Two weeks ago in this space I discussed the precariousness of “frontrunner” status in an Oscar race. At the time, coming off of a big surge in Toronto, “The King’s Speech” was the big dog on the porch. But be warned, I said. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Now that “The Social Network” has released, accompanied by glowing review after glowing review, not to mention a media blitz to make the head spin, that film is looking like an alpha in the year’s awards season. And, inevitably, the race is already being reduced to a generational battle between the two…yet it’s barely October.
Here’s the thing. If you’re a studio still priming your pony, you have to be watching all of this unfold with giddy delight, licking your chops, ravenous. This is the kind of situation easily devoured by savvy marketing in Oscar land, and if I’m a rival contender, I’m remembering my Horace: “Seize the day.”
But it’s a delicate balance. One doesn’t want to charge out and shoehorn into the discussion, lest you be tossed aside as mere garnish to the main course of these two films. However, playing it too cool and quiet isn’t the safest bet either, as an Oscar win is the culmination of built steam and sustained speed (which be in the form of a long drag or a quick burst of energy at the right during the right frame).
There is something to be said for dropping suddenly at the end of the year. Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” is the poster child for that. This year “True Grit” will be last out of the gate. The footage we’re seeing this week and last is enough to think it could be something special, but there are built-in caveats.
Stirring the conversation early and often is just as effective a strategy. Last year’s winner, “The Hurt Locker,” is obviously a key example. Nothing really fits that bill this year. Plenty of contenders have been released, of course, but none has sustained the chatter like “The Hurt Locker” or “Crash” or “Gladiator.” So let’s look to the festivals.
“127 Hours,” “Another Year,” “Rabbit Hole,” “Black Swan,” “Conviction,” “Made in Dagenham” and, of course, “The King’s Speech” are all products of this year’s festival circuit. But it’s interesting to note that only two Best Picture winners from the past decade — “No Country for Old Men” and “Slumdog Millionaire” — were true festival plays. (“The Hurt Locker” debuted at Toronto the year before release but didn’t kick up much discussion. Ditto “Crash.”)
What I’m trying to do here is illuminate the various tracks available to a contender looking to curry favor with the Academy. Much of it has to do with subject matter, what is inherent in the material and how that should be utilized. Something like “Million Dollar Baby,” for instance, was a weeper, so it was smart to strike while the emotional iron was hot. “The Hurt Locker” was an intellectual lingerer.
It’s been interesting to watch the media frenzy on “The Social Network.” It was a necessary play because the film needed to open well (and I’d say it did respectful business). But I would have expected a lot of these pieces (and truly, there have been some cracker-jack features built around this movie, probably because of the media’s obsession with its own) to be scattered throughout the season, keeping the coals burning. Maybe there is more to come, but with the intensity so far, the danger is overstaying your welcome — poison for an Oscar contender.
The conversation on “The King’s Speech,” by the way, will circle back around for its November 26 release date (close to the November 12 and November 21 wide releases of fellow festival players “No Country for Old Men” and “Slumdog Millionaire”).
And there is always the potential of a last minute bloomer. The aforementioned “True Grit” will screen for press sometime in late November and release around the holidays, prime turf. “The Way Back” could still be yanked into the season and get the opportunity it deserves. That’s pretty much it, though. And after the nominations, it’s a whole different ball game. Or at least it can be.
But for now, the opportunity is substantial. There’s a lot of buzz out there. A lot of logs being tossed onto the blaze. But who saved for the winter? And more importantly, who’s going to run out of firewood first?
The Contenders section has been updated throughout the weekend. I’ve added little thought bubbles to each category, kind of a wandering stream of thoughts on this or that. The sidebar predictions have also been updated.
[Photos: Paramount Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Wrekin Hill Entertainment]