A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.
You can tell what a tight race this 91st Academy Awards is providing because it doesn’t look like anyone is throwing in the towel. Just three days after nominations were announced, advertising is ramping up in what is known as Phase 2, or the final stretch before voting starts on February 12th and closes one week later. Certainly this website seems loaded with ads already. But what really struck me as evidence everyone seems to be in it to win it is that the often-barren Calendar movie section of the L.A. Times, which on most days at other times of the year has little or no movie advertising (most of it is now either online or on TV, not newspapers), today had a full page ad for each one the eight Best Picture nominees, even those long out of theaters like Black Panther.
There was nothing for movies actually opening today like The Kid Who Would Be King or Serenity, or even the current number one movie in the land, Glass. But these big splashy ads have a much smaller target reader in mind: Oscar voters. I have been saying for some time, this is a wide open race, and it appears studios are putting their money out there to back up that fact. Expect this to be a non-stop onslaught online, on the air and off, all the way through the end of voting.
AMAZON TAKES ON NETFLIX IN BATTLE OF THE B&W FOREIGN HEAVYWEIGHTS
It wasn’t just the eight Best Picture nominees with full-pagers in the Times today (and I can’t remember a similar situation like this in the past where every single movie was featured). But also, Netflix was equally pushing their Coen Bros. movie, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, and Amazon continues to spend big for their Polish nominee, Cold War, with a big ad touting its three nominations for Best Director Pawel Pawlikowski, Best Cinematography, and Best Foreign Language Film.
In all three categories, it will be facing its streaming rival Netflix’s award juggernaut, Roma, which has a co-leading 10 nominations overall. Although it may be the underdog to Roma in all three of their common categories, Amazon is going to give it a run for its money – literally. I can’t recall a time ever when two foreign language films were getting this kind of a spend, so leave it to the streamers, I guess.
I hopped on the phone this morning with Amazon Studio chief Jennifer Salke, who jumped from NBC Entertainment president to her present job overseeing Amazon’s TV and film business a year ago and is now in the midst of her first full Oscar season and finding herself in an odd battle with her streaming rival, as each has sported improbable Oscar contenders that are both black & white, both subtitled, both personal stories from the early lives of their directors, and both successful art house hits. However, in the case of Roma, one of those “art houses” is Netflix itself, while Cold War is still strictly a theatrical property, with streaming on Amazon Prime to come later in the year.
Though Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma has outspent its rival (and probably everyone else at this point), Cold War can point to some impressive victories on the circuit, including Foreign Language Film prizes from the National Board Of Review, The London Film Critics, and The New York Film Critics Circle, the latter splitting the difference by giving Roma its top film prize.
Salke is thinking that idea is one that might also work with Academy members who want to find a way to honor both movies. “I feel like that is definitely a strategy. I don’t think any of us think we should just bow down and let Roma take everything. I think this team really deserves this, and I think this movie is undeniable, and I hope that’s the result. But either way, we will be proud to have put up the most aggressive campaign and, sort of, celebration of the piece, no matter what the outcome. But that is what we hope for and it is deserving of that,” she told me. With that in mind, Salke is promising Amazon, whose pockets are just as deep as those of Netflix, will be aggressively campaigning the film.
“There will be no holding back on that. We knew the movie was special. We wanted to be able to do our very best to make sure we got the message out there that we felt that way, and that it was an important movie, and that strategy obviously paid off. I wouldn’t look to that slowing down for things we love and want to amplify. Obviously, there is a limit on what you can spend. But I think if you have something really special in this cluttered environment, you need to scream it from the hilltops,” she emphasized. “You have to be able to get the message out, because we live in our bubble, where we are seeing all these billboards and posters on these movies, you have to get to the critical mass of the rest of the country. And it just takes all boats rowing in the same direction to do that, and we don’t look at those campaigns for something like Cold War any differently than something like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel or anything else. We have something we think is special, we are going to get out and get the message out there in the most aggressive way we can. And yes, we are going to invest in that generously.” Maisel won the Emmy for Comedy Series this year, something Netflix has failed to do so far in the marquee comedy or drama series categories.
