A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

Even though we are just days away from final Oscar voting, which starts for a week on February 20, talk of this year’s contenders is overshadowed by today’s debut of Black Pantherwhich threatens to be one of the biggest openings of all time, and even more significantly a major Oscar contender itself — for next year.

I won’t be going too far out on a limb to predict right now that Marvel’s latest, and maybe greatest, is going to do what no other comic book movie has ever done: be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Take it to the bank. I say that even though I am well aware that, despite similar social zeitgeist value, all the campaign money in the world from Warner Bros could not propel the similarly beloved Wonder Woman to even a single nomination this year. This time it feels different.

By the way, Black Panther’s cinematographer is Rachel Morrison, who became the only woman ever Oscar-nominated for Cinematography, for Mudbound. She’s also up for an ASC Award tomorrow night. Netflix has made her significant achievement a key part of its campaign for the film; I wouldn’t bet against her also becoming the second woman nominated for Black Panther. 

BEST PICTURE CONTENDERS CHANGE THE MESSAGE

But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves. With only two weeks to go before the big March 4 Oscar night, we have just a couple of days until the last major precursor awards show before Oscar voting starts — the often very predictive British Academy Awards (BAFTAs) on Sunday.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Fox Searchlight

Oscar frontrunner (at least nominally) The Shape of Water leads with the Brits as well with 12 nominations, but may face a British assault with the likes of Dunkirk and Darkest Hour each scoring nine nominations including Best Film, and in the case of Darkest Hour also Outstanding British Film where it will oddly compete with (among others) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri which also has nine nominations. On the surface at least Three Billboards is a decidedly American story, albeit one delivered by the very British Martin McDonagh and British producers, which is why I suppose it is in the local category as well as Best Film.

Justice4Grenfell
Justice4Grenfell

BAFTA could be a real game-changer if the latter upsets Shape. Both films are from Fox Searchlight, which should be thankful to have such difficult problems. Searchlight is among the major Oscar contenders to have changed up its campaign for the post-noms Phase 2, and given each of its hopefuls new taglines that emphasize their importance and gravitas. For Shape, the new pitch is “Embrace Strength” or “Embrace Love.” Basically, they just want you to embrace their movie. For Three Billboards, which was written eight years ago but somehow perfectly collided with the #TimesUp movement, it is “Signs of the Times.”  That was taken further this week in a move by British activists org JusticeForGrenfell in the aftermath of London’s Grenfell Tower fire tragedy that took 71 lives last June but still has no suspects in custody. The  group  copied the idea of the three billboards at the heart of McDonagh’s film as a form of protest. Whether this has an effect on BAFTA voting remains to be seen, but the timing could not be better in giving added importance to  the film which, despite seven Oscar nominations, was handed a setback when McDonagh was surprisingly not nominated for Best Director by the Academy’s Directors Branch.

Searchlight is a master of simple and effective messaging at crunch time in the Oscar race. The label’s spare but powerful “It’s Time” spurred 2013’s 12 Years a Slave to a Best Picture victory in an extremely close race against Gravity. My all-time favorite move in the Oscar race for creating gravitas was when The Weinstein Company changed the Nazi swastika that was so prominent in their previous ads for Inglourious Basterds, replaced it with the Star of David, and started booking screenings at the Museum of Tolerance after its 2009 Best Picture nomination.

THE OSCAR BATTLE FOR ‘DUNKIRK’

Fox Searchlight isn’t the only one looking to change up, and ramp up, their campaign as voting nears. Warner Bros has decided to go for it in a big way for Dunkirk, sending out another elaborate and slick brochure (in special hardbound casing) as part of a trade buy (the only legal way you can get it to Oscar voters, as the Academy forbids sending this kind of material directly to members) and via snail mail to influencers (i.e., bloggers) this week that emphasizes the World War II epic as “ultimately a film about people.” It is an effective message, reminding voters of the emotional pull of a movie that wasn’t about fighting battles as much as it was about saving lives.

American Cinematheque

Furthermore, Warners has changed up its TV ads to emphasize its core filmmaking attributes to an Academy that lately has been turning its back against blockbusters in the Best Picture race in favor of smaller films like Moonlight and Spotlight. Producer Emma Thomas is shown saying Dunkirk  “feels really like an art film disguised as a studio film”. That is a pitch you could not imagine the studio using when they launched the movie to worldwide success last July. Still, despite being a Christopher Nolan project, the movie was a big risk, and very innovative technically and in terms of storytelling, something emphasized in the many Q&As Nolan and his creative team have been doing this season. I recently pointed this out to him when I said that pre-opening, some pundits were predicting box office failure due to the subject matter and the unique approach he employed in telling the story of the 1940 rescue of British soldiers trapped across the English Channel in the French town of Dunkirk.

AARP

“They were really saying that? This is the first I heard of it,” Nolan laughed. He did go on to say he was nervous about audiences taking to the most personal film he has yet made, about an event not well known outside of England. “But when we showed it to veteran groups early on, the response was very gratifying. I was so happy we had that opportunity to screen it for the real people involved,” he said, adding jokingly that he didn’t have the luxury of showing the Dark Knight films to Bruce Wayne. In fact there was a standing ovation a couple of weeks ago when one of those Dunkirk veterans, Ken Sturdy, accepted the Time Capsule Award on the film’s behalf at the AARP’s Movies For Grownups awards. He saluted the movie’s tribute to those “heroes lost and rescued on those harrowing days.”

