EXCLUSIVE: With the six-month-long awards season kicking off today in Venice with the already critically well-received Downsizing (which now heads to Telluride and Toronto along with countless other hopefuls debuting in the fall/holiday corridor so friendly to Oscar contenders), there is one major studio determined to make sure everyone knows their summer blockbuster will also be going for the gold– and they aren’t about to let you forget it.
20th Century Fox will be launching a major effort to land nominations for their July release War For The Planet Of The Apes like no campaign ever before in the half-century since the studio has been producing these movies — beginning in 1968, when the original Planet Of The Apes received a special Oscar for makeup achievement as well as nominations for Costumes and Music Score. Since then, apart from scattered visual effects and makeup nominations, the various sequels and reboots in the Apes universe have been largely ignored by Oscar, despite the studio’s efforts to raise its awards cred, particularly with the most recent trilogy of films that have ended with the current War. That includes past campaigns to land star Andy Serkis, who plays the leader Caesar in a stunningly realized motion capture performance, recognition from the actors branch, but to no avail.
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This year they will be taking that further, hoping to land a nomination or award from a critics group or even SAG to get things rolling — and perhaps a concerted effort to get Serkis a special award. But that is just the beginning, as 20th will also target several crafts categories (production design, cinematography, costumes, music, sound, visual effects, makeup, etc.) to try and build a firewall within the Academy for the ultimate Best Picture nomination. With a heavy influx of new members from around the world, there will also be emphasis on the strong international appeal of the film, as well as the fact that it is the finale of Caesar and this critically acclaimed trilogy — the last two directed by Matt Reeves, who will also get a push in the directing and adapted screenplay categories (Reeves co-wrote with Mark Bomback).
In every way Fox will be launching a campaign to “make it about the movie,” as one person associated with the film has told me, and they have also hired a couple of top awards consultants to concentrate on efforts in just getting the film seen by members. They feel, based on response since its opening July 14, that the movie itself will take care of the rest. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Jane Goodall, renowned for her landmark work with chimpanzees, has enthusiastically endorsed the film, and her quotes will be prominently featured in campaign ads.
Peter Chernin, the former Fox chief and a producer of War For The Planet Of The Apes (as well as the first two films in the recent trilogy), says the time has come for serious recognition. “I’m incredibly proud of this movie, and I do believe that on almost any level of storytelling, character development, narrative thrusts, or epic-ness, this is an extraordinary movie,” he told me in a phone conversation this week. “In the past people probably have tended to sort of genre-ize it and sort of look at it, well, as if it is a genre movie and not take it as seriously as they should, and I think that you know our view is that this movie deserves serious consideration. Certainly it’s been made with a level of ambition, care, and attention that’s as meaningful as anything I’ve ever worked on.”
Chernin in fact was personally in the Best Picture race just last year with Fox’s Hidden Figures, and he notes that traditionally the majors have been able to get one or two genre movies into consideration (most recently in 2015, when Mad Max: Fury Road won six Oscars and received 10 nominations including Best Picture and Director). “I think if we can get to that stage, I think we’ve got a good shot, because I think that on a filmmaking basis this is, in my opinion, you know, as impressive as anything that’s come out this year,” he said, adding that if [voters] decide they are going to discount big movies, or studio movies, there’s not a hell of a lot he can do about it.
But like the final film in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy — The Return Of The King, which won 11 Oscars including Best Picture — there are exceptions. A fantasy film had never won up to that point, and then it changed. So far, a science fiction film has never won, but could Apes change that? Or will Warner Bros with an upcoming campaign for its summer smash Wonder Woman be able to tout the first comic book film to land a Best Picture nomination? This year, following one is which the very small and very indie Moonlight took Best Picture, could there be a real reverse game-changer in that regard if voters have an open mind? Certainly with a 93% fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes (the highest ever in the series), and a worldwide gross so far of $360 million to date, the film has its fans.
Chernin just hopes voters will look at the bigger picture and not dismiss it out of hand as just another Apes movie. “I believe that if people take the time to really look at the quality of the filmmaking, this is an extraordinary achievement, and Matt’s done a remarkable job directing,” he said. “With Andy Serkis, I believe it’s one of the great performances I’ve ever seen, and then I think you look at all the key departments. We finished shooting this movie way over a year ago, and so we’ve put tremendous care and attention into every detail trying to make it as artistically ambitious as we possibly could. I would hope people would look at all that.”
Chernin told me he realizes there has been fear in the acting community about the process of motion capture, and that maybe a lack of “understanding” has perhaps hurt Serkis’ chances in the past. But Fox is trying to counter that by showing the process of acting that goes into the performance. “I think his performance has been so universally praised, and I think the studio did a very effective job of putting out some promos,” Chernin said. “We did one of Andy reading a monologue starting as Andy and morphing into Caesar during the reading of that monologue, so I think if it’s a question of this is just new technology and people need to learn to understand it, I actually do think we have a chance. I think the studio’s done a good job of showing people exactly how it’s made, and I do believe that it’s hard to look at that performance — particularly when you peel back the layers and see what Andy had to do underneath it — and not say that’s one of the extraordinary performances of all time.”
Chernin also points out the film has gravitas and says in that respect voters should respond. “I actually think it’s a very Academy-like movie, and that it is one of the most moral movies that has been made this year. It’s a movie about what is morality about? What is the morality of leadership about? What is one’s soul about? How do you struggle with the balance between one’s fundamental humanity versus the desire for revenge? This is sort of what Caesar is struggling with — he is torn between his desire for revenge and his obligation and his responsibility towards the people he’s leading,” he observed. “In my opinion these are really important themes, the kind of themes the Academy voters have historically responded to.”
Chernin says the philosophical imaginings about what leadership truly means has been integral to this trilogy long before President Donald Trump took office this year, but thinks it provides a template for what moral leadership looks like, so in that regard it couldn’t be more timely.
As for Fox itself, Chernin praises the support from the top down including Stacey Snider, Emma Watts, production, post production, and marketing and distribution. “I think their love, care and devotion has been evident throughout, and you know I think in that sense I know a little bit about these companies. You can organize them to do the appropriate things, but where things go to the next level is where the people inside really love it, and it becomes something personal and passionate for them,” he said.
It looks like big Fox is going to be very busy this season, not only with Apes but also upcoming potential contenders (in one category or another) Murder On The Orient Express, Steven Spielberg’s The Post, The Mountain Between Us and The Greatest Showman (Chernin also has a producer credit on the latter two), in addition to the acclaimed March release Logan which also serves as sort of a poignant elegy for the previous era of X-Men movies and features award-worthy supporting work from Patrick Stewart.
Chernin says that even if this is the end of the Apes trilogy, there likely will be different stories to tell in the future of the 50-year-old franchise. But it was evident early on that Fox thought it had something really special with War For The Planet Of The Apes, doing unusually early (for a summer blockbuster-type film) and frequent press screenings, as well as sending Reeves and others to a series of guild and Academy screenings usually more the fodder of fall contenders.
As one executive told me at the time, “We are really going for it with this one.”
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