Already this season, I got a beautifully boxed Cold War cocktail shaker kit and limited edition record among premium items Amazon sent. But the movie which won Pawlikowski the Best Director prize in Cannes and swept the European Film Awards last month, as well as competing with Roma in several BAFTA categories and at ASC, is well worth the effort. And Salke knows it is worth the fight to go head to head with Roma (among other nominees). “It is so unusual. I think both movies are different kinds of stories, different types of stories, obviously very personally inspired by both those incredibly talented filmmakers. I always wondered about black and white, and people were wondering if Cold War would resonate, and even the filmmaker himself was wondering if it would resonate. But I think the central love story is an epic love story and full of tragedy and love, and so beautifully executed that you just can’t help but fall into those characters. And that’s why I think it is resonating. It’s very soulful and accessible in that way. It’s about love. It’s a movie that we’re so proud of,” she said, adding that they didn’t expect Pawlikowski would be able to break into the competitive Oscar directing category, but were very much hoping for it and thrilled with that nomination. She agrees the new global membership of the Academy might have helped, but also believes the film has crossed over.
JENNIFER SALKE’S STRATEGY FOR AMAZON FILMS
If there has been one big disappointment she had on Tuesday when Oscar nominations were announced it was that Timothee Chalamet failed to get an expected Supporting Actor nomination for Amazon’s Beautiful Boy despite an equally aggressive campaign on his behalf. Still she plans to be at SAG and BAFTA cheering him on where he is nominated. Of course she’ll also be at the Oscars and is excited about all the new duties she now has in covering both the TV and film waterfronts. In fact right after our conversation she was heading to Sundance, but will be back Sunday for SAG, then back to Sundance for Jordan Peele’s Lorena, the Lorena Bobbitt docuseries that debuts on the streamer February 15th.
She assures me Amazon’s new film strategy has a strong commitment to the kind of prestige films they have previously championed, including Cold War. “I am looking forward to Sundance. I hope there is some great stuff. We’re absolutely still in that business. We are hoping to have a successful experience at Sundance and I am looking forward to getting there and seeing what the team is responding to and getting into it. We haven’t been really out there and talking about our movie strategy, so you are really the first person I have talked to about it. We are really absolutely supporting the prestige sort of films pathway, and Ted (Hope) is continuing to run that and we will aggressively be pursuing movies like Cold War and others that are in the pipeline, so it’s exciting,” she said, while adding there are three different doorways they are exploring, film-wise, including Julie Rappaport’s division looking for films that may not be “broadly commercial” but bigger than so-called prestige movies, and then also more commercial films, as witnessed by their recent deal with Jason Blum, where there is a whole plan for that direction as well.
“What I love and what I think has benefited us in our strategy in the deals we have made in the last nine months, whether it is movies or television or both, which has become more common, is that people can come in and really create a home where there are multiple doors to go through,” she said. “If Barry Jenkins has Underground Railroad and wants to do a limited series that’s really special, great. If you want to do, like, Homecoming, a half- hour thriller drama, or like Mrs. Maisel, an hour comedy, great. You can really just do whatever form fits the creative material best, and likewise, if you want it to be a movie let’s talk about that. The crossover with talent is so common now, especially with these big prolific creators who don’t want a huge amount of volume, they want to do a few things and really invest in those, and they want a company that will stand behind that. I think that is what we are providing, and it’s really gratifying.”
FROM ‘SPIDER-MAN’ TO ‘LEGO MOVIE’ IT’S PRIME TIME FOR LORD AND MILLER
I was with Phil Lord and Chris Miller at the 2015 Critics’ Choice Awards trying to console them that evening, which happened to be the same day they learned their presumed Animated Feature front-runner The Lego Movie had been snubbed and robbed of an Oscar nomination. They remembered that as, once again, I ironically caught up with them on Oscar nomination day, this time with happy results, as they got their first Oscar nods ever for Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse, the Golden Globe and Critics Choice winner that has made them again front-runners, but this time, it may stick. The other ironic thing is that they spent part of Oscar nomination day on Tuesday at the Wilshire Screening Room, where they sat for a Q&A following an early screening of The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part. It all seems like great symmetry. Although Warner Bros has a review embargo on the new film that doesn’t break until tomorrow, I am ready to declare that we are likely to also see them at next year’s Oscars for this terrific sequel, which also ought to break the ‘Lego’ curse at the Academy. I also predict the ridiculously catchy “Catchy Song” will follow in “Everything Is Awesome’s” footsteps as a Best Song nominee next year. In fact, the whole score from songwriter Jon Lajoie is great, as is the movie, which exceeds the first in sheer cleverness. They also got to pay the animation industry forward by incorporating just about every single ‘toon technique that has been invented. They have, as in the case of Spider-Verse, once again upped the ante. This is a great time for Lord and Miller, and, in turn, they believe a great time for animation in general.
