'True Grit' Striptease Release: Brilliant or Crazy?
True Grit is jujitsu Oscar marketing: Instead of a typical PR-barrage, Paramount coyly withheld its screenings until the last minute from all but a chosen few. For your consideration -- but only if you're one of the cool kids, like HitFix's Drew McWeeny ("one of the most crowd-pleasing films [the] Coens have ever made"), Anne Thompson ("at the top of their game, honoring the great John Ford with a tip of the hat to Anthony Mann"), Emanuel Levy ("Jeff Bridges should get a nomination"), and Kris Tapley, who saw it twice before we the Unchosen saw it once. [Read The Hollywood Reporter's review by Todd McCarthy here.]
"[Producer] Scott Rudin only showed it to people he could control," scoffed one pundit at Tuesday's sky-high party for Inception on Nightingale Drive. (Another marveled at Josh Brolin's big billing for such a surprisingly small part in the film.)
Is the last-second striptease Oscar release a smart move? "It's a high-risk, high-reward strategy," says ex-Warner Independent Pictures and Miramax vet Mark Gill, now the "utterly impartial" CEO of The Film Department. "That was true 10 years ago and much truer now." "We live in a day and age where information is so rapidly disseminated you don't need long campaigns for movies these days," says Avatar producer Jon Landau. "With Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, it reaches the masses very quickly."
Does it work? "Look what's happening," notes Gill. "We're talking about it." "We're all human, we fall for it," says Landau. And we Oscar prophets have shortlisted the flick for months sight unseen. "I'd outlaw prognosticating about a movie you haven't seen," scolds my old boss Mark Harris, of New York Magazine. "We become publicists. If all we're here to do is insist for months that the nominations are all going to go to movies that look like the kind of movies that get Oscar nominations, then all we're doing is reinforcing the notion that the movie itself is irrelevant. That's too cynical, even for the Oscar race. It's also not true."
"The important thing times 20 is how good the movie is," says Gill. "If the movies are anything other than as good as they're built up to be, there's a great risk of a backlash." Blogger Steve Pond is cooler on the movie than most early reviewers: "It's dark and moody and goofy...and not a game changer." He raises an ominous point: that the Coens' patented goofy doominess "may well keep True Grit from being taken seriously enough by Oscar voters." Oscar has hated comedy almost as long as Sunnis have hated Shia.
"Steve didn't see it with an audience!" objects producer/promoter Jeff "the Dude" Dowd. Pond saw it in an audience of 10. "Every distributor passed three times on Blood Simple in screening rooms, and when they got to Toronto and saw it with 800 people, they got the depth and irony of what they were doing, and that the audience got it." Quentin Tarantino says, "Funny and scary -- two great tastes that taste great together." The Coens have proved that moody and funny can sell, if it's got deep roots in film and literature. "Joel [Coen] was reading Chekhov in fifth grade!" says Dowd. "And the Academy is smarter than people think. I wouldn't patronize the Academy."
Only one more big-name Oscar hopeful shyly lurks behind the velvet curtain: James L. Brooks' How Do You Know, opening Dec. 17 and not seen by a soul outside a few preview audiences in Phoenix until a press screening Monday morning Nov. 29. It wasn't a wily wait-and-see coquette maneuver like Paramount's. The film simply wasn't done until the last minute.
True Grit is on everyone's lips, and there's less heat behind Brooks 13 years after his last auteurist smash As Good As It Gets and six years after the to-my-mind overspanked semi-flop Spanglish. So is the last-minute release riskier for him? "I don't think so," says Gill. "Brooks made half a dozen of the best movies ever made [not to mention the greatest TV show and an unbeatable record as a mentor of skyrocketing young geniuses]. The Academy members are older and they have long memories. James Brooks is every bit as formidable as the Coens."
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Scott Feinberg, the lead awards analyst for The Hollywood Reporter, is one of the entertainment industry's most experienced and trusted experts about the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys. He started on the awards beat in 2001, writing for independent websites including his own ScottFeinberg.com before joining the Los Angeles Times and then THR, for which he writes “The Race” blog, which won the LA Press Club’s National Entertainment Journalism Award for best entertainment blog of 2012-2013. A voting member of both the Broadcast Film Critics' Association and Broadcast Television Journalists Association, he is also writing a book about film history for young people for which he has interviewed more than 500 high-profile Hollywood figures whose careers span the silent era through the present.
Follow Scott on Twitter at twitter.com/scottfeinberg.