Cinema files

With the major studios releasing a number of challenging films this season, the Oscar race is shaping up to be the most competitive in recent memory.

Money might be the bottom line for every studio chief, but there's nothing each one likes better than having a best picture Oscar to brag about. Executives such as Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman Amy Pascal, Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chairmen Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos and Universal Pictures co-chairmen Marc Shmuger and David Linde might have corporate bosses to please, but as anyone who knows them can testify, they all share a deep-seated love for quality cinema.

Rothman bubbles with excitement when he talks about a picture like Fox's 2003 Russell Crowe drama "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," while Pascal has never forgotten her roots as an assistant to indie film and TV producer Tony Garnett. Both executives harbor that most subversive of Hollywood notions: the desire to make something that lasts.

Which might account for the return of the majors in a big way to the awards-season fray after years in which the studios seemed to leave challenging, adult-oriented films to their specialty divisions and the other independents to produce. For heavyweights such as Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls" and "Flags of Our Fathers" and Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed," executives are prepared to spend millions on Academy Awards campaigns, hoping for that elusive best picture statuette.

But the independents aren't taking the competition lying down. Miramax, in particular, has one of the season's brightest success stories with Stephen Frears' "The Queen"; newly installed company president Daniel Battsek has demonstrated that he knows how to take an offbeat picture and spin it into boxoffice and critical gold. Meanwhile, Fox Searchlight remains very optimistic about its quirky comedy "Little Miss Sunshine," and the Weinstein Co. is pulling out all the stops for Emilio Estevez's ensemble drama "Bobby," which is being distributed through MGM.

Success breeds success, and a triumph for "Queen" or one of the other independent features in contention could reinforce what many see as the bifurcation of the movie marketplace -- the notion that studios make franchise films, the specialty labels make Oscar winners. But a triumph for one of the mainstream studio entries just might convince executives to take risks on more ambitious projects -- Universal's powerful "United 93" being a perfect example -- rather than continuing to chase after the young male audience that is proving so fickle these days.

This year, remarkably, we should be rooting for both outcomes.

Following is a studio-by-studio breakdown of the movies vying for consideration this Oscar season.

Buena Vista

Buena Vista has arguably the awards season's greatest unknown quantity in Mel Gibson's Mayan-language epic "Apocalypto," about the end of the ancient South American society. The unlikely subject matter and Gibson's brush with negative publicity earlier this year cast doubt on the film's Oscar prospects, but the buzz following screenings of a rough-cut version of the movie seemed to hint that it might have Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences potential after all. In addition to Gibson's work as director and co-screenwriter, the studio is hoping the picture receives recognition for all of the major below-the-line categories, including cinematography, costumes, film editing, makeup, production design, sound editing and sound mixing.

The studio also is optimistic about the chances for Christopher Nolan's drama about the rivalry between two fellow magicians, "The Prestige," which stars Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, with Michael Caine and Scarlett Johansson in supporting roles. Nolan adapted the screenplay with his brother, Jonathan, from the novel by Christopher Priest.

Of course, Buena Vista also has the two highest-grossing films of the year to promote for awards consideration: "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and Pixar's CG-animated "Cars." "Pirates" is widely considered a lock in the visual effects race, and it could do well in other below-the-line contests. "Cars," meanwhile, is the leading contender for the best animated feature trophy, and the film has two potential nominees for best original song -- "Our Town," written by composer Randy Newman and performed by James Taylor, and Sheryl Crow's "Real Gone."

Studio representatives declined to comment for this report.

Fox

If Buena Vista has a mystery on its hands with "Apocalypto," who knows what Fox has in its with the year's most outrageous comedy, "Borat"? No one's saying that the raunchy satire is going to walk away with the best picture trophy or anything, but the film might squeak by with a couple of noms, perhaps in the screenplay category -- though even that notion has sparked some controversy given the film's largely improvised dialogue. And if one thought Roberto Benigni made a spectacle of himself at the Oscar ceremony when his 1998 film "Life Is Beautiful" won three awards, just wait to see what kind of a scene Borat will make if actor Sacha Baron Cohen decides to turn up in character.

"Sacha's performance is pretty extraordinary and in a category of its own," Fox co-president of domestic marketing Pamela Levine says. "It is the most original and brave endeavor an actor could undertake -- to stay in character, with people who are not. To take the kind of risk, artistic and physical, that he did for his art is something I have never seen before."

When it comes to more traditional roles, however, Meryl Streep is a likely best actress nominee for her work in "The Devil Wears Prada," which also boasts great supporting performances from Emily Blunt and Stanley Tucci and an adapted screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna. "The performances really elevated this film," Levine says. "Meryl's part could so easily have been a caricature, and instead, she delivered a truly iconic character, one who was multidimensional and had tremendous humanity."

