What does early (and excessive) Oscar hype do to a film’s chances?

Posted by · 3:31 pm · September 20th, 2008

Cover of Entertainment Weekly featuring The CrucibleIn 1996, a fall movie preview of Entertainment Weekly arrived in my mailbox, the cast of “The Crucible” staring back at me on the cover, making clear to me this was going to be THE film of the fall. There were rumors floating within the industry that the film, based on the Arthur Miller play, could conceivably be nominated for 12 or 13 Academy Awards, and it seemed a cinch for at least a Best Picture nod.

Having directed the play twice, studied it at length in university and being a huge Arthur Miller fan, I was thrilled that the film was finally going to get the intense big screen version it deserve. The 1959 French adaptation was okay, but not enough people had actually seen it. Here was a chance for one of the greatest dramas of the 20th century to make the transition to film with a superb cast, including Daniel Day-Lewis, Joan Allen, Paul Schofield and Winona Ryder.

Somewhere along the way Fox panicked and released the film late in December, and though Day-Lewis finished second in balloting for the New York Film Critics Awards, the picture never caught fire as it had been predicted to do. Instead it was a dismal box office failure, nabbing only a supporting actress nomination for Joan Allen and an adapted screenplay nod for Miller.

“The Crucible” is a great film, with powerhouse performances from Day-Lewis, Allen and Ryder, though many critics attacked the latter. But was the film a victim of over hype, or were audiences simply too familiar with the story? What happened?

The same sort of thing almost happened to Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” which at this time in 2005 was being touted as not just an Oscar nominee, but the likely winner for Best Picture and Best Director, sight unseen. It opened and was very good, but it wasn’t the searing masterpiece everyone had been hoping for.  And somehow “Crash” won the Best Picture prize.

I like “Crash,” but I don’t love it.  And “Brokeback Mountain” was a much stronger film, certainly more deserving of the Oscar that year, but my question is: What happened to “Munich?” Again was it over hype? Were the expectations simply too high?

Way back in 1976, two films were released over the course of the year that were expected to be great films.  “The Missouri Breaks” was an Arthur-Penn-directed western with Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson that received, at best, tepid reviews.  Elia Kazan’s “The Last Tycoon,” meanwhile, featured Robert De Niro as part of an all-star cast that included Robert Mitchum and Jack Nicholson. Both films tanked, though early predictions had them as Oscar favorites.

Back to 2005, Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” had a lot of pre-Oscar hype going for it.  The film knocked me on my ass. I remember sitting there like a little kid being thoroughly entertained, blown away by the visual effects.  Even the acting from Naomi Watts was Oscar worthy. Yes, it was long, yes there was some overkill with the effects, but I cannot remember being so moved by a MOVIE-movie in a long, long time.

For the most part critics loved it, but the box office was disappointing to the studio, obviously expecting “Lord of the Rings”-type of numbers.  And Oscar only called for design and effects elements.

With the amount of attention given to “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004, especially to the incredible box office, I had hopes that Gibson, at the very least, would be nominated for Best Director. My God, he had surpassed what he had accomplished with “Braveheart” and he won the Oscar for that.  Surely a nomination was forthcoming for his direction of this daring and powerful work.  Nothing.  Just some tech notices.

It’s a strange question to ask on a year-round Oscar coverage website, but does early awards hype actually hurt a film’s chances? If a film is written about long before its release date, are we in the media building the hopes of audiences (and ourselves) about a film’s chances?

And with that in mind, what is going to happen this year? I admit to being deeply concerned about “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” for many reasons, mainly gut-oriented. That instinct told me “Chaplin” would be weak, that “Hoffa” would tank, that “Amistad,” although good, would gain no real love from any critics group or the Academy (four nods in all). I love David Fincher and believe in Brad Pitt, in the right role, is a formidable talent.  But something is eating at me about this one…I see it heading the way of “The Crucible.”  And that would be very sad.

