trying to build an awards profile at the end of a busy season. “There’s room for all of it,” Barker says. “There’s room for the film that opens early that you can keep alive. There’s room for getting a lot of word of mouth before a picture opens. None of it’s easy, though.”
Several other higher-profile December releases are doing a bit of buzz building of their own. American Hustle won’t debut until December 13, but has been out in force. Distributor Sony Pictures arranged early honors for some of the film’s team, pushing them at the Hollywood Film Festival, Behind the Camera Awards and even arranging a tribute for director David O. Russell at the AFI Fest, where the opening of the film was teased. Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks staged a Mary Poppins sing-along in early November for voters more than a month before the film opens. 12 Years A Slave has been on the Q&A circuit since September, led by director Steve McQueen and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. And the Weinstein Co. recently sent Globes and Critics Choice Awards voters a set of coffee-table books for their films and is creating back-breaking publicity schedules for stars and filmmakers just to make sure they’re seen. Focus Features is trying to freshen voters memories of their March release The Place Beyond The Pines with special screenings and events such as a day-after-Thanksgiving lunch attended by star Bradley Cooper and writer/director Derek Cianfrance at the Soho House. It was bracketed by screenings of the film in the hope that voters will not hold its early 2013 release against it. Cooper told me, “I think it’s one of the year’s ten best but you never know how these things will go”.
The Academy’s November Governors Awards has become a focal point for campaigns. Studios fly in their stars and filmmakers and set up Q&As, brunches and parties around the weekend before voting starts for critics groups and Globes voters.
Of course, the greatest power any film can possibly get is from actually winning an award—such as the Cannes Palme d’Or or a Golden Globe—and capitalizing on the trophy-in-hand photo op afterward. Courting the groups who hand out early prizes, which many prognosticators see as indications for potential Oscar nominations, can result in the best momentum of all.