Globe, critics votes impact Oscar marketing coin

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Awards analysis: This week's blizzard of critics awards plus Thursday's Golden Globe nominations enhanced Oscar prospects for some films while throwing cold water on others.

While it's still early in the game, it's a good time to consider Oscar's early morning line. A few words of caution are in order, however, because it's very easy to come down with a case of "critics awards fever." The symptoms include seeing Oscars being handed to pictures that are being celebrated by critics across the country. But the fact is there's barely any correlation between critics groups and Oscar's best picture winners.

If you look back at who's won what over the years, you see that the key critics groups and Academy voters almost never agree on what's best. I just put a spreadsheet together to see how the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the New York Film Critics Circle have matched up with each other and with the Academy going back to 1990. What I found was that in those 17 years there's only been one occasion when the New York and L.A. critics and Oscar voters have all agreed on what film was the year's best. That was in 1993 when they all named Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" the year's best picture. One time in 17 years doesn't make much of a case for getting excited about who the critics are or are not applauding.

As a matter of fact, the critics groups don't even agree with each other most of the time. There were only seven times in 17 years when the New York and L.A. critics awarded their top honors to the same films -- in 2005 with Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" (but the Oscar went to Paul Haggis' "Crash"); in 2004 with Alexander Payne's "Sideways" (but the Oscar went to Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby"); in 1998 with Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" (but the Oscar went to John Madden's "Shakespeare in Love"); in 1997 with Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential" (but the Oscar went to James Cameron's "Titanic"); in 1995 with Mike Figgis' "Leaving Las Vegas" (but the Oscar went to Mel Gibson's "Braveheart;" in 1993 with "Schindler's List" as noted above; and in 1990 with Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" (but the Oscar went to Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves").

With a track record like that, why should anyone think the critics' votes could be a bellwether for the best picture Oscar? It's clear that the critics and Academy members have very different taste in films. And that's even more apparent when you look at the best picture votes by critics groups outside New York and L.A. This week, for instance, brought best picture wins for Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" in L.A. and for Paul Greengrass's "United 93" in New York, but the Boston Society of Film Critics gave its best picture award to Scorsese's "The Departed" and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle handed its top prize to Todd Field's "Little Children." Meanwhile, the Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics Assn. voted "United 93" its best picture while the New York Film Critics Online named Stephen Frears' "The Queen" best picture.

So the critics groups are all over the map already in terms of what they feel is the year's best picture and there are other groups still to be heard from who may well make other choices. Given the wide range they've already covered, some critic's group is likely to match up after the fact with how Academy members do wind up voting, but that won't make them a bellwether for the Oscars. It's just that with a limited number of potential best picture winners someone is bound to make the same selection that Academy voters make.

So why does Hollywood come down with critics groups fever in early December every year? The best answer seems to be that it's really the only way to start narrowing the field from all the wannabees who start turning up in late summer or early September when insiders begin speculating about who this year's best picture Oscar nominees might be. There's a cumulative effect that particularly excites Hollywood handicappers when films capture multiple awards from a critics group. If a film winds up with, say, a half-dozen wins from one group that's seen as boosting its prospects for multiple Oscar nominations.

Oscar marketers tend to regard a film with the most nominations as having the edge with Academy members because it shows that more branches support this title and their cumulative voting strength in the best picture race can be counted on. This is not, however, always the case. Last year, for instance, "Crash," which won the best picture Oscar, had a total of six nominations. "Brokeback Mountain," which was expected to win best picture, had eight noms. As for the other nominees, "Good Night, and Good Luck" was nominated in six categories while "Munich" and "Capote" each received five nods.

What mattered most last year wasn't the cumulative effect of branches supporting "Brokeback," but "Crash's" strong appeal to one branch -- actors, the Academy's biggest voting branch. This was evident when the Screen Actors Guild embraced "Crash" by giving it the best ensemble cast award. This followed Lionsgate's brilliant move in distributing about 130,000 DVD screeners of the movie to all SAG members as well as Academy voters and many guild members.

Looking back at last year's Oscar nominees, it's interesting to see that all five best picture nominees also received nominations for best director and best screenplay. That combination is typically viewed as giving a film an edge, but that effect was canceled out because all five contenders wound up being nominated in those three key categories.

Generally speaking, the Globe nominations are a better indication than the critics' votes of where the Academy may wind up with its own noms. Comparisons are very difficult to make because the Globes offers five best picture-drama noms as well as five best picture-musical or comedy noms. With 10 pictures covered between the two races, it's almost certain that there will be an overlap with Oscar's five best picture nods.

Nonetheless, how the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. votes does make a significant impact on Oscar nominations. That's largely because the Globes noms achieve such widespread media coverage and become known just before the holiday season during which they're used in marketing campaigns to sell tickets. The Globes noms are an interesting list, particularly coming on the heels of the critics' votes earlier this week.

On the best picture-drama front, the Globes stayed away from both "United 93" and 'Letters From Iwo Jima." Those two films dominated the critics groups' awards -- "United 93" won the New York vote while "Letters" topped the L.A. vote -- and both of them made the Broadcast Film Critics' list of 10 best picture nominees. Had one of them gotten a best picture-drama Globes nod, that would have enhanced its bragging rights in terms of potential Oscar nominations. If both of them had made the Globes' best picture-drama list they would have both gone into the Oscar race with added energy. But with both of them shut out in the Globes, the effect is to leave Oscar's best picture race as wide open as ever.