Another of the studio's summer boxoffice giants, "X-Men: The Last Stand," will compete in the visual effects and sound categories, while "Ice Age: The Meltdown" will be pushed in the best animated feature race. "The visual effects work on 'X-Men' is so seamless that people accept the reality of the world that is created," Levine notes. "One of the most impressive examples was the opening sequence where the two main characters (played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) are aged back 20 years -- it is incredibly believable."

The upcoming Ben Stiller starrer "Night at the Museum" also will compete for the top visual effects prize, and Fox hopes that its family offering "Flicka" will get kudos for its song, "My Little Girl," written and performed by Tim McGraw.

MGM

MGM is hoping that it has something of a one-two punch with "Home of the Brave," from director Irwin Winkler, and "Rocky Balboa," from writer-director Sylvester Stallone. Chief operating officer Rick Sands says he hopes the topicality of "Home" will help draw attention to the film. "This is really the first story about the soldiers that come home after the Iraq War and the impact that the war has on their integration into society," he says of the film, which is being pushed for Mark Friedman's original screenplay, Samuel L. Jackson's leading role and Jessica Biel's supporting turn as a wounded soldier. "But this is not a commentary on the war -- it is an exploration of the ravages of war on people once they return."

"Rocky Balboa," on the other hand, sees Stallone's boxer character return to the ring for one last fight. The film marks the sixth installment in the franchise, which dates back some 30 years to best picture winner "Rocky" (coincidentally, Winkler produced the original film along with Robert Chartoff). "It is an underdog story," Sands says of the film. "The movie is a discovery -- it is a very genuine portrayal of what all of us who are middle-aged would like to achieve in life, namely going for it and succeeding, in a way. It is a top-quality, feel-good movie." The company also is distributing almost all of the Weinstein Co.'s Oscar hopefuls, including "Bobby," "Breaking and Entering," "Factory Girl," "Arthur and the Invisibles" and "Miss Potter." (See related story on page S-18.)

New Line Cinema

This is a quiet year for Time Warner subsidiary New Line, which is putting its Oscar weight behind a single contender, "Little Children," the second feature from writer-director Todd Field, which is adapted from Tom Perrotta's novel of the same name. The studio is optimistic that the film will earn recognition for Field and his co-screenwriter Perrotta, as well as cast members including star Kate Winslet and supporting performers Jennifer Connelly, Jackie Earle Haley and Phyllis Somerville. "This is Todd Field's sophomore film, and it is equally exemplary as his first (2001's Oscar-nominated 'In the Bedroom')," New Line domestic marketing president Russell Schwartz says. "It's a complicated and difficult film -- it's multilayered for sure -- but it's also one that only someone like Todd and that cast could have pulled off."

Paramount Pictures/DreamWorks

Paramount and DreamWorks are out in force this year with two of the strongest Oscar contenders: Bill Condon's adaptation of the award-winning stage musical "Dreamgirls" and Clint Eastwood's World War II epic "Flags of Our Fathers." Of course, the combined studios also are releasing Tom Tykwer's "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer," while Paramount has high hopes for yet another best picture contender, Oliver Stone's Sept. 11 film "World Trade Center."

But it's "Dreamgirls" that unquestionably has the loudest buzz in the run-up to nominations, and the campaigns are rolling out apace for writer-director Condon, stars Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx and supporting actor and actress Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson, not to mention for the below-the-line talent who contributed to the film. "The sheer craft of the movie in every field (is stunning)," DreamWorks marketing head Terry Press says. "It just reminds you of what Hollywood does best. As David Geffen says, it was either going to work or it was going to be a complete disaster. And it works because it is a movie, not just a stage adaptation. I find that is where many people go wrong when they are adapting things that were done for the stage -- the stage version is some holy gospel. But (Condon) went and made a movie."

The same is true of Eastwood with "Flags," she says. "It is a complicated narrative well-told," Press says. "Clint Eastwood knows how to tell a story. He is first and foremost about the story and about the writing. He tells stories simply -- he is not interested in flashy things that distract from the characters."

Press is hopeful, though, that the actor behind at least one of those characters, namely Adam Beach, will be recognized by the Academy in the supporting actor race. She also is optimistic about the odds of nominations for screenwriters William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis and a production team led by Eastwood's longtime collaborator, the late production designer Henry Bumstead.

Press' colleague, Gerry Rich, president of domestic marketing for Paramount, hopes the studios also do well with "Perfume," a contender for best picture, director, actor for lead Ben Whishaw, adapted screenplay for Tykwer, Bernd Eichinger and Andrew Birkin and composer for Tykwer again. "It is such an audacious, bold movie, and it was a sensation overseas," Rich says. "It is a visual feast, and fans of the book are mesmerized and astonished (Tykwer) was able to do what he did."