But it’s just one example.  What film(s) do you think could suffer, regardless of quality, from too much hype in the early stages?  And can you think of others that have suffered the same fate?  There are many, but I want your input here.

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32 responses so far

  • 1 9-20-2008 at 3:55 pm

    Ryan said...

    It looks to me like Miracle at St. Anna is already going that way. Not that it was one of the hugely hyped films of the fall, but still, there were high expectations and Oscar buzz for it. Now it’s bombing with critics.

    I get the same feeling about Benjamin Button, as well, especially after using King Kong as a comparison. Well, here’s to hoping our fears end up being unfounded.

  • 2 9-20-2008 at 4:17 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    The problem with The Crucible, for me, lay with the director — Hytner just didn’t bring any interpretive or stylistic flair to the material, and the resulting film, while nice-looking and extreme well-acted, just lay there. A more distinctive (and possibly better-known) helmer would have made for a better film and possibly greater Oscar fortunes, I think.

    As for pre-release hype killing a film’s chances, I think it ultimately depends on the film itself. Plenty of films have been hyped early on (“No Country” was touted as a contender ever since Cannes) and go on to deliver. If a film connects with critics and audiences, then the hype is just gravy.

  • 3 9-20-2008 at 5:08 pm

    John Foote said...

    Hytner may not have been the right director for it, there were times it seemed far too theatrical, but he did some very nice things to it, in particualr opening it up over the ocean towards the end — the script and acting were superb, and though the direction may have been only so-so, that does not account for the absolute lack of interest that happened — audiences will go for great acting, and do they really know what great direction is?? I was never of the mind that “The English Patient” was all that well directed, but look what it grabbed?? I think what might have impacted on “The Crucible” to a greater extent was the lack of strong supporting actors in major roles such as Revernd Hale, the conscience of the story and Mary Warren, and the Nurse family and wonderful old Giles Corey — we needed strong actors here, and perhaps names would have helped — Kevin Bacon would have been a terrific Hale, or Gary Oldman, or Kevin Spacey — with a stronger supporting cast around the principals, this already strong film, and I believe it was, might have found box office —

  • 4 9-20-2008 at 5:09 pm

    N8 said...

    I think titles like Revolutionary Road and Australia could fall victim to their own hype, but particularly the former. The buzz generated by the Kate-and-Leo factor alone could prove detrimental if either fails to deliver up to expectations.

  • 5 9-20-2008 at 5:33 pm

    Patrick said...

    I agree that Revolutionary Road is vulnerable to this. Sam Mendes last 2 films have been the victims of over hype (the brilliant “Road To Perdition”, and the flawed-but-interesting “Jarhead”) The premise just looks like it has the possibility to underwhelm. I hope I’m wrong, because I love all involved. My gut says, Revolutionary Road, Doubt, and perhaps Australia are all set up for a fall.

  • 6 9-20-2008 at 5:50 pm

    Glenn said...

    “Atonement” very nearly did, although the fact that it missed a Best Director spot (and over the likes of Reitman) means that it did fall a little bit. It the nominations were taken a week or two later I expect it would have missed the final five.

    The main reason to worry about “Benjamin Button” is that unless it makes $40mil on opening weekend there is almost no way around being labelled a box office flop. It did cost $170mil afterall and we all know what the whiff of failure (even noble and artistic failure) can do for a movie’s chances.

  • 7 9-20-2008 at 6:08 pm

    Speaking English said...

    You didn’t even mention “Cold Mountain” and “Dreamgirls!” Although they still fared well at the Oscars, they were expected to be much bigger juggernauts than they actually were, hyped to be surefire Best Picture nominees and likely winners.

  • 8 9-20-2008 at 6:56 pm

    Adrianna said...

    I think to overcome hype, there has to be something unexpected in a movie, something viewers feel they have discovered for themselves, or just an element (somewhere) of crowd-pleasing fun so they retain a good feeling about the film.