“I think we are definitely at the dawn of a new golden age of animation. You look at the 25 animated movies up for Academy consideration, that’s a tremendous number. The movies that got nominated are all so different. They are from all over the world, many different strategies, great filmmakers,” said Lord. “That’s the tip of the iceberg. To me, what is exciting in having both of these movies out at about the same time is they are totally different, their strategies are different, their looks are different, and it shows what the possibilities of the medium are, and, for me, we are just starting to figure out what weird stuff we can do.” Miller added that he thinks we are slowly opening up to the realization that animation is a medium unto itself, not a genre.
IS OSCAR TUNE DEAF?
Although The Lego Movie failed to get a deserved Oscar nod for Animated Feature, at least that cool nominated song Everything Is Awesome got to be performed on the 2015 Oscar show, and it was indeed a show-stopper, if you will recall. But say it ain’t so, Academy, that rumors are true that the producers and AMPAS plan to feature only two of the five Best Song nominees on the telecast come February 24th. Musical maven Jon Burlingame is writing in fellow PMC site Variety that this is what he has heard from sources outside the Academy (generally those associated with songs reportedly not being performed). I have received a call to that effect as well. Apparently only Kendrick Lamar, nominated for Black Panther’s “All The Stars,” and Lady Gaga, nominated for A Star Is Born’s “Shallow,” will actually get to perform their songs, while the other three nominees (“The Place Where Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins Returns; “I’ll Fight” from RBG; and “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” from The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs) will be relegated to having their names read off the prompter. Arrrrrrgh. This is wrong on so many levels. But it is clear producers are looking to cut time, since AMPAS has promised a three-hour show and not one minute longer, with much the same fervor that Donald Trump promised a wall and that Mexico would pay for it. Loosen up, both of you.
It is an insult to your nominees that you are selectively choosing two films, and inadvertently – or not – signaling to your membership (who have yet to vote) that these are the two hot numbers, the front runners, in the race. What a shame. In fairness, the Academy as of yet has neither confirmed nor denied this is the plan (they haven’t confirmed or denied anything so far). So maybe there is still hope. I do realize an option has been in place for a few years giving producers the leeway to make a decision on which, if any, of the nominated songs will be performed. But either have all the songs performed, or none of them, as was the case on the last host-less Oscar show in 1989, which Allan Carr produced. He replaced the nominees, and there were only three of them that year, with horrible unrelated production numbers and Rob Lowe singing with Snow White. We all know how well that turned out. I love Lamar and Gaga, and they will be all over the Grammys as well just two days before Oscar voting starts, gaining further advantage. But I also would love to see Jennifer Hudson singing Diane Warren’s spirited tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg from RBG, or Emily Blunt doing the plaintive magical tune from Mary Poppins Returns, or Tim Blake Nelson crooning that trippy cowboy ode from The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. C’mon guys. Even Lin-Manuel Miranda is tweeting his disappointment today. Let’s put on a show.
LOST 3-YEAR-OLD BOY PROMOTES NETFLIX
Finally, I couldn’t resist this one. Three-year-old North Carolina resident Casey Lynn Hathaway went missing from his grandmother’s backyard Tuesday just about the time we were learning of this year’s Oscar nominations. A massive search followed and he was finally found late on Thursday, thanks to his screams, and there he was stuck in the briars for two straight days in freezing weather. On just about every news and morning show today the soundbite from his relieved mother has been played over and over: “He’s doing well and already asked to watch Netflix”! Seriously? This kid almost froze to death but comes out and the first thing he asks for is Netflix? I can hear the conversation now: “Hey, Mom, I hear Roma got 10 nominations while I was stuck in the vines. Can we watch Netflix now?” I am sure Ted Sarandos was happy to hear that kind of endorsement. Even the best strategist couldn’t have come up with a better promotion.