GET OUT’S GROWING AWARDS A-PEELE

Another film really going for the gold also has the full backing of the major studio behind it.  Universal’s Get Out has been having a very good season on the circuit, where writer-director Jordan Peele has been delivering the message of his  blockbuster horror hybrid at most of the key, and very important, guild award shows.

Jordan Peele
REX/Shutterstock

At the PGA it lost Best Film to Shape of Water, but got several minutes of stage time as Peele accepted the Producers Guild’s Stanley Kramer Award, which goes to movies with a social impact. Similarly, despite losing to Shape’s Guillermo del Toro at the DGA, Peele got a standing ovation when he won the First Time Director Award there and also made a powerful speech (actually two, since the DGA allows their feature nominees to make acceptance speeches also). And at last weekend’s WGA ceremony, he got another standing ovation when his Original Screenplay triumphed over stiff competition, even though nominal favorite Three Billboards was not eligible due to arcane WGA rules.

Universal

This is time in front of rooms full of Oscar voters you can’t buy, and through special circumstances Peele has been among the most visible figures on the circuit. Universal also has teamed up with AMC Theatres to offer the movie for free on President’s Day Monday in honor of the film’s first anniversary since its opening last February. Its Best Picture nomination in itself is a remarkable achievement for any film opening that early in the year; no one had done it since Silence of the Lambs opened on Valentine’s Day in 1991 and went on to win Best Picture more than a year later. Like Warners and Dunkirk, Universal also slipped an elaborate booklet into one of the trades this week, hoping to catch Oscar voters’ attention in a way they couldn’t do otherwise.

“I can’t tell you after this is all over that I will be looking back at our campaign and saying there was anything else we could have possibly done,” one person working on the film told me this week.

In a sign that studios and distributors think the Best Picture race is still wide open despite signs of a victory in sight for PGA, DGA and Critics’ Choice winner The Shape of Water, all of the contenders including Lady Bird, Darkest Hour, Phantom Thread and Call Me By Your Name have significantly increased their TV buys in Los Angeles and New York, competing with Black Panther for air time. For instance, it is impossible to turn on any morning or late-night show and not be bombarded by these spots.

Most of the films have continued on the Q&A circuit as well: Deadline’s Q&A series has Lady Bird and The Shape of Water upcoming just as ballots go out. It is called leaving no rock unturned. Even movies in other races are getting in on the action. For example, Fox plans a screening/Q&A for their Visual  Effects contender (and recent VES Award winner) War for the Planet of the Apes in Hollywood just two days before voting closes.

WILL OSCAR CALL JAMES IVORY’S NAME AS OLDEST WINNER EVER?

REX/Shutterstock

Speaking of Q&As, I had the pleasure of moderating a rare one for the great James Ivory this week, in town collecting the USC Scripter Prize last Saturday and the WGA’s Best Adapted Screenplay on Sunday for Call Me By Your Name. Should he win the Oscar, the 89-year-old Ivory could also make the record books as the oldest Academy Award winner ever. However, depending on the order of presentations, it could also be a record for the shortest-lived record, as Best Documentary Feature nominee Agnes Varda (Faces Places) was actually born eight days earlier in 1928. Should she win and her category come after his, well, he would be the second  oldest.

And don’t even ask about Best Supporting Actor nominee Christopher Plummer, currently the record holder at 82 for Beginners. He’s only 88 now and not in the running for the record — unless somehow both Ivory and Varda lose and he wins.  Seniors rule at the Oscars this year. At any rate, all of them have an attitude that life is a constantly evolving thing and don’t want to retire.

“Well I have to do something. I just can’t sit around. You know, I can only read so much and I have to do something,” Ivory said when I asked about continuing to work. “And it’s also curiosity. I mean I think people who live on and on and on they are curious, or we are curious. I mean what’s going to happen next? What…I think that’s really a part of it. You care what going to happen and you want to find out what’s going to happen about a million different things.”

Call Me By Your Name represents Ivory’s fourth Oscar nomination but first for writing, which he does in long hand on a legal pad and then with a typewriter after making changes. He was nominated previously as a director for A Room With a View, Howards End, and The Remains of the Day. All of those films were of course made during his longtime partnership with producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The Cohen Media Group has been restoring many of their movies and releasing them again in theaters, which certainly pleases big-screen fan Ivory.

Sony Pictures Classics

The Merchant/Ivory brand by the way was likely the longest-running the history of independent film, beginning in 1963 with The Householder and continuing through 2009 with The City of Your Final Destination, Ivory’s most recent directorial credit; although as he is about to hit his 90s, he has high hopes to direct his long-gestating version of Richard IICall Me, adapted from the 2007 novel by Andre Aciman, represents his first solo writing credit, although he collaborated with Jhabvala on a few scripts of movies he helmed. Originally the idea was that he would co-direct with Luca Guadagnino, but as things worked out the powers that be thought it would be easier with just one person behind the camera. Ivory remained as the screenwriter.

Obviously, Ivory is no stranger to adaptations and originally had kept the location in Sicily, but Guadagnino changed it to his Italian hometown of Crema. Of course his most successful box office film, A Room With a View, was also largely set in Italy, so it’s a good-luck country.

As to why he thinks this one has connected so strongly with audiences? “It’s about the yearnings of first love. I mean we’ve all had them and felt them. Also it takes place in the most beautiful place and beautiful time of year, and two beautiful lovers. That’s just attractive,”  he said, praising stars Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer.

This weekend Ivory will travel to London where he is also nominated for a BAFTA Award, and he may be setting records there too. He has hit his stride and isn’t slowing down.