It’s getting down to the wire.
Academy online voting officially started Friday, though members who requested paper ballots have had them for a week now. Whichever way you are voting, they are due in by 5 PM Pacific on Tuesday, February 17, but snail mailers should make sure ballots are posted by Saturday at the latest since Monday the 16th is Presidents Day, a postal holiday. Advertising for the big contenders still seems pretty fierce as now with BAFTA and all the major guilds having weighed in — with the exception of WGA, holding off until Valentine’s Day — the race for Best Picture appears as wide open as it has been all season. With Birdman taking key honors at SAG, DGA and PGA (it is ineligible at WGA) vs Boyhood’s critical love and wins at the Golden Globes and especially yesterday at BAFTA, these two could fight it out to a photo finish, with neither getting enough votes on the first round of counting the Academy’s preferential ballot. The reliable precursors definitely have offered up a split decision. That could leave an opening for another film (are you listening, American Sniper?), which is why there is considerably more tension in the air this year, even more than usual, as it is clear we will be walking into the Dolby Theatre in a couple of weeks without really knowing what name could be pulled out of that Best Picture envelope. And even though Alejandro G. Inarritu took the all-important and Oscar-predictive DGA prize Saturday, an argument for Boyhood’s BAFTA directorial winner Richard Linklater is entirely plausible. The races for Best Actor, Original and Adapted Screenplay and several below-the-line categories also are up for grabs. These all could be decided by a relatively few number of votes. so the messaging, final Q&As, TV appearances and ad blitz is all-important as I am detecting a large number of voters might be waiting right up until the last minute. There is still a lot to see, and the Academy only just a week ago mailed their nicely designed package featuring DVDs of all the nominees for Documentary Feature, Foreign Language Film, Live Action, Docu and Animated shorts.
For what it’s worth, I just got off the phone with one longtime Academy voter who said he caught up with the last two Picture nominees over the weekend, and that included Boyhood, which has been in theaters since July. Although he said he wondered what it would be like without the gimmick of using the same actors over the course of a 12-year shoot, he is inclined to vote for Linklater for Best Direction but conceivably could split and turn to American Sniper for Picture (“So powerful — the audience just sat there afterwards”, he said). Eddie Redmayne is his choice for Actor (“He had to do most of it without dialogue. That’s so remarkable”, he said). On the other hand, he had definite negative opinions on a couple of other Best Picture candidates. This kind of conversation is going on everywhere now, which is why the studios and distributors are not giving up until they have to call it quits.
Although it hasn’t won much yet, The Weinstein Company is still strongly hoping the guilds, BAFTA and critics groups are wrong on The Imitation Game. TWC will be doing another big last-minute Q&A on Thursday at the DGA’s smaller screen No. 2 with seven key participants including co-star Keira Knightley. Last night I moderated a packed Academy-type screening in the same theater for American Sniper with Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper and the film’s other producers. Many of them will be back tonight for another round (Cooper is headed back to NY for his The Elephant Man performances but will be participating in another East Coast Q&A). Also tonight, American Cinematheque is doing a screening of The Grand Budapest Hotel with a Wes Anderson Q&A at the Egyptian just before screening a second feature, 1942’s To Be Or Not To Be, one of the classic kinds of Ernst Lubitsch movies that inspired it. Academy rules say each studio and nominee can get up to four Q&As post-nominations, and many are maxing it out. The Cinematheque tributes can be another avenue. American Cinematheque at the Aero in Santa Monica will be hosting a “Last and First” tribute to Best Supporting Actor nominee Robert Duvall on Thursday with a double bill of his most recent film, The Judge, followed by his very first screen appearance as Boo Radley in 1962’s To Kill A Mockingbird and a Q&A in-between.
During the past few days, more than 30 Oscar nominees have hit the voter-rich Santa Barbara International Film Festival, including a sold-out Steve Carell tribute I hosted over the weekend. Even Oprah Winfrey, a nominee as a producer of Selma, has been on the trail, appearing at a packed Landmark Q&A with director Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo last week that was supposed to be followed by another at the massive Cinerama Dome last Thursday. But after selling it out (and inviting Academy members), Paramount was informed by the theater late that afternoon they had to cancel due to “technical problems”. But don’t cry for Selma. Any awards consultant would kill for the spot 60 Minutes handed DuVernay on Sunday night, just before the Grammys. She even got asked about her so-called Oscar snub as director, which might build up even more sympathy for the film’s Best Picture chances.