    I think “Benjamin Button” will be okay, as I’m guessing there is some humor and sweetness there that will win and keep viewers. I think “Australia” will be okay too, as we’ve basically only heard the set-up to the epic, the first 20 minutes. Also, we’re not familiar with the supporting cast, so that can feel like a personal discovery. “The Road” could also be a surprise – nobody talks much about the plot because it’s such a downer, but the unexpected acuteness of the love between a father and son could stay in people’s hearts and minds.

    “Doubt” and “Revolutionary Road” though, may feel too much like work. We’ve already analysed the whole “Doubt” cast, many know the story, and although it may be really good, it may not retain a place in viewers hearts. “Revolutionary Road” may have inspired “Mad Men”, but will people prefer the TV version of the era that has longer to gain adherents?

    Also, a lot of people do not respond well to bullying. If told that they have to like something or they are an idiot/philistine, they’ll go the other way and secretly vote for something they just like, that feels personal to them. Although on the other hand, the herd instinct seems to also be alive and well.

  • 9 9-20-2008 at 7:18 pm

    M.Harris said...

    I think that in a way ‘Dremgirls” fell victim to being overhyped,not that it didn’t do good box office wise(100m)and most critics gave it favorable reviews but I think it got some backlash from the academy(for being overhyped) by not being nominated for Best Picture and Bill Condon not getting nominated.I think Revolutionary Road should be careful of this being that it has to live up to the novel I’m still looking forward to it but watch out!

  • 10 9-20-2008 at 7:21 pm

    Proman said...

    “It opened and was very good, but it wasn’t the searing masterpiece everyone had been hoping for. ”

    I have but one reply to this comment:


  • 11 9-20-2008 at 7:35 pm

    M.Harris said...

    No it definitely was no masterpiece”Dreamgirls” if that’s what your reffering to Proman,Idon’t think that it should have been nominated for either pic or director I’m just pointing out the fact that it was “overhyped” they stated talking about it as soon as Cannes was over that year belive me I’m not strumming up support for it in any means.

  • 12 9-20-2008 at 8:01 pm

    Rob Scheer said...

    “The main reason to worry about “Benjamin Button” is that unless it makes $40mil on opening weekend there is almost no way around being labelled a box office flop. It did cost $170mil afterall and we all know what the whiff of failure (even noble and artistic failure) can do for a movie’s chances.”

    I have a legitimate question for anyone who cares to answer: for how long has box office been a factor when it comes to awards?

    I caught “The Insider” again on cable the other night, and I remember that flopping resoundingly when it opened in early November, yet it still overcame the dollars and got a Best Picture nomination. Any other examples of big studio products that bombed and still got Oscar love?

  • 13 9-20-2008 at 8:35 pm

    Mimi Rogers said...

    Memoirs of a Geisha is a classic example of over hyped film that bombed big time. It looks lovely though.

  • 14 9-20-2008 at 10:47 pm

    Nigel said...

    I still don’t understand why Heat didn’t pick up a single nomination. Something tells me that if it was released today it would get quite a few.

  • 15 9-21-2008 at 12:39 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’m still not sure that Dreamgirls fell victim to its own hype, as much as it did to its own coldness. Even if you liked it (I sure didn’t), it was such a glossy, emotionally removed film — I don’t the Academy would have ever really responded warmly to it, hype or not.

  • 16 9-21-2008 at 2:10 am

    tdr said...

    i think that “FRost/Nixon”, “Doubt” and “Revolutionary road” are all in jeopardy. “Australia” to me is already dead. I agree that “Memoirs of a geisha” and “Dreamgirls”were killed by overhype. But really? i don’t mean to insult anyone’s taste, but was there something incredible or unbelievable about those films? Beside some acting- nothing more, at least to me. And “Dreamgirls” received it’s due, but Gong Li was robbed- in my opinion.
    But movies certainly get killed by overhype, i remember in 2003 seeing an ad for “The Human Stain” and everyone in the cast was at least nommed for Oscar- Harris, Sinise, Hopkins, Kidman. Robert Benton was directing. it was a decent movie but still- no awards. The studios rely on star names to bring them recognition. What are they thinking? Kidman is not Miley Cyrus and we’re not 12 year old kids. When they want to bring cash at least they shouldn’t use a good story and cripple it just for the sake of money. Assholes.

