OFF THE CARPET: Calm before the storm

Posted by · 10:40 am · August 4th, 2008

Sean Penn in MilkThe season is upon us.  One month from today the industry’s first major stepping stone on the way to the Kodak Theater will arrive in the form of the Toronto International Film Festival: 10 days of put up or shut up by a number of the year’s prospective contenders.

Oddly enough, however, there will be a few considerable no-shows at this year’s festivities.  In a business increasingly proving the precariousness of an early “frontrunner” status, studios and publicists seem to be slowing the machine down…but a few hands have been forced this season.

Heavily anticipated entries like “Revolutionary Road” and “Milk” will be absent at Toronto next month.  Neither is expected to be ready, actually.  Sam Mendes has been hard at work on “Farlanders,” while Focus Features would probably prefer to take the slow road after emerging from Toronto as the “frontrunner” in 2005 and 2007, but ultimately coming up short on Oscar night.

This is probably for the best on both.  Gotta maintain those expectations.  Early raves are as dangerous as early pans.

Meanwhile, the lineup is currently littered with modest independent efforts that depend on the festival circuit to find their groove: “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “The Other Man,” “Rachel Getting Married,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” etc.  The major stuff — so far — seems to be steering clear.

Regardless, we’ve got one more month of full blown speculation before the season begins to settle into a tangible state…so let’s get to it.

The real question surfacing in the minds of many Oscarwatchers this summer is, “Can ‘The Dark Knight’ land a Best Picture nomination?”  Love for this character and franchise couldn’t have been made clearer in this space for the last two months.  We were the first to begin forecasting the likely #2 all time domestic box office haul.  We’ve even given some credence to outside notions of major Oscar potential.  But the Best Picture line is a tough one to sell even around these parts.

Heath Ledger in The Dark KnightTypically, the line of reasoning coming from the hopeful concerns the phenomenal box office haul.  But the new era of the blockbuster which began in 1999 with “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” has proven that dollars have stopped translating to Oscar success like they did in years past.

The top 10 domestic grossers of all time contain but four Best Picture nominees.  Two of them wouldn’t have reached that tier without the benefit of re-releases.

The critical reception for “Knight” is commendable, but there is no reason to believe Christopher Nolan’s expertly crafted film will be recognized for anything beyond just that: the crafts.  Like “The Bourne Ultimatum” before it, “The Dark Knight” is more reasonably poised as a widely respected summer actioner that makes its mark at the ceremony, but not as one of the five best films of the year in the eyes of the AMPAS.

Color us skeptical.

The only other pre-season story of note right now is “The Visitor,” which found distribution from the up-start Overture Films and landed in the welcoming arms of critical adoration.  Overture will be putting together a run, but who knows how far the dollars can stretch…the season is a beast.  Spending and over-spending by giants who already know they are a sure thing (*coughnocountrycough*) can sometimes drown out the competition.

I guess that’s the idea.

The fluctuations over the last month haven’t amounted to much, though it’s beginning to look like The Weinstein Company’s “The Reader” will be a 2009 release, as producer Scott Rudin would certainly prefer to hold off.  Last year’s Best Picture victor has his hands full with Miramax Films’ “Doubt” and Paramount Vantage’s “Revolutionary Road.”

The big question for each of those studios is: Which film is Rudin’s baby?  The answer was certainly obvious enough last season.

Leonardo DiCaprio in Body of LiesOtherwise, there is a lot of waiting on the horizon.  Clint Eastwood is toiling away on a film written by God knows who and simmering in the back of all our minds, after the one-two late entry punch of “Million Dollar Baby” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

And with Warner Bros. sitting on one summer tentpole that probably doesn’t have Best Picture juice and an upcoming Ridley Scott actioner that looks more like a Tony Scott actioner…perhaps they, too, are eagerly anticipating “Gran Torino.”

With that, we continue to flap our gums and spin our wheels for another 30 days.  But even after the benchmark of Toronto, we could find ourselves grasping at straws until the studios are ready and feel secure enough to show their films.  The Oscar season — and, peripherally, coverage of same — has turned them into wary creatures at this time of year.

Perhaps ditto those filmmakers who would find themselves in the thick of the hunt.  Instant “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” gratification has made or broken too many contenders and the gamble with unseen product is proving to be a scary roll of the dice.

The toughest part, of course, is shifting the focus off the season while we find ourselves in the heat of it.  It is, as always, about the films.  It’s about the feeling we get when we find a gem or see our expectations filled.  It’s even about the modest satisfaction one takes away from passable efforts that far too often find themselves mangled by the machinery of a five-month stretch built on expectations of greatness first and foremost.

I’m gonna try my best.  I hope you will too.  Bring on the fall.

Two quick notes before the charts:

1) I’m happy to be writing this column on the day that, presumably, “The Dark Knight” becomes only the sixth film to reach the $400 million domestic echelon without the benefit of a re-release.

2) All references to “Che” and “The Reader” have been omitted from the charts AND the contenders pages.  I do not anticipate the former landing distribution this year.  The latter is looking more and more like an ’09er.

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→ 5 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Off the Carpet

5 responses so far

  • 1 8-04-2008 at 4:10 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    How odd … was just updating my own predictions and didn’t want to look at yours until I was done. Now I see that a couple of my “what the hell” new entries are echoed in your charts – Kristin Scott Thomas in particular.

    Actually, I found Best Actress the only category where I could shake things up a bit – to the point of removing La Streep. I’ll pay for that, no doubt.

  • 2 8-05-2008 at 12:04 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Get it? No DOUBT?? HAHAHA.

    I’ll be here all week. Try the veal.

  • 3 8-05-2008 at 12:20 pm

    Jon said...

    “We were the first to begin forecasting the likely #2 all time domestic box office haul. ”

    Hardly. It became obvious to anyone that follows box office that Star Wars was going down after that Monday number came out.

    And this is so, so much more different than Bourne Ultimatum. Bourne was a hit. TDK is a full blown phenomenon, the kind that hasn’t been seen since the LOTR trilogy. It’ll sell more tickets than any film since Star Wars Episode I, and that had a quarter of the acclaim that this has. When a film combines quality and record-breaking like this, Oscar almost always follows. All it needs at this point is Guild support, and it shouldn’t be THAT hard. PGA is a given, Nolan’s been nominated for the DGA before (Probably their most random nomination this decade), was snubbed by the WGA probably due to indie rules, and the ensemble is star-studded and strong and could appeal to SAG. I mean, they nominated 3:10 to Yuma. It’s a whole lot more likely than you give it credit for.

  • 4 8-05-2008 at 12:37 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Obvious or not, no one was saying it.

    Spin it however you want on the Oscar front, Jon, but TDK isn’t a Best Picture film. I don’t care if it inches out Titanic. I don’t say this often anymore, but I feel comfortable enough now…NOT GONNA HAPPEN.

    The sooner Oscar prognosticators get a firmer grip on reality and stop all the hysteria, the sooner we can continue to go about business as usual.