A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

Is Wonder the latest entry into this season’s awards battle?

When Lionsgate moved the film from its original date to mid November some pundits misread that as an indication they were preparing for an Oscar run, but the studio actually just wanted to be in the lucrative holiday period for a family film , especially with kids out of school. Sources at the distributor have consistently maintained that they saw the inspirational and heartwarming film about a fifth grader born with a severe craniofacial disorder as more of a commercial play than one for awards and didn’t take it to any of the usual fall festivals,  and in fact didn’t even participate in Deadline’s The Contenders earlier this month, a sure sign they weren’t chasing Oscar with this one. Plus add the fact that Lionsgate had just come off a grueling awards season with La La Land going all the way to take Best Picture only to have it snatched away moments later due to the now-infamous Academy envelope snafu, and the taste likely wasn’t there to dive right back in especially when there didn’t seem much buzz in the Oscarsphere for a nice little film based on a popular children’s book — but what a difference a weekend makes.

The film, which stars Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay, defied all expectations  overperforming with $27 million in its first three days, gaining an impressive 86% fresh critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and landing a rare A+ Cinemascore  stealing the thunder from what was considered a larger but disappointing opening from the more heavily touted Justice League. It was all instantly reminiscent of what happened when a similarly inspiring and feel good movie called The Blind Side shocked pundits with an equally strong 2009 Thanksgiving holiday period opening against a box office juggernaut (Twilight) , also getting an A+ Cinemascore, and going on to gross over $250 million in the U.S. alone. That film went on to win a Best Actress Oscar for Sandra Bullock and received a Best Picture nomination, something not even dreamed about by Alcon and Warner Bros before its opening. Is history about to repeat itself?

At last Sunday afternoon’s official Academy screening for Oscar voters in the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre at their Beverly Hills headquarters, the tears and cheers were flowing even if the vast theatre wasn’t overly crowded. No less than Oscar winner Eva Marie Saint made a beeline to meet director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks Of Being A Wallflower) and lavish him with praise for a film that clearly moved her. “We should nominate this for Best Picture,”  said another member of the actor’s branch responding strongly to the film’s message of “Choose Kind”  that seems to resonate in the current toxic atmosphere of the world at large. Producers Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman also participated in the post-screening Q&A  and noted their other two films this year, Beauty And The Beast and Stronger ironically also dealt with lead characters triumphing over physical disability and challenges. Lieberman said the producing pair, last nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 2010 for The Fighter, are drawn to disparate stories about overcoming the odds. It didn’t take long for Lionsgate to pounce.  A DVD screener sans the usual slick packaging (no time?) in just a white paper sleeve was special delivered on Wednesday to awards voters with pending ballot deadlines including the Broadcast Film Critics (I am a member) where a note from Lionsgates Awards   accompanying the disc  asked for consideration in 16 categories listed including Best Picture and Best Actor for Tremblay who winningly plays Auggie, the young boy at the center of Wonder.

THE RUSH TO REACH VOTERS   

Focus Features

Even though it is just November the pressure is clearly on to get movies seen in time for groups who vote early.  In fact, the Independent Spirit Awards released their nominations earlier this week, and the National Board of Review announces their winners  Tuesday, followed on its heels by the New York Film Critics. The Screen Actors Guild, despite an awards show that doesn’t happen until January 21st and nominations that aren’t revealed until December 13th,  in fact, has had their voting open for more than a week for the 2200 members of the SAG Nominating Committee even if some films such as The Post, Phantom Thread,  and others are just being rolled out , and another, Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World, is actually still shooting its new scenes with Christopher Plummer replacing Kevin Spacey in a key role for that December 22nd release. You’d think SAG at least could hold back the start of their voting a little longer and still meet their deadlines?  This is why awards campaigners get more gray hairs this time of year. Speaking of The Post and Phantom Thread, both are diving in with immediate Q&As with their casts and heavyweight directors (respectively Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson) accompanying screenings in the next three days. In fact, Phantom Thread is really going all out with a unique strategy of starting out with 14 straight screenings daily between today and Thursday in L.A. that they are calling “sneak previews” at the Fine Arts and Aero theatres, both located on the voter-rich west side of Los Angeles. Santa Monica’s  Aero, which is normally run by American Cinematheque as a revival house, is a personal favorite launch pad for Anderson. He had a stealth unannounced surprise first screening of his 2012 film, The Master there in 70mm following a regular showing that night of The Shining, inviting those lucky attendees to stay for what was, in reality, the World Premiere. It went on to grab three Oscar nominations for its cast.

NETFLIX HOGS ATTENTION FOR OKJA

Kevin Pike

One movie not worried about making deadlines to be screened in time is Warner Bros. Dunkirk from director Christopher Nolan that opened way back in July and had Nolan and cast and some crew hitting a Chateau Marmont reception directly opposite Universal’s art exhibit for Get Out, as well as the Q&A circuit on three successive days last weekend to packed houses of Guild and AMPAS members who were seeing the film the way Nolan wants them to, on a big screen in 70MM. Warner will also be bringing it back to the big screen — the really big screen — in IMAX theatres next Friday as well, the same day as Annapurna tries to reignite their August release , Detroit with a limited new theatrical run. Though screeners are readily available for these films (or will be soon, even in 4K HD versions of Dunkirk for those who have that capability to play it) award strategists want to keep their contenders front of mind among all the newer hopefuls studios are unveiling through the end of the year.

To that end Warner also wants a constant presence in the homes of critics group members and other voters by sending out elaborate coffee table books for their three biggies this year, Wonder Woman,  Dunkirk, and Blade Runner 2049, all with personal notes from their directors.  Netflix did the same book thing for their giant pig movie, Okja along with a huge stuffed toy pig plushie in hopes of keeping it foremost in the hearts of voters who may have forgotten that Cannes competition film is still eligible this year. AMPAS rules prohibit sending any goodies like that, or pigs of any size, to their members, and they also don’t allow screeners to come in anything but the most non-descript and dull packaging. Poor Oscar voters. They are missing out on all the fun.