"WTC," Stone's account of two firemen trapped in the rubble of the twin towers on Sept. 11, also is a contender for picture, director, original screenplay (Andrea Berloff) and its cast, most notably Michael Pena as supporting actor. Paramount also hopes the movie, which was released in August, will be recognized for score (Craig Armstrong), production design and visual effects.

But Rich acknowledges that the subject matter might have kept some voters from seeing the movie. "It is one of the few (awards) films released outside the Academy corridor, in early August," he says. "It was always a challenge to get people to see it.

"Oliver said from Day 1 it was his goal to get it right, with accuracy and humanity, and he achieved that in spades," Rich continues. "What really came through was the humanity and bravery. That's a monumental task -- to take something so enormous in scale and emotion and yet set this very intimate story against that."

Paramount also will be in contention with three animated films: "Barnyard" and DreamWorks Animation's "Over the Hedge" and "Flushed Away." The studio also is optimistic that "Mission: Impossible III" will register for visual effects and the sound categories, and that "Charlotte's Web" will earn kudos for Danny Elfman's score and its original song ("Ordinary Miracle," written by Glen Ballard and Dave Stewart and performed by Sarah McLachlan).

Sony Pictures Entertainment

Rarely has a studio been as gung-ho on any picture as Sony clearly is on "The Pursuit of Happyness." "This is one of those cases where you go in and see something for the first time, and it's just a wonderful discovery," Sony chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution Jeff Blake says. "Everyone who does see it is having the same special feeling about the picture. There is something very special there, and that is usually the best way for any Oscar contender to go about it -- it should be discovered on its own."

Studio executives have long believed "Pursuit" is a serious contender in many categories, most notably for best picture and best actor for star Will Smith, who was previously nominated in the category for his starring role in Michael Mann's 2001 biopic "Ali" and stars here as a father struggling to build a career as a successful stockbroker.

"He embodies this person and some of his real-life experiences, and it is uplifting and exciting to see him do it," Blake says.

Other potential nominees include Smith's son, Jaden (in the best supporting actor category), director Gabriele Muccino, scripter Steve Conrad for his original screenplay and Seal for original song.

The studio's $40 million period piece from writer-director Sofia Coppola, "Marie Antoinette," is considered a front-runner in the below-the-line categories, especially for Oscar winner Milena Canonero's costume design and Lance Accord's cinematography. "This was really the vision of Sofia Coppola," says Blake, "and the way she executed it at not a huge price is an amazing accomplishment. The craftsmanship in putting this picture together and making it unlike any other period picture you have ever seen speaks volumes about her vision."

A very different film has been gaining support for its original screenplay and strong performances. "Stranger Than Fiction" is a contender for best picture, director for Marc Forster and cast members including Will Ferrell in the lead and Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman in supporting roles. "Everyone feels this is one of the best-written films this year," Blake says. "(Writer) Zach Helm is a terrific young talent. This has also been an amazing year for us with Will Ferrell -- we had him in ('Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby') and now this. 'Stranger Than Fiction' was a different way to look at him, but it is a perfect performance that sets the tone of the film."

Another comedy, "The Holiday," might earn a nomination for its original screenplay by director Nancy Meyers, though it's possible the picture will do well for its cast -- notably lead actress Kate Winslet, lead actor Jude Law and supporting actor Eli Wallach. (Winslet, of course, also is in contention for the far darker "Little Children.") "You can't imagine a more delightful romantic comedy at Christmastime," Blake says. "I think it is going to get recognition for that -- particularly when you eye the comedies because it is hard to find one that has more laugh-out-loud funny moments. And the four of them (Winslet, Law, Cameron Diaz and Jack Black) are a revelation together, all doing slightly different things than they have ever done before."

Academy favorite Annette Bening is in the running for her portrayal of an unhinged mother to a bright teenager in "Running With Scissors," which also features strong supporting work from Jill Clayburgh. "This was a totally original film from (director) Ryan Murphy, done with such care and not at a big price, with some performances, led by Annette Bening, that are just amazing," Blake says.

The studio also is campaigning for its animated releases "Monster House" and "Open Season" and is beginning to mull its awards-season options for "Casino Royale," which has become a breakout success, critically and commercially. "It is one of the best-reviewed films of the year," Blake says of the latest installment in the long-running James Bond franchise. "Everyone thinks of the Bond films as not Oscar material, but this year might be different."

Universal Pictures

While Paramount is hoping its Sept. 11-themed "WTC" will earn nominations, Universal is throwing its weight behind Paul Greengrass' critically acclaimed docudrama of incidents that took place the same day, "United 93." The studio is promoting the film for picture, writer-director Greengrass, editing, sound editing, sound mixing and John Powell's score.

