Off the Carpet: The awards circuit comes to life ahead of AFI Fest

Posted by · 11:34 am · November 4th, 2013

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve been prepared to offer much of anything in this space, and really, it’s been good to let the dust settle, as plenty has happened. “The Monuments Men” got out of dodge. “The Wolf of Wall Street” committed to Christmas. “Her” found critical embrace and “The Book Thief” has emerged as Fox’s best bet for awards success. AFI Fest is on the horizon, and with it, the fates of “Out of the Furnace,” “Lone Survivor” and, in some ways, “Saving Mr. Banks.” The groundwork has mostly been laid otherwise and the circuit work is starting to click in.

Events have been set up for films like “All is Lost,” “The Croods,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Fruitvale Station” and “Gravity” as campaigns look to tease out as much as they can. And I guess if there was one benefit to the Hollywood Film Awards, it’s that talent was in town to work and put in face time with press. The campaigns for “Monsters University” and “Before Midnight,” among others (both working the DVD release of those films) seized that opportunity.

Meanwhile, only two films are left to be revealed to press – “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle” – and both will wait until late November, perhaps even the weekend after Thanksgiving. What happens in the meantime?

“All is Lost” is playing a really long game now, rolling out slower across the country when the original aim was to be “nationwide” as of Oct. 25. But “Gravity” sucked a lot more air out of the room than most were anticipating, so the plan now is to go to over 400 theaters next week. The film hasn’t caught on in limited release to the extent that “12 Years a Slave” has in the same frame, but it’s more a competition over theaters with that film rather than audience. So now Roadside has the luxury to just take its time. The film is still a possible Best Picture play because it will have passionate champions and certainly critical support.

Speaking of “12 Years a Slave,” I imagine Fox Searchlight would like a very different spotlight than The New York Times and the LA Times shined on it in recent weeks. The two papers have respectively painted the film as a likely international box office bust and an uphill marketing battle (the latter angle leaning heavily on the overstated “brutality” of the film’s depictions). This, of course, months after the media painted a bull’s-eye on the film’s back by anointing it this year’s Oscar victor. Rival publicists and bored journalists are just finally taking aim at the target. The expansion continued to over 400 screens this weekend and maybe all this press gives it a boost in the end, but I imagine the studio would like the spotlight shined elsewhere for a beat.

A lot of that elsewhere scrutiny will be on “Saving Mr. Banks” this weekend, which hasn’t exactly put its best foot forward after Disney didn’t bother letting the Los Angeles press in on the film when it bowed softly at the London Film Festival a few weeks ago. Any momentum it may have kicked up at the time could be difficult to reacquire, and yeah, I realize how silly that sounds for a film that won’t open until Christmas. But that’s how fickle an Oscar race is. When the iron is the least bit hot, you should strike. And AFI Fest is packed this year with plenty of other curiosities to overshadow the film, whether it be Peter Berg and Scott Cooper’s world premieres or the LA bow of “Inside Llewyn Davis” or (another) David O. Russell tribute that will stir the “American Hustle” pot or a Bruce Dern tribute that Paramount will be eager to leverage for “Nebraska’s” benefit as it prepares for a Nov. 15 limited release.

Speaking of “Nebraska,” as reported this afternoon, the studio is trying a fun trick by booking the film in a double bill with “Paper Moon” at the New Beverly Theater in Los Angeles followed by a Q&A with Will Forte. It’s smart to try and rub a bit of that 1973 black-and-white comedy from the studio’s catalog off onto the film. The Peter Bogdanovich film won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and was well-recognized by the HFPA in the comedy/musical fields.

And of course, there was Deadline’s big “Contenders” event this weekend, which the outlet (with characteristic self-importance) dubbed the awards season “kick-off.” Wait, I thought the Hollywood Film Awards were the kick-off? No, but wasn’t it Toronto? Wait, wasn’t it Telluride? Everyone wants a piece…

Circling back to AFI, which kicks off Thursday night, we’ll see Relativity and Universal try to fire up the respective campaigns for “Lone Survivor” (which unveiled to more press last week at a big TV Academy event) and “Out of the Furnace” (which has been screening in spurts while trying to maintain an element of mystery), neither of which is an easy awards sell. Both films, in their own way, are difficult sits, the former due to the punishment endured by its principals on the screen, the latter due to the dark patience of how it unfolds. But they could also be just what everyone is looking for: a fresh injection in the race.

At the moment, however, there is one film that is really resonating when you’re out on the beat, and that film is “Gravity.” It has caught a certain spirit, and unlike “Avatar,” which is a film “Gravity” is often compared to for awards purposes, it doesn’t have much baggage to negotiate (and will be the beneficiary of a far savvier campaign). It’s cruising at the box office and is on everyone’s lips at soirees and parties and functions. Of course, that’s largely because it’s dominating in the marketplace at the moment, but “Captain Phillips” and certainly “12 Years a Slave” really just aren’t registering in the same way. If you asked me to bet on a winner in November, I’d be inclined to place my chips on “Gravity.” It could even be a sweeper, Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects all within reach.

But we’ll see what the late-breaking comedic tomes on greed and corruption have to say about that.

With that, The Contenders section has been updated in full with fresh takes on every category and newly considered placements throughout.

Want to register your own predictions? Please check out HitFix Oscar Picks for your opportunity to do just that. We’ve had an awesome response to the feature so far and we’re excited to have you in on the fun!

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