With fact-based contenders like Selma, The Imitation Game, American Sniper, Unbroken, Big Eyes and Foxcatcher all under varying degrees of controversy over their credibility, and with no one movie standing out from the field and currently running away with it all, could this be the year Academy voters dig deep in their memories all the way back to, uh, say, March to come up with a movie they can all agree on? In the modern era of Oscar campaigning pulling a contender from that early in the year is an increasingly rare occurrence but it is one I think all signs are pointing to happening with Wes Anderson’s lilting and masterful The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The facts speak for themselves: no film released before May has even been nominated, much less won Best Picture since the turn of this century. The last film released as early as March (or even April for that matter) that went on to a Best Picture nomination was Erin Brockovich in 2000. And the last to actually pull off a win was 1991’s The Silence Of The Lambs, which rallied all the way from a February 14 opening to take the Best Picture crown from late-in-the-season entries including Bugsy and The Prince Of Tides. It wasn’t always that way, especially in the heyday of so-called roadshow releases that early year movies like The Sound Of Music, Patton, and The Godfather — movies that played virtually all year long — could prevail even with a February or March opening, but not any longer. It seems strange that early releases can’t even the playing field in light of the advent of DVD screeners being so available, but in general the industry has determined the best time to open an “Oscar movie” is in the fall. Occasionally a Crash (May 2005) or a Hurt Locker (June 2009) have succeeded in taking Best Pic despite a first-half opening, but the basic rule of thumb says no, especially to openings as early as the March 7 release of Budapest. But this film is looking like it could be an exception — and perhaps the flag carrier for a future that sees Oscar quality films released more regularly in earlier months of the year? Anderson was previously Oscar nominated for his Screenplays of Moonrise Kingdom in 2012 and The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001 as well as for his animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009. Budapest, which also counts Scott Rudin among its producers, represents his best chance yet.
The film, centered on the adventures of a famous concierge at a luxury hotel in the fictional republic of Zubrowka between World Wars I and II, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February and won the Silver Bear. It is now also winning lots of mentions in year-end critics awards, though not on the level of 2014 critical darlings Boyhood and Birdman. But it has really started to score in the contests that generally serve as harbingers of bigger things to come at the Oscars. It made the AFI Top Films of the Year list. It landed four Golden Globe noms including Best Picture Comedy/Musical as well as Director and Screenplay noms for Anderson, who also got those mentions among the very impressive 11 nominations (including Best Picture) it received from the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, second only to Birdman’s 13 noms there. It scored a key SAG nomination for Best Ensemble Cast (that guild’s version of Best Picture), which includes Ralph Fiennes (also Globe-nominated), Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody and others. Today it received an ACE Eddie nom for its Editing (in the comedy or musical category) and already has made the shortlist of seven for the Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar.
I have no doubt this comedy with its first-rate production values will score across the board when Oscar nominations are announced on January 15 since much of its strength lies in its stunning Production and Costume Design, Cinematography, Editing, Makeup, and Music Score. Having the crafts branches on board is important for your Best Picture chances since they collectively represent a large voting block of the Academy. And speaking of the Music Score it was composed by six-time Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat, who is competing against himself this year with scores for The Imitation Game, Unbroken and Godzilla, but I know his Budapest music holds a special place in his heart. In fact he told me several months ago he was so frustrated because the film was coming out so early in the year that the music was likely to have an uphill climb by the time the Academy Awards rolled around again. Could be, but maybe not, as this movie’s profile continues to accelerate just as voting is now taking place.
Fox Searchlight Co-President Nancy Utley tells me the studio always had a plan to bring the film back during awards season and was hopeful that it could make an impact against all the newer movies being released. “We got ecstatic when it started to click in and people were really remembering it. But for me it was always one of those movies where people stop you and want to talk about it, and want to tell you their favorite parts. I think it’s a movie that makes you feel really happy too, happy and sad at the same time. It’s delightful in sort of its exhuberance and it’s got the melancholy of a world gone by,” she says, adding that the craft of the film is done at such a high level of excellence, and points to Anderson, never nominated for an Oscar for Best Director, as a big reason.
“I think in Wes you are seeing an artist who has always been respected, always done brilliant work but he is becoming in a way more accessible and more appealing to a wider audience. You certainly saw that in Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox, and now you see the worldwide gross, which is $172 million. I don’t know what his next highest one was, but it was nowhere near this level. It’s a movie also with a global appeal. You would expect this picture to work in Eastern Europe or Germany, where it’s more familiar there, but it also worked beautifully even in places like South Korea, where people just found something universal to respond to. And it is truly a movie that holds up to repeat viewing and becomes richer because there’s more to discover,” she said and thinks that when Academy members got their screeners they were likely more inclined to pop it in and re-watch it over other films where they may have felt they got it all the first time.
Utley also is looking at this movie to really make an impact in release schedules. “We had hoped it would be kind of a game changer if it worked in terms of awards because then people might feel more open in terms of awards strategies. I think when we went to Berlin as our launch, that was not a normal thing for an awards movie. You would think of Cannes or think of Venice, but I think it’s great to try and reinvent things a bit, and if we can, the launch for awards movies beyond the Telluride to awards corridor, and use more of the year, I think that serves moviegoers and all of us a lot better,” she said. To that end they re-opened the film in a theater in New York and Los Angeles in addition to blanketing the town with screeners.
As an Oscar voter herself, Utley is especially happy this year is as wide open as it appears to be, and thinks it has been a great year for movies. She says she thinks it makes the race more exciting than if you have predetermined winners. Of course Searchlight has the reigning Best Picture champ in 12 Years A Slave, and in addition to The Grand Budapest Hotel , they are also having a very good season with Birdman and Wild also in the Oscar conversation.
But there’s no doubt Searchlight thinks it would be just grand if their little Budapest contender breaks the conventional rules and makes it into the Best Picture race against all odds.
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