  • 17 9-21-2008 at 2:32 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Australia is an obvious possible victim. But that’s mainly because it’s so huge and essentially foreign.
    Doubt, Revo Road too. The last one more because of all the hype regarding the “reunion” thing. Defiance is also being overrated from here. Blood Diamond was an overwrought piece of shit. There I said it. Boy I hated that film. DiCaprio and Hounsou were excellent but the screenplay. Ouch.

  • 18 9-21-2008 at 2:53 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Better not to call films “dead” before anyone has even seen them, tdr.

    In Australia’s case, the backlash has already been so extensive that I think, if the film delivers — a big “if,” for sure — there could be a backlash against the backlash, if that makes any sense.

  • 19 9-21-2008 at 5:23 am

    John Foote said...

    I take a bit of heat in the article for not mentioning “Dreamgirls” and ‘Cold Mountain” both films that seemed headed for Oscar attention (and got some, just not best picture) — I assume, perhaps wrongly, that everyone on this site is a movie junkie and knows what I am talking about, but in future, trust me, I will mention every single film, performance, anything I am writing about. I just hope never to come across as condescending.

  • 20 9-21-2008 at 7:04 am

    tdr said...

    You’re right, Guy Lodge, i shouldn’t call a movie “dead”. But it seems so to me, personally. Sorry if i have angered “Australia” fans. It’s just that i have lost interest in the movie.
    I have a new direction for the discussion, if anyone’s interested.
    What about the small movies, from the first half of the year, who receive buzz, and come awards season they get lost. For the first six months there are no big guys and so Sundance entries and small indies are lauded, as being Oscar-worthy. The movie doesn’t dissappoint, the perfomances are great, come September prognosticians keep them in top 5, but when awards are announced there is no trace of them. An example of what i mean is Richard Jenkins’ perf in “The visitor” or Sally Hawkins. They’ve been lauded as the best of the first half of the year. But could they be victims of overhype, and therefore lose their chance of noms? What about those movies worn out by accolades but deprived of awards attention, do you think they are overhyped or not? If anyone is interested please join in.

  • 21 9-21-2008 at 7:34 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Good points all round, tdr. But remember (I keep forgetting myself) that “Happy-Go-Lucky” wasn’t a first-half release in the US — it’s only out there next month. So I think Hawkins will maintain a healthy profile through awards season.

    The early release I most expect to be lost in the crush? “In Bruges.”


  • 22 9-21-2008 at 8:02 am

    tdr said...

    “In Bruges” reminds me of Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch” and “Lock, stock…”. So it makes sense to me that it would get lost. i liked it, but it seems that americans are not that ready for good british productions that depict modern day britain. They like movies that present Victorian era traditions or, in the case of “Atonement”, about WW II. “Gosford park” is another example of their taste. At the top of my mind i can think of “Closer” that is an exception but the movie wasn’t about english lifestyle, it was about relationships, which is a universal theme no matter the place. It would have been nice to see Brendan Gleeson at the Oscars though.
    Btw, thanks for replying.

  • 23 9-21-2008 at 8:16 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yeah, and “Closer” still got less than its due. As for the brilliant likes of “This is England” or “Control,” well… sigh.

    “In Bruges” is much more layered and writerly than any of Guy Richie’s films, though. I think if they’d only released it later and positioned it better, it could be a contender in some categories.

  • 24 9-21-2008 at 8:48 am

    tdr said...

