Academy members will get the chance this weekend to see Noah and The Grand Budapest Hotel when their official Academy screening program finally resumes after a break for Oscar. But while the Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters is undergoing major renovations, the screenings have moved to Hollywood at the Acad’s much smaller Linwood Dunn Theater at its Pickford Center For Motion Picture Study on Vine Street. That’s a loss of about 700 seats, so it could get dicey, especially since no extra screenings are added and RSVPs aren’t taken. For a lot of films the Academy screens, 300 seats is just fine, but these fall squarely in the hotter want-to-see category, and it’s still first-come-first-served, just as it is at the Wilshire Boulevard location. Could get nasty for members wanting a free screening. Better get there early, folks.
Of course this is not exactly crunch time for serious 2014 Oscar contenders, so distributors need not worry too much about disgruntled voters getting turned away from their hot-button potential nominees. But recently I got an email from a veteran Oscar campaign consultant who asked the simple question, “Is NOAH a contender?” And it got me wondering if not only director Darren Aronofsky’s towering epic, which screens Sunday at 3 PM, but also Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, which runs Saturday at 7:30 PM both might actually have a decent shot at racking up numerous nominations, including Best Picture, despite their first quarter release dates (Noah opened March 28 and Budapest has been playing since March 7th). Both are doing extremely well at the box office and riding high with critics too (Noah is 77% fresh and Budapest is 91% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes) and have the kind of first-rate production values to which Oscar voters usually pay serious attention. In fact, it is hard to imagine that either could possibly be denied a Production Design nod, for example, no matter what comes along in the rest of the year. Both have potential way beyond that, at least on paper, as both also come from very critic and Academy-friendly directors. But the odds are already really stacked against these two if their respective studios have Best Picture ambitions brewing based on strong early response to the films. “My next movie is coming out in March. I guess that means I don’t have a chance to win an Oscar for it,” Alexandre Desplat , composer of Grand Budapest Hotel’s critically acclaimed score told me in February when I mentioned I had already heard early buzz for it. It’s probably far more likely he’ll have a better shot for Unbroken simply because it gets released on December 25th.
The fact is the Oscar voters just don’t seem to have long memories anymore (no age jokes, please). The last film released before May to get a Best Picture nomination was Erin Brockovich, a March release in 2000. Before that, Fargo, a 1996 March release also managed a Best Pic nod. The last film to win Best Picture with a first quarter release was 1991’s Valentine’s Day opener, Silence Of The Lambs. Things are a little better for releases in the first half of the year if you come out in May or June. May releases Braveheart (1995), Gladiator (2000) and Crash (2005) all managed to win Best Picture Oscars in the last quarter century, and most recently The Hurt Locker (2009) turned that trick despite a late June opening. In the case of the latter two movies, lots of screeners helped enormously in leveling the playing field against stiff December competition. But the odds, at least based on more recent Oscar voting patterns, are clearly daunting for the Aronofsky and Anderson pictures. It’s true that in 2011, Midnight In Paris and The Tree Of Life, both May releases, landed Best Picture nominations but the norm is more like 2013 when the earliest contender, Gravity didn’t come out until October. It’s not called “awards season” for nothing.
In the case of Noah, the Academy also doesn’t have a sterling track record honoring films in the Biblical genre. Sure, Ben-Hur won in 1959 and with 11 Oscars is tied with Titanic and Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King as the all- time Oscar winner. And Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments was a 1956 Best Picture nominee. There have been scattered technical nominations (but no wins) since for the likes of The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964), The Bible (1966), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) , The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988) and Mel Gibson’s box office juggernaut The Passion Of The Christ in 2004. The most significant recognition among those films was a Best Director nomination for Martin Scorsese for Last Temptation. Of course Noah also has Russell Crowe in another epic kind of role like his Oscar-winning turn in 2000’s Best Picture sword and sandal epic Gladiator, so the biblical label may not hurt its chances as much as its release date will.
Of course all of of this is just early spitballing because pundits like me like to put it out there. Their eventual fates with the Academy will probably depend largely on just how big a campaign is waged on their behalf in order to remind those memory-challenged Oscar voters how much they liked them way, way back at the beginning of 2014.