If any picture benefited greatly from the Globes vote it's "Borat," whose twin nods -- for best picture-musical or comedy and best actor-musical or comedy -- put it squarely in the running for Oscar nominations. How so? Well, what HFPA members have done, in effect, is to tell Academy members that a vote for "Borat" is not going to be a wasted vote. In other words, there are other people out there who think it's funny and brilliant and daring and who "get" the fact that it's meant to be satirical. Without this Globes endorsement, Oscar voters would have had to decide for themselves if they felt comfortable nominating "Borat." They might have done so anyway, but now they have the example of the Globes to help make them comfortable.

The best picture-drama category is particularly interesting because of how it matches up with the best director and best screenplay categories. "The Queen" has both directing (Stephen Frears) and screenplay (Peter Morgan) nominations. "Babel" has a directing nod for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and a screenplay nom for Guillermo Arriaga. "Departed" has a directing nod for Scorsese and a screenplay nomination for William Monahan. "Bobby" has neither directing nor writing noms for Emilio Estevez. "Children" has a screenplay nom for Todd Field and Tom Perrotta, but no directing nod for Field. Clearly, the broader range of support for "Queen," "Babel" and "Departed" suggests it could be mirrored in the Academy's vote.

Hollywood handicappers are anticipating differences between the Globe noms and the Academy's own list for several reasons, particularly because the Globes also has a best picture-musical or comedy category. Frequently, that roster of titles is simply ignored by Academy voters because they tend to not give comedy the consideration it deserves. This year, however, with "Dreamgirls" being such a high profile contender -- it helps that it's a musical and not a comedy -- the likelihood is that Oscar voters will be thinking seriously about putting it on their best picture list.

At this point, "Dreamgirls" hasn't resonated as a best picture winner with the critics groups and although it's on the HFPA's best picture-musical or comedy list it doesn't have those valuable twin noms for directing or writing. It did, however, make the Broadcast Film Critics' list of 10 best picture nominees and also received a directing nod for Bill Condon, but no writing nomination for Condon. How this translates to Academy nominations is anybody's guess right now. The buzz from insiders seems to be that it's probably a safe bet, but just not the absolute slam dunk it seemed to be a few months ago. Interestingly, "Dreamgirls" also received a best acting ensemble nom from the Broadcast Film Critics. That could put it on the same track that "Crash" did so well on. If SAG were to embrace "Dreamgirls" with its best ensemble cast award, that would be a huge help to its Oscar prospects.

Coming back to how the Globe and Oscar noms are likely to differ, it's worth noting that Clint Eastwood's twin directing nominations -- for "Letters," which did well with the critics groups, and "Flags Of Our Fathers," which didn't get best picture wins from the critics -- and Leonardo DiCaprio's two best actor noms -- for "Departed" and "Blood Diamond" -- can't be duplicated by Academy voters. They'll have to pick one or the other or neither, but they can't honor both with nominations in the same category the way HFPA voters could.

All of the above mentioned ways in which different awards and nominations impact on the Oscars are subjective and not everyone sees them the same way. What many insiders seem to agree on is that the films that receive these early honors have a major advantage in that it encourages their distributors to spend more marketing money to promote their Oscar prospects. Films that get shut out of the early votes are typically dropped like a hot potato by studio marketers who don't want to stick their necks out and advocate spending millions of dollars to pursue Oscar gold for them.

Even though Academy members' taste is a lot different from that of the critics, studio executives just aren't comfortable allocating money to promote pictures that aren't already generating their own base of awards support. This, in its own way, helps to define and shape the Oscar race by taking some early contenders out of competition and giving others the financial muscle to go the distance.

"Rocky" report: And speaking of muscle, MGM has what looks like a powerful holiday release in Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky Balboa," opening wide Dec. 20. After seeing the sixth "Rocky" franchise episode at its premiere Wednesday night, I'm happy to report it could give the reborn MGM the boxoffice shot in the arm it's been looking for.

Talking to MGM chief operating officer Rick Sands at the after-party, it was clear that he's got a lot of confidence in the new "Rocky" and I don't think it's at all misplaced. Stallone's at the top of his form once again and word of mouth should be very favorable.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Aug. 11, 1988's column: "Earlier new ancillary media such as cable and home video are now booming businesses. Laser discs, the new kid on the ancillary block, represent revenues that are likely to become significant for Hollywood down the road.

"It's a new business that, according to Martin Greenwald, president of publicly held Image Entertainment, currently boasts a population of about 500,000 videodisc players in the United States. That number is expected to grow to over 1.3 million players by late 1989, says Greenwald...

"'What studios were looking at pre-1975 was domestic and foreign theatrical,' Greenwald told me. 'The only ancillary at that time was so insignificant it wasn't even worthwhile having anybody on staff -- and that was how do you play a movie on an airplane or a ship? Theater owners made an awful lot of money in what was known as the ancillary at that time, which was the concession business.

"'What's happened since then has been the growth of the home video market, which now if not supplanting domestic theatrical has certainly become an equal to domestic theatrical in terms of not only the dollars involved, but how fast a studio can recoup those dollars.'

"To Greenwald, the speed with which Hollywood receives its video revenues is magical: 'When you release a motion picture and it does $100 million in boxoffice, after the prints and advertising and after trying to go collect your money from in-betweens and go-betweens and agents and distributors, the studio's lucky to get $30 million, which is the hard cost of a big-budgeted picture today.

"'The numbers have grown and they've grown partially because there is a home video market to help pay the price of that production. The importance of ancillary and auxiliary marketplaces is so more dramatically in focus today than it was in the past when you had sort of a stagnant cost of motion pictures and a certain number of theaters you played and were certain how you got paid.'

"Today home video has accelerated the speed with which studios can see a return on their production investment...The studios' new corporate owners and managers are, adds Greenwald, 'very interested in cash flow. Cash flow is what really makes home video attractive.'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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