A new weekly column talking up the season with bits and pieces from the awards circuit.
Spotlight grabbed its own at the Los Angeles premiere of the movie Tuesday night at the DGA. Although to this point Oscar talk has been huge out of the fall festival circuit it played, those audiences were also heavily made up of journalists who are certainly predisposed to love this film which, among other things, is a valentine to the lost art of investigative newspaper reporting.
This compelling drama about the Boston Globe‘s series investigating the molestation scandals surrounding the Catholic Church in the city, played this time to a large group of Academy voters and other invited guests and scored a home run — just as it has everywhere else. Distributor Open Road chief Tom Ortenberg was thrilled with the response when I talked with him at the post-reception; he noted the strong applause and reaction to not only the actors but also the real-life reporters on which the film is based. They were all in attendance too (as they were at last week’s New York and Boston premieres).
Among actors branch Oscar voters to whom I spoke, the performance that really popped for them was Mark Ruffalo, who plays the intensely passionate Mike Rezendes, a key member of the Globe team that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for their efforts. But there was high praise for everyone. That group of journalists worked as a true ensemble, as do each of these actors who also include Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, BrianD’arcy James and John Slattery. That is a key reason Open Road decided, after some discussion, to campaign all of them only in the supporting categories — an unusual move in modern Oscar jockeying where most distribs don’t like to have their actors compete against one another other. It looks very possible that Keaton and Ruffalo could both find themselves going after the same Supporting Oscar, with McAdams a good bet for a Supporting Actress bid. Certainly this entire group has to be a frontrunner for the SAG Outstanding Cast award.
“When I first read the script I thought Mark Ruffalo was really the lead and the others supporting, but after we saw the movie and tested it we decided they were all really supporting each other,” Ortenberg said. “After the sneak in Pasadena we asked the test audience to tell us who they thought was the lead actor, Keaton or Ruffalo. It came back split 12 to 12, so we knew we had made the right decision.”
This film represents the first real Best Picture shot for Open Road, but Ortenberg has been down the Oscar road before at Lionsgate where he pulled off one of the biggest upsets ever with Crash winning Best Picture in 2006. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer were among the very last to leave the DGA party, still on a high from the reaction from the Hollywood crowd. Ruffalo stayed a long time too, soaking up the praise. “When we made the film I wasn’t expecting nearly this kind of reaction,” he told me. “And I was very nervous when we played the Venice Film Festival, not knowing how it would be received there. But when we got that standing ovation I knew we had something.” The reactions at both Telluride and Toronto just confirmed that for the film which opens Friday.
Ortenberg says Open Road is platforming with a handful of theaters, then about 65 the next weekend and several hundred when it goes national over Thanksgiving. All agree it has been a tough time for films targeted at the adult audience but the hope is reviews and word of mouth will drive this one. “I don’t think we can do the kind of numbers Steve Jobs did when Universal platformed it in L.A. and New York. We just don’t have the seats to do that, but we expect we will be playing to capacity,” he said, hoping good business and sterling reviews catapults the film further into a strong position in the Oscar race (it is opening against several other platforming specialty films including Trumbo, Brooklyn and James White.)
Speaking of Steve Jobs, I asked Ortenberg, who released the Ashton Kutcher Jobs biopic in 2013 to much critical derision (unjustified in my opinion, then and now), how he feels now that it looks like the much higher-profile and critically acclaimed Steve Jobs has become a box office disappointment and won’t finish much higher ultimately than his film did. He said he felt Jobs (which he bought out of Sundance that year) and Kutcher’s performance in particular was treated unfairly by some including Apple’s Steve Wozniak. It’s interesting how these things go in the topsy-turvy unpredictable awards season.
SONY CHIEF TALKS ABOUT A HIGH-WIRE RISK
At Sunday’s Hollywood Film Awards I caught up with Sony chief Tom Rothman and asked if he could explain why The Walk, one of his pet projects when he was at Tri Star, did not connect at the box office despite an A- Cinemascore (A+ for under 25) and great reviews (86% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. It is the headscratcher of the year for me because it is such a terrific film, but it will finish at $10 million domestic after losing most of its theaters. Was it the World Trade Center angle, the French accents, the disappointing exclusive Imax runs early on?
“I really don’t know what the answer is,” Rothman candidly told me. “I will tell you that when they write my obituary this film, out of hundreds I have been involved with, will be right at top of those I am most proud of. But you have to take risks in this business. [Robert] Zemeckis did such a great job and he did bring it in for a price, so hopefully international can make it up. I am hoping that maybe we will get some Oscar nominations to help turn it around. It is after all the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences — if ever there was a movie that represented that ideal, it is this one.”
Rothman said his is very happy with the reception to Goosebumps, and of course Hotel Transylvania 2, and he and has the James Bond monster Spectre opening in the U.S. this weekend after breaking records already in the UK. And at the Hollywood Film Awards he was there front and center to support Sony’s Christmas Day release Concussion, for which star Will Smith got a standing ovation as he received his “Hollywood Actor of the Year” honor. It is the kind of strong and powerful drama that plays well with Oscar voters, and Smith could be looking at his third Best Actor nomination after previous tries for Ali and The Pursuit Of Happyness.