And speaking of Selma, it is just one of many contenders that has subtly — or not so subtly — been changing their messaging to voters in the final days of the campaign. A double-truck newspaper ad with quotes from the likes of Gay Talese, President George H.W. Bush, Rep. John Lewis and others features the ad line “Together We Can Make History.” Could that be referring to the fact that should Selma win, it would be the first Best Picture winner to do it without a directing, writing and acting nomination since Grand Hotel in 1930? Or perhaps it means something else. I remember last year the most effective — and talked about — messaging moment came with Fox Searchlight’s second-phase slogan for 12 Years A Slave. The new ads simply said, “It’s Time.” That’s a phrase, as I pointed out at the time, that could have multiple interpretations. But no matter. Apparently Oscar voters agreed it was “time”: The film won Best Picture.
This year Searchlight has chosen a new slogan for its contender Birdman. Trying to subtly remind voters of the high-wire act that film really was (it was famously shot in 29 days and made to appear it was one long take), the new slogan just says, “Risk. Above All.” Is it saying above all other nominees? Because that same slogan easily could apply to IFC’s Boyhood, but for its new pitch to voters, Boyhood has chosen a phrase to emphasize the universality of the film: “One Family’s Life. Everyone’s Story.” And in the ads the company has brought back the pitch from phase one, “Cinematic History 12 Years In The Making”. During the SAG Awards Warner Bros. bought several spots for new ads to emphasize the emotional aspects of its war drama phenomenon, American Sniper. Since the film wasn’t nominated there (SAG’s deadline was so early many voters hadn’t seen the late-December release), it was a very effective way to steal the conversation from its competitors. And probably sensing Still Alice’s Julianne Moore is a lock for Lead Actress, Focus Features has heavily shifted its The Theory Of Everything campaign to seemingly be about everything Redmayne, the front-running Best Actor contender.
Hitting emotional chords is the way to get to many Oscar voters. That hasn’t been lost on movies outside of Best Picture. For instance, in the hotly contested Best Animated Feature race, Disney’s Big Hero 6 campaign is going for it with a large photo showing its two main characters hugging, accompanied by the line: “Big Hero. Bigger Heart.” This is to counteract the DreamWorks Animation blitz for How To Train Your Dragon 2, which has gone so far as to drop DVD copies of the film itself in several trade publications and send boxes of cupcakes to influencers. It’s an Academy no-no to directly bash your competition, but, without pointing to the fact that Dragon is a sequel, Disney subtly is trying to remind voters that Big Hero 6 is “the most entertaining original movie of the year.” Of course, it is ironic that the original Dragon film in 2010 was beaten at the Oscars by Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story 3, a second sequel. And not to be left out, Focus and Laika are trying to draw attention away from their competitors by selling off The Boxtrolls to the highest bidder. Well, sort of. They have partnered with Heritage Auction house for a Thursday sale of “The Art of Laika,” which also includes items from Coraline and ParaNorman, the company’s two previous animated films. It’s all on display Tuesday at Heritage’s Beverly Hills headquarters. And if a stray Academy member wants to come by, who will stop them?
And usually the Documentary Feature race isn’t where the big bucks are spent, but don’t tell that to Netflix, which has its second consecutive nomination in the category (after last year’s The Square) with Virunga. The streaming service is sparing no expense on billboards, trade and newspaper advertising, Q&As — you name it. It’s a way to try to overcome the perceived front-runner in the race, Citizenfour, which won the BAFTA and DGA prizes over the weekend. But even that movie, distributed by the Weinstein Company’s Radius Films, is not taking anything for granted. They have managed to get Edward Snowden himself to jump on the Oscar campaign circuit Thursday, when he will participate in a satellited Q&A with director Laura Poitras.
It never ends. But it finally will when balloting closes on the 17th. Don’t forget to vote. As if these campaigners will let you!