As with Paramount, Universal recognizes it has a challenge on its hands. "People are hesitant to deal with the subject matter," Universal co-president of domestic marketing Eddie Egan says. "The challenge is to make people see it as a great work of art because there still remain people who literally say to us, 'I just can't (watch it).' And the pride we have in that movie is what motivates us. If you are seeing the field of movies that are up for the highest honor of the year, how can you not watch a film that you know to be well-made, well-meaning and well-realized?"

Egan and his colleagues might have less trouble persuading Academy voters to see "The Good Shepherd," which they hope will earn nominations for best picture, director for Robert De Niro (who also co-stars) and original screenplay for Eric Roth. Matt Damon is earning buzz for his starring role, while supporting actors including Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, De Niro, Michael Gambon, William Hurt and John Turturro, along with supporting actress Angelina Jolie, are being touted as well. "It took its time being made, and I think people are going to realize that was a good thing," Egan says. "De Niro and Eric Roth have been immersed in this story about the kind of person who is drawn into the CIA and what happens to that person as a human being in an organization that deals with the telling, sharing and discovering of secrets."

The movie also is expected to be a strong contender in the below-the-line categories, as is Alfonso Cuaron's latest film, "Children of Men," which features virtuoso cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Warner Bros. executives have been stunned and delighted by the critical and commercial performance of "The Departed," Martin Scorsese's drama about Boston cops and criminals. "It is a movie that has just pleased audiences and critics across the board," Warner Bros. president of domestic marketing Dawn Taubin says. "It has an amazing cast, terrific performances and a director who is long overdue (for an Oscar)." Warners is pushing the film, which is based on the 2002 breakout Hong Kong production "Infernal Affairs," for best picture and is optimistic that it will earn nominations for director Scorsese, adapted screenplay for William Monahan and in below-the-line categories for such regular Scorsese collaborators as cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

In terms of the cast, supporting actress Vera Farmiga will receive a push, as will the film's male stars -- Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg. Originally, Warners had planned to submit all of the actors in the supporting category, but the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. complicated matters when it recently decided that DiCaprio's was actually a lead performance.

If the Academy follows the HFPA's lead, the actor will wind up competing against himself with his lead role in another Warners release, director Edward Zwick's "Blood Diamond," which sees the actor portray a South African mercenary on a quest for a priceless jewel. The studio hopes he will be nominated along with Zwick and screenwriters Charles Leavitt and C. Gaby Mitchell. Also in contention are supporting actor Djimon Hounsou, supporting actress Connelly and a host of below-the-line craftsmen. "'Blood Diamond' is a big-scale, big-scope movie, but it is also about something that is important -- the whole issue of conflict diamonds and their effect on people, in Africa and outside Africa," Taubin says. "It is a very timely issue within a very entertaining action-thriller."

At press time, Taubin was still waiting to gauge audience reaction to "The Good German," the new film from director Steven Soderbergh and actor George Clooney. The film is a period piece set in the 1940s, shot and acted in 1940s style. Taubin is hopeful Soderbergh and Clooney will be recognized, as might lead actress Cate Blanchett and supporting actor Tobey Maguire and screenwriter Paul Attanasio. "I can't think of anyone else who would do this," she says. "Steven has made a World War II movie with the look and the feel and the editing and cinematography of the period. It is brave and entertaining."

Taubin also uses the word "brave" to describe director Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain," which features Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, each playing three different characters in a love story that spans 1,000 years. "It is visually stunning, and the score (by Clint Mansell) is unbelievable," Taubin says.

Warners will have a challenge on its hands with the subtitled, Japanese-language "Letters From Iwo Jima," Eastwood's sister piece to his Paramount/DreamWorks contender "Flags." Most insiders expect the movies will be seen as one whole, but that could result in the latter film taking more votes. Initially, the studio had planned to release "Letters" next year, but, says Taubin: "A lot of press people and Clint's friends in the industry all wanted to see 'Letters' at the same time. That is something Clint was very keen on."

In addition to Eastwood and his below-the-line team, Taubin singles out lead actor Ken Watanabe and screenwriters Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis as possible nominees. Despite the fact that "Letters" is shot in Japanese with English subtitles, it is not eligible for consideration in the Academy's foreign-language competition because it was not submitted by a foreign country.

In addition to these titles, Warners has high hopes for the boxoffice sensation "Happy Feet" for best animated picture, which also features an original song contender written and performed by Prince. "We did huge boxoffice and beat (Sony's 'Casino Royale'), and that is largely due to the quality of the movie," Taubin says.
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