The summer movie season has come to an end, and what an interesting season it was.
We saw three billion-dollar grossers for the first time ever in one year, let alone one three-month spread (thank you, 3D). We saw a bit of a glass ceiling for comic book movies, proving nothing is a sure thing in that game. We saw indie darlings with more stamina than the big dogs and we saw R-rated comedies find impressive footholds.
But what does it mean in the spectrum of a film awards race, seeing as we have one knocking on our door in a bit more than a week’s time? Let’s consider.
First and foremost, as reported here last year (and confirmed by Variety a few weeks ago), Warner Bros. Pictures is all set for a balls-to-the-wall Best Picture push for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.” With 10 digits in the bank and counting, and with a breathtaking critical pass, now is the time, and it’s a smart tactic. DVDs will be out right in the thick of the season, adding fuel to the fire. And it’ll be a nice counter to the other in-houses pushes, dramas like “Contagion,” “J. Edgar.,” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” (The studio could also go screenplay hunting for Dan Fogelman and “Crazy, Stupid, Love” if it wants.)
“Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” both fared well enough with critics and will end up with box office tallies right around the same mark (each coming up short of $200 million domestic, though). Joe Johnston’s take on the Star-Spangled Man would seem to have the most potential with a push aimed at the crafts branches, but I imagine Paramount will provide equally for each.
Staying with Paramount, the studio’s big hit was definitely J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8,” which had decent legs throughout the summer and had a wave of critics lined up, ready and willing to let a boatload of faults slide. But it’s odd how the film seems like such an afterthought just two months after release, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why the wheels are already turning (the studio has already mailed out the first FYCs of the season for this and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”). It’s tough to swing the pendulum back for a film like that, so like the comic book fare, it’s likely to be a below-the-line play for a studio that still has Jason Reitman and Steven Spielberg on the way.
And speaking of the robots, Paramount also had another of those billion-dollar grossers in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.” The film proved to be another whipping boy in the franchise for some, while others felt it was a high point in the series. Regardless, it’ll be a win if the studio can even generate the nods the first entry managed four years ago.
Universal hit a couple of box office snags with “Cowboys & Aliens” and “The Change-Up” later in the season, but the studio kicked things off earlier with two big success stories in “Fast Five” and “Bridesmaids.” The former is sure to remain merely a financial win and new life for a franchise that was in decline, while the latter could still show signs of life as we move into the awards season, particularly with the HFPA. “Larry Crowne,” however, came and went and is already a bit of a distant memory.
Disney had the third billion-dollar grosser in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” the second-worst film I’ve seen this year. The franchise has consistently been good for Best Visual Effects nominations, while two of the prior three managed nods for Best Makeup, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. Even though it seems like there could be a bit of fatigue on these things now, I wouldn’t count out the visual effects, especially in the newly expanded category of five.
Disney’s other big summer film, “Cars 2,” wasn’t a box office hit on the same level as the pirates, or even on the same level of Pixar’s recent track record. Some are doubtful the film can even manage a Best Animated Feature Film nomination, given the dreadful reviews, but “the Pixar slot” is most assuredly out of the question in the Best Picture race this year. And another animated Disney entry, “Winnie the Pooh,” was overshadowed at the box office and is ultimately just too slight (and thin — barely an hour long) to merit any real consideration, I think.
Still, Disney released one of the year’s best films at the end of the summer in Tate Taylor’s “The Help,” which landed strong at the box office (still raking it in) and could be en route to serious Best Picture consideration. And Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” will close out the year. So there is plenty on the awards team’s plate.
The year’s best film so far hit in the summer, but it wasn’t a cash cow like the rest. Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” will no doubt face an uphill climb for Best Picture consideration, particularly when you keep in mind the necessity of 5% of first-place votes for eligibility. But Fox Searchlight rallied behind it and found $12 million in box office receipts, which is actually respectable given the film and the material. Nevertheless, I think the studio will have better luck on latter-year titles. (And we’ll keep an eye on how Sundance pick-up “Another Earth” performs as it continues to expand.)
Over at parent 20th Century Fox, we have the year’s big surprise sensation in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which hit at the end of the summer and couldn’t have been more unexpected. Best Picture is likely out of the question with the new 5% thing, but don’t be fooled. People really like this film and there will be talk of Andy Serkis deserving recognition for his work. But Fox would have to really pony up for there to be much movement, and historically, the studio is a bit conservative toward the Oscar season. There is also “X-Men: First Class,” which won’t find much traction either, I imagine, despite being well-liked and a nice first entry in a new direction for the franchise.
Turning to the indie circuit, Summit Entertainment is already primed for an awards push for Chris Weitz’s “A Better Life.” The film hasn’t made much of a counter-programming box office dent, but there is no lack of supporters for Demián Bichir’s star performance in the film, so keep that in mind.
Meanwhile, one small film that came along amid the blockbuster flurry was Mike Mills’s “Beginners,” still one of my favorite pictures of the year. Focus is serious about pushing Christopher Plummer as far as he can go.
Finally, opening in mere weeks is Gavin O’Connor’s “Warrior.” It isn’t a summer movie, per se, but it lands in that in-between frame and should be mentioned here seeing as it has been kicking up very real Oscar buzz for actors Tom Hardy and particularly Nick Nolte ever since it started screening for press back in late-June/early-July. I wasn’t as enthusiastic as most, but I nevertheless think nominations outside merely the performances could be in the cards.
With all of that out of the way, the big winner of the summer, in my opinion, is Woody Allen. He saw his highest grossing film to date in “Midnight in Paris,” which one shrewd reader pointed out made about $150,000 less than “Cars 2” two weekends back, despite playing on less than half the number of screens. Sony Pictures Classics was determined to keep the film in theaters and perpetuate the discussion. They’ve been sending out press release after press release charting its movement at the box office (the latest celebrating its crossing the $50 million mark). Entering into the season, the studio already has a hot commodity on its hands. I would only suggest that the focus be clear this time around, as there is, once again, a bevy of possibilities in the Sony Classics awards arsenal.
So that’s that. Chalk this up as the opening shot of In Contention’s 2011-2012 Oscar coverage as we forge ahead. Later this week, Anne and I will offer up a fresh Oscar Talk podcast, which will then go weekly throughout the rest of the season. I’ll be back here in a week’s time to preview the upcoming festival circuit, and then it’s off to Telluride late next week as Guy heads down to the Lido and this year’s Venice fest. For now, the Contenders section has been cleaned up and adjusted, while the sidebar predictions reflect those changes.
[Photos: Warner Bros. Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, Sony Pictures Classics]