    It seems to me that in festivals movies either get enormous amount of acclaim or they are crushed to the ground. And “In Bruges” sort of stayed in the middle. It got positive reviews, but it didn’t break from Sundance like Richard Jenkins did or even Melissa Leo, even tough later on she received the huge buzz.
    Probably the movie should have premiered at Cannes or Venice- i think they would have been more generous, and it’s a european production after all. And after that it could have been released around this time. I think it would have been better for the film

  • 25 9-21-2008 at 11:15 am

    M.Harris said...

    There seems to be some different opinions on what”over-hyped”means when I say over-hyped I mean it exactly as it is stated.Not that the hype killed a movie like “Dreamgirls” because as I stated I don’t think that it should have been nominated for Best Pic or directing.It’s just when something is constantly thrown in your face as that movie was (IMO) that’s over-hyped when they try to act as if something is the greatest thing since the “microwave” lol that’s over-hyped.The fact is that year it was talked about (by the mainstrem media)before it came out as a possible Best Pic movie and it was buzzed about after Cannes, if that is not remembered then…those are just a couple of (facts)did the hype kill it HELL NO there wasn’t a lot to kill,it just annoyed the hell out of some.That’s my take on hype.

  • 26 9-21-2008 at 12:08 pm

    Xavi Rodriguez said...

    I think Australia and Revolutionary Road will suffer that luck. Australia is UNLEAST ON PAPER the perfect vehicle of epic and romantic genre, like Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005. But Luhrmann isn’t a beloved director at AMPAS in first place-only Moulin Rouge! was Oscar Nominee-and a lot of publicity behind the film is very dangerous. Revolutionary Road could have one of the most beloved couples in recent years, but also could hurt the chances. Mendes’s 2 last films could suffer the over-hyper cover.

    I believe Benjamin Button could do fine, but not great in box office, but I think the film is good. I never think Doubt as a serious BEst Picture Contender, so maybe the film hasn’t that curse.

  • 27 9-21-2008 at 12:11 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    “But Luhrmann isn’t a beloved director at AMPAS in first place-only Moulin Rouge! was Oscar Nominee”

    Given that “Moulin Rouge” was only his third film, that’s not such bad strike rate, Xavi.

    That Best Director snub was ridiculous, though.

  • 28 9-21-2008 at 12:35 pm

    tdr said...

    I believe that “Mouline Rouge” was so succesful because it was unique from stages and screenplay to direction and editing.
    i just don’t see “Australia” as something new and fresh. I suppose we have to wait and see. Hopefully it will be good.

  • 29 9-21-2008 at 7:32 pm

    Zan said...

    Guy, I concur with what you said about “In Bruges.” Right now, I have it marked as one of the top 2 or 3 films of the year, along with “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Transsiberian.”

    The depth to the film was much more noticeable than that of any of Ritchie’s films. His films, while entertaining, have become formulaic and cliche. “In Bruges,” on the other hand, had a balanced screenplay that integrated dark comedy and a romantic subplot into its already intriguing premise. If it had come out later this year, I think that it would almost certainly be a force due to its artistic nature.

  • 30 9-22-2008 at 2:31 am

    Glenn said...

    Rob Scheer, if “Benjamin Button” doesn’t do well financially then it has a big negative against it. The Academy doesn’t like to be seen as backing a dead horse, if you know what I mean. If a movie has an aura of failure about it then they get passed over.

  • 31 9-22-2008 at 2:54 pm

    Frank Lee said...

    The problem with “The Crucible” may be that it suffers from “Macbeth” syndrome: it’s a great play on paper but doesn’t play particularly well on stage or screen. I saw the Steppenwolf Theatre production last fall and was underwhelmed. If Steppenwolf can’t pull it off, who can? And, good God, who gave David Fincher $170 million to make an adaptation of a mediocre Fitzgerald short story? I love David Fincher and I love F. Scott Fitzgerald, but that budget guarantees a disappointing return on the investment.