Can Star Wars: The Force Awakens also have the force to upend the Oscar race?
After last night’s unprecedented and humongous premiere the question is certainly being asked. One rival film’s Academy consultant emailed me before the clock struck midnight: “Is Star Wars a Best Picture contender?” Well, with 2015’s most awaited — and secretive — movie being unveiled simultaneously in Hollywood’s three biggest venues (Dolby, Chinese, El Capitan) followed by the biggest post-premiere party I have ever seen (kudos to Disney event producer Lylle Breier for pulling off what has to be a logistical nightmare with style and ease), there were plenty of Academy members, rival studio heads and major industry movers and shakers seeing the very first screening of the movie. The reaction was rapturous (from most), as least as far as I could tell from my seat in the center section of the Dolby Mezzanine (where we usually sit for the Oscars themselves).
This was not the kind of public screening where that kind of vocal reaction would be the norm. This could be a tough crowd, but it looked to me like they all melted into fanboys. This, by the way, was genuinely a world premiere. Even key people in the studio hadn’t seen it, highly unusual in a day and age when premieres are routinely just red carpet interview opportunities to grab lots of free publicity but not actually the first screening of a movie.
Reviews are embargoed until 12:01 AM Wednesday, so I have to keep this a little more objective until then when I will review it. But with this movie, the final one of 2015 that no one outside of Disney’s and the film’s inner circle had seen until last night, it would be unwise not to count it at least in the running at this point. Certainly a Star Wars nomination might be something the Academy itself would be praying for: It is a fact that when gigantic crowd-pleasers like Titanic and Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King win big, the ratings soar. Among those spotted in the crowd was Academy CEO Dawn Hudson and former Academy president Sid Ganis who instituted the move to 10 potential Best Picture nominees in order to encourage the inclusion of more blockbuster-type pictures like this one in addition to the smaller independents that had been, and continue to be, the dominating force in the Best Picture race.
In what may not be an unprecedented move (but probably is), the Academy is doing a very rare thing this weekend as Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens, scheduling its official Academy screening twice at their Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills. It will screen for members Saturday afternoon (followed by a Q&A with director J.J. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy) and then again Sunday morning for members and their families. Usually, in a bend-over-backward attempt to be transparent in fairness to everyone, movies get only one official screening at the Goldwyn which is certainly the case for the weekend’s other official Academy screenings including The Revenant and Anomalisa. Star Wars also will have official Academy screenings in New York and London on Friday (with the latter already informing members it is over capacity). San Francisco members (home of Lucasfilm) will see it Thursday.
Without tipping my hand on my review, let’s just say Abrams has been enormously faithful to the heart, soul and substance of why the original Star Wars in 1977 was such a seminal classic. No science fiction film has ever won the Best Picture Oscar, but that one probably came the closest earning 10 nominations including Picture and Director and winning seven Academy Awards, all in the crafts categories. Like he did with Star Trek, Abrams has brought back what audiences love about this franchise, so it will be interesting to see, without the benefit of screeners, if Oscar voters sense this is perhaps the time to change things up and put the Force back in the race.
Undoubtedly the movie will be the story over the next couple of weeks just as ballots prepare to go out for nominations on December 30 (closing on January 8), and that will certainly keep it top of mind — and likely a must-see in a theatrical setting for Oscar voters used to watching contenders on their big-screen TVs these days. It’s hard to recall any film coming into the race in mid-December without advance screenings and FYC ads taking place much earlier in a season that now stretches six months. Most of the precursor awards have been handed out or made their nominations such as Golden Globes, Critics Choice and SAG without the benefit of seeing perhaps the year’s biggest movie, though key guilds are still to be heard from as well as tomorrow’s AFI Top Ten. This is uncharted territory in the modern Oscar race.
So is Disney actually going to even campaign it? One source with the studio told me last night they first just wanted to take the wraps off it, but that yes, it will be visible campaign-wise. It is in the works.
In her opening remarks last night at the Dolby, Kennedy talked about how fate has played such a part in the unfolding Star Wars saga, going back to the early 1960s. It seems charmed. At the after-party (there was a large roped-off area for the filmmakers and celebs that was notably warmer than the chillier temps at the rest of the bash), she told me more about the six degrees of separation with Star Wars that led all the way from a young George Lucas, his best friend Steven Spielberg, and all the way to her choice of Abrams as the perfect director to bring it back in 2015. She said she was very nervous before it began, but it turns out there was no need.
Producer Frank Marshall (and Kennedy’s husband) said he thinks Disney set a record for the longest red carpet in movie history. Right in front of the theatre where the Oscars are held, it appeared to be bigger than even them. “I was just being the dutiful husband holding her coat tonight as she did the interview line,” he laughed. “I was holding it a long time.” Phil Lord, there with partner Chris Miller (they are directing the 2018 Han Solo movie for Disney), said he was impressed with the LEGO display near one of the massive openings in the four-block tent. Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn was marveling at the fact that this was a real premiere. Disney’s production president Sean Bailey told me he just hopes the Internet will keep its collective mouth shut about the twists and revelations in the movie and not spoil it for everyone lining up this weekend. Good luck with that, but it would be nice.
Bailey also praised Abrams’ ability to “balance the old and the new” in merging the original stars with the franchise’s newcomers including John Boyega, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver. In the case of Ridley, especially, there was lots of talk at the party that “a star is born.” Disney publicity head Michelle Sewell showed me her iPhone photos of the chartered plane the entire Star Wars gang is taking to the London premiere today. It has been designed, inside and out, to look like R2D2. Cute.
Time will tell if this Star Wars incarnation can catch the perfect storm of record-breaking box office, critical acclaim and Oscar love. Certainly the box office alone will be enough, but the 2015 race is turning out to be fascinating, a rewind to the 70s with reboots of Mad Max, Rocky Balboa and now Luke, Leia and Han Solo aiming to shake things up.