Peter Bart: Can Strategy Shift Help Oscar Chances Of James Franco’s ‘The Disaster Artist’?

The Disaster Artist James Franco

Oscar voters this season may have to ponder this unlikely scenario: A movie about a really bad movie may conceivably be voted the year’s best movie. James Franco’s hilarious deconstructionist film titled The Disaster Artist is being pushed as a contender by A24, a company that has a solid record with underdogs (like Moonlight).

In a normal year, The Disaster Artist and its idiosyncratic director and star might be dismissed even as a long shot, but consider this: With Harvey Weinstein now extinct, insiders believe that the tone and economics of awards season may undergo a substantial change. Harvey’s tactics, going back to Shakespeare in Love, turned Oscar season on its heels, but with Harvey not a factor any more, the stage may be set for some surprises. Even for an ingratiating nihilist like Jimmy Franco.

“Harvey turned the Oscar race into a blood sport,” notes one expert on campaigns. Spending increased exponentially, as did personal appearances by stars and filmmakers accompanied by parties and hand-shaking. “Every screening came to be accompanied by a petting zoo with stars,” observes another Oscar veteran.

But the rules of engagement may be changing. For one thing, those giant newcomers, Netflix and Amazon, are now becoming important players, bringing with them bigger budgets and different expectations. Amazon’s contenders such as Wonderstruck and The Big Sick are artistically idiosyncratic, and so are their campaigns. Netflix may run into resistance from the Academy itself on strategy because of their meager one-week theater engagements. Then, too, filmmakers and studio executives are increasingly frustrated by what they consider the obstacles posed by Rotten Tomatoes and related rating “services.” They point to several films whose life spans were cut short by the tyranny of Tomatoes: mother! from Paramount, some feel, was never given a chance to find its audience. A sharply different film, Breathe, from Bleecker Street, was embraced by festival audiences but dismissed by critics’ rating services. By comparison, A24 may exploit the exuberant critical praise for The Florida Project on the awards circuit—a film mainstream filmgoers may find unsatisfyingly spare.

The Disaster Artist James Franco

So will this environment be ripe for Franco? In The Disaster Artist, the 39-year-old filmmaker directs himself as an aspiring filmmaker named Tommy Wiseau, who, in real life directed perhaps the worst feature ever made. Titled The Room, Wiseau’s self-financed $6 million film disappeared after two weeks in 2003, grossing under $200,000. As a cult film, however, The Room still plays once-a-year engagements before dedicated audiences, who recite its lines. The Room is incoherent and so is its lead character, played by Franco, a long-haired mystery man with a bizarre accent and an ego as vast as his wealth.

Over the years, Franco himself has directed and starred in an admirably eccentric range of art house films — As I Lay Dying (based on the William Faulkner novel) and Bukowski among them. His acting career has ricocheted from Pineapple Express and Rise of the Planet of the Apes to The Interview (not a hit in North Korea) and the current HBO series The Deuce. Given his intellectual bent, Franco has taught film at NYU, studied for a PhD at Yale and written poetry and novels. Of late, however, he has confided an intention to slow his fervid pace and focus on favored ventures, such as The Disaster Artist. “It’s a change, but it’s not about middle age,” Franco assured me.

Based on a book by Greg Sestero, The Disaster Artist apparently fulfilled Franco’s appetite to fashion a counterintuitive movie about a hopelessly unfocused dreamer. Wiseau fit his definition and the cult filmmaker also fascinated Toby Emmerich who, at the time, ran New Line, taking it over to Warner Bros when he switched jobs. The project also attracted the bemused attention of other film buffs such as J.J.Abrams, Judd Apatow and Bryan Cranston, all of whom turn up in cameos. When the film was completed, however, Franco and Emmerich surveyed the trailer and marketing materials and concluded that the movie was wrongly being sold as a Pineapple Express genre film. Their decision: The bizarre sensibility of The Disaster Artist was not conducive to a studio release. A24 promptly picked it up, devising a new campaign and a unique set of credits — this was to be a Warner Bros-New Line movie released by A24.

Will The Disaster Artist find an audience wider than The Room? Certainly Oscar nominations would help, and Franco’s effulgent depiction of Wiseau will surely stir comment among fellow actors. As a parody of method acting excesses, Francos performance is an exuberant study in excess. He even does an off-the-wall send-up of a nude scene – Franco, of course, is the principal nude. As presented, the character of Wiseau is absurd, but poignant.

And if The Disaster Artist scores some nominations for acting, writing or for the film itself, that will give Franco a chance to return to the Oscar stage which he last occupied six years ago as a somewhat disoriented co-host. Some explained his appearance as disinterested, some as stoned and some as superbly deconstructionist. In any case, the smart and personable Franco wouldn’t mind accepting an Oscar from the new host. And some in Hollywood would interpret all this in part as a reflection of a new, post-Harvey awards season.

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