And speaking of James Bond, as just about everyone is this week, guess who showed up at USC last Thursday night to see Spectre with about 500 or so students enrolled in Leonard Maltin’s weekly film class? It was none other than former 007 Pierce Brosnan, who snuck in with his family. Brosnan played the British spy four times — the same number as Daniel Craig has now done. Maltin told me he was shocked to see him there in the class that shows new movies every week followed by filmmaker Q&As. I asked if Brosnan liked what he saw, but Maltin said he didn’t have the nerve to ask him. At this class they usually take the students’ drivers licenses at the door so they stay for the whole class and not just the movie. I doubt though that happened to Brosnan.
FOX LOOKING FOR A RECORD OSCAR YEAR?
Also at those Hollywood Film Awards, I ran into Rothman’s old Fox partner Jim Gianopulos, who now of course chairs 20th Century Fox on his own. He was there rooting on producer winner Ridley Scott, whose film The Martian has become a huge hit and sudden major Oscar contender.
Scott, despite directing 2000 Best Picture winner Gladiator, has never won an Oscar and is gaining steam; he’s getting a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame today. (The Martian wasn’t even in Gold Derby’s top 10 Best Picture predictions a month ago and now it is way up , with some predicting it even for the win.)
Gianopulos was also there for Career Achievement winner Robert De Niro, who stars in Fox’s Christmas Day drama Joy with Jennifer Lawrence. Joy director David O. Russell presented to De Niro and showed a clip of the film which Gianopulos says he is almost finished editing. He’s high on it and Fox’s other biggie (with New Regency) The Revenant opening limited the same day (three people I know who have seen that one have been raving).
Joy has been test-screening around town, but it was also the subject of rumors that ran rampant for a while through other studios: I heard from several people involved in rival campaigns a few weeks ago that Joy was going to be pushed out of this year. Perhaps that was wishful thinking on their part as there always is a desire for one less contender, and all three of Russell’s most recent films — The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle) all got Best Picture nominations. An awards blogger for Variety even tweeted out the rumor, further fueling it. Only problem is it was never remotely true.
“That is ridiculous — that was never in our plans,” Gianopulos said, reiterating what another top Fox executive who obviously knows these things told me at the time. The rumor mill takes on a life of its own this time of year. What I have heard first hand about Joy is that Lawrence delivers another winning performance that could again put her front and center at the Oscars after a Best Actress triumph just three years ago for Silver Linings Playbook and being nominated two years ago for his American Hustle. And she’s only 25!
Fox — with Revenant, Joy and The Martian as potential Best Picture candidates along with Searchlight’s acclaimed pair Youth and Brooklyn — could have an incredible run at the Oscars if everything were to fall its way. When was the last time one studio was responsible for five Best Picture nominees? (MGM, at their height, had five including Best Picture winner The Great Ziegfeld in 1936, and UA was connected to five in 1940 including winner Rebecca). Anything is possible.
WOMAN IN GOLD GOES FOR THE GOLD
While others were probably getting ready for their big Halloween night on the town last Saturday, I had the treat of interviewing Helen Mirren in front of a packed group of SAG voters after an awards screening of her April release Woman In Gold at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theatre in Hollywood. The Weinstein Company film remains the top-grossing independent release to date for 2015 having made over $30 million domestically. Seeing all the carnage going on among adult-oriented films this fall at the box office, the strategy of releasing the Simon Curtis-directed film at the beginning of April — just a month after the last Oscars — was no April Fools joke. It really paid off especially after some mean critics wrote unkind things when it first debuted in unfinished form at the Berlin Film Festival.
I wish distributors would stop cannibalizing adult Oscar-friendly movies by releasing them all in a tight fall corridor. Last year, The Grand Budapest Hotel proved you could open an Academy appeal movie in March and still win lots of Oscars. Mirren told me when she first heard they planned to release her film in the spring and not hold it for the usual fall Oscar slot even she was a bit disappointed, but not now. Looks like Dame Helen is having the last laugh as she got a roaring standing ovation from the SAG crowd and is getting a Best Actress campaign from TWC for the true story of Austrian native Maria Altmann, a woman who fought for the return of a valuable painting stolen from her family during WWII by the Nazis. In fact, TWC was the first to take ads touting her Oscar chances this season and has already sent the screener to voters.
When she arrived at the theater, Mirren, also a contender this year for her vivid supporting role as Hedda Hopper in Trumbo, asked me if there was actually anyone in the audience. I told her it was full and she looked shocked. “I was sure there would be only 10 people — it’s Halloween!” she said.
Finally, talking about “contenders,” Deadline will have plenty of them this weekend as our fifth annual The Contenders Presented By Deadline takes place all day Saturday at the DGA. It’s the place to be as the season really kicks into gear.