EXCLUSIVE: Cross another would-be awards contender out of the running. Sony Pictures Classics has seen the light of fierce Oscar competition jockeying and moved their Hank Williams biopic, I Saw The Light from its scheduled prime Oscar slot of November 28, to March 25, 2016. Originally SPC had hoped to gain Golden Globe and Oscar traction for stars Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen, who both won sterling personal reviews when the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, even if the movie itself drew a share of middling to lukewarm response from some critics. SPC Co-President Tom Bernard said they were happy with the reception the film received at its World Premiere at TIFF and that it wasn’t a factor at all. It was, he said, the craziness of releasing a picture during this hotly competitive Oscar season that really got the company to reassess its plans. It also involved Hiddleston’s (who plays Williams in the film and even does his own singing) availability to promote the movie since he is tied up for the next few months shooting Kong: Skull Island, even while promoting today’s wide release of Crimson Peak. Moreover, the film, which was rushed to premiere at TIFF, has a marketing plan that simply couldn’t be realized in the year-end cluster of films.
“We looked at the landscape and are making a decision that I think is a good one for the film, ” Bernard told me this morning. “Tom Hiddleston’s got three movies out potentially so the press is consuming him. I am watching him here in New York everywhere. And he’s going back down the river to catch the monkey. What we saw was I Saw The Light up against the wall in this tight race of people throwing their Oscar movies out, and it’s almost all or nothing. We thought this was a movie we could do a lot for leading up to its release that I think will put it in a much better place, and we’ll be able to go for it (Oscars) next year with him and re-open it at Christmas.” Bernard said the realities of releasing in the midst of awards season just didn’t add up for this film. “Look at the casualities. There are movies we have passed on because they want an Oscar campaign. There are just not enough screens, not to mention the elephant in the room that no one is even talking about and that’s how many screens are going to be available when Star Wars comes out (on Dec 18). I believe they may have every screen in the complex except one,” he laughed while pointing out I Saw The Light was scheduled to go wide on December 4 and likely would be off in many locales, including the South, when Star Wars hits. “A lot bigger movies than this are going to be off too.”
Bernard pointed to a number of initiatives for the film that SPC is able to do for a March opening that they can’t do now. They will now open against My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Batman Vs. Superman and Keeping Up With The Joneses “as opposed to every Oscar movie in the world” Bernard joked. It will open in LA, NY and Nashville and go wide the following week on 1,000 to 1,500 screens. He says they will get to now premiere their trailer in November and it will play with all the major Christmas releases giving it much wider exposure than it would have received with the original plan. SPC has a huge contest with Cinemark which has a big presence in the South, a region very important for this country music-themed film, plus radio promotions with the top 50 country stations, as well as screening for the top DJs. SPC will be able to have its standees out for a couple of months and a big billboard campaign in the major country markets. They will release a new still online every two weeks starting in January, as well as behind the scenes footage of Hiddleston developing the role which they will turn into several two minute interstitials to roll out online at the same time up to release date.
Bernard says the stars, notably Hiddleston, will now be available to do the proper promotion and the media will have room for him. “He’s doing Colbert tonight for Crimson. I won’t be able to get him on there again in two weeks,” Bernard said. “We almost have to give him a breather to get him back on all these shows. All of this stuff we couldn’t do in an Oscar environment. The Oscar environment is a different type of release, like the Whiplash scenario. It’s not what is best for this film and the things we can do.”
SPC will now have two biopics of music legends out at about the same time as their Miles Davis film, Miles Ahead (which premiered last week at the closing night of the New York Film Festival) debuts in the middle of April, according to Bernard who says the audience for jazz and country movies are very different. Director and veteran producer Marc Abraham is very much behind the new plan too. “He’s the one who pushed it,” Bernard says. “Don’t forget we have a second-time director who is a thousand-time producer. He’s been a real asset because he brought it up and said ‘you guys might want to reconsider this because you are putting it all down on 21’.” The extra time might also give Abraham more ability to tweak the film should he choose to do that before release.
Bernard points out doing what is right for the movie, rather than chasing Oscars is the best scenario. It’s not the first time. He reminds they did the same thing when they pulled Foxcatcher out of its planned Fall 2013 Oscar run and AFI Fest slot because director Bennett Miller wanted more time It then premiered at Cannes the next year where Miller won Best Director, and went on to earn five Oscar nominations. “You see a better door, a better opportunity in the business then you change it to make the better opportunity. I definitely see an advantage being able to do all of this and take it out of the scrutiny of the Oscar race where they (critics and pundits) don’t evaluate the movie a lot of the time on its own merit, but rather how it fits into the race,” he says. “The movie doesn’t get to stand on its own, it stands in a pack. We want to introduce Hank Williams to people who don’t know Hank Williams. It gives us the time to do that. We decided to make a smart move and step back.”
The company still has plenty of horses in the Oscar race, with Truth opening today and gaining controversy as CBS is refusing ads for the film focusing on a 60 Minutes controversy, followed by The Lady In The Van starring Maggie Smith, and Hungarian Foreign Language entry Son Of Saul in December.