More risks than rewards in Oscar race

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Critical comments: After a summer in which Hollywood did very nicely ignoring movie critics, the awards season is here and critical comments are once again the name of the game.

Unfortunately, it's really not in Hollywood's best interest to orchestrate awards races that are driven by critical comments. In recent years, the way Hollywood has played the awards game has been to launch potential contenders at high profile film festivals in the early fall in places like Telluride, Toronto, New York and Venice. This immediately puts such films in the global media spotlight that automatically shines on the festivals because they are a magnet for movie stars and other celebrities.

The downside to this approach is that movie critics also go hand in hand with film festivals and that's something that can nip a film's awards prospects right in the bud. In fact, that's said to have just happened at Toronto where lukewarm receptions for several films for which there were high hopes have reportedly given their distributors second thoughts about spending the big bucks it takes to chase Oscars and Globes.

By exposing their films to early reviews on the festival circuit, awards marketers take big risks for relatively little rewards. In recent years, critics have adopted demanding standards that increasingly few films are able to meet. If you browse through the Friday movie sections of major consumer newspapers what you find is review after review that shoots down whatever movie that particular reviewer was assigned to see. The pattern that presents itself is extremely negative. In fact, it's rare that you encounter anyone who says they liked anything.

Moreover, at festivals, it's even less likely that a film will generate good reviews. For one thing, when serious critics attend festivals they see so many films in such a concentrated period of time that even with the best of intentions it becomes mind boggling after a while. No critic's going to admit this, but it's widely believed that none of them want to be known for liking everything they see. There is, therefore, a natural tendency to maintain tough standards of approval. At a festival where, presumably, the overall level of films being shown is higher than would be the case in the general marketplace, that means that some films will wind up getting a tougher critical reception than they would have gotten had they been reviewed when they went into regular theatrical release.

The New York Times' announcement earlier this month that it would no longer review every single movie playing at the upcoming New York Film Festival on the day it's screened received a mixed reception from awards observers and other insiders. To some, it's a bad move because it eliminates a publicity break that could help films looking for U.S. distributors find them through their festival exposure. To others, it's a blessing because it will put reviews of many films in the paper when they actually are opening in theaters and trying to sell tickets. Previously, the paper ran capsule reviews of the movies playing at the festival when they began their regular runs. But to some awards marketers it's a great gift because for many but not all films playing at the festival it ends the risk of having a rotten review published just as the pictures are starting to try to drum up interest by Oscar and Golden Globe voters.

The real risk Hollywood faces by launching films at festivals is that negative reviews can be generated and immediately become part of the awareness level for those titles. Everything that happens at key festivals winds up being reported on the Internet in virtually real time and then lives on in print. Once it becomes part of the public record that the critics in Toronto or wherever panned a movie it becomes hard to forget later in the awards season.

Bad reviews at festivals also have a way of influencing reviews that come out later when a movie goes into theaters. Critics across the country who may not have even been at the festivals are aware of how films were received there. It's unlikely that any of them believe their own judgment would ever be influenced by knowing how major critics responded to a film at a festival, but it's hard to believe there would be no influence whatsoever.

The potential upside of being reviewed at festivals, of course, is that a film that's applauded loudly gets some good momentum going for it just as the awards season gets underway. But is it worth it to risk getting bad notices just as people are starting to buzz about the likely contenders? After all, this early in the season most of the films that could be contenders still haven't been seen by very many Hollywood handicappers. In September and early to mid-October much of the buzz that's generated is based simply on a film's elements -- who directed it, who its stars are, who wrote its screenplay, who did its costumes or set design, etc.

Sometimes there's some footage that people have seen that helps get a favorable buzz going -- such as the 20 minutes of Bill Condon's "Dreamgirls" footage that Paramount-owned DreamWorks screened back in May at the Cannes Film Festival. That seems to have worked very well for DreamWorks since quite a bit of the early awards buzz cites "Dreamgirls" as a key contender for best picture as well as in other prime categories. In fact, Paramount has an embarrassment of riches this awards season with the early buzzers also keen on Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" and Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" as well as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" from the specialty Paramount Vantage label.

This summer, of course, many Hollywood marketers worked on the basis that critics are out of touch with what audiences enjoy seeing and, therefore, what's the point of screening certain films for them to see and predictably trash? As a result, there were more than a few films this summer that just weren't screened in advance for critics. By taking this approach, distributors were able to remove those titles from the line of critical fire and enable them to enter the marketplace without being shot down opening day.

With awards contender movies the marketing dynamics are different. These are films with adult appeal and they're supposed to be the kind of films critics like -- if, of course, critics these days actually like anything. Traditionally, awards marketers chase the critics seeking acclaim. When they get it, it's a great selling point to use in campaigns targeted to moviegoers and awards voters. On the other hand, when a film fails to generate critical applause the lack of quotes from high profile critics sticks out and works against the film. At year-end, awards marketers start tallying and then promoting the number of Top Ten Lists a film is on. Here, too, unless you have an impressive total it's counter productive.

Ironically, when the time comes to start going after Oscar voters the Academy's rules prohibit sending out any materials that include critical quotes. DVD screeners, for instance, can't feature on their boxes comments by critics. Trade
ads can and do serve as a way in which to quote critics. But the question remains -- are critics' opinions really the best way to influence Academy members to watch a movie and, hopefully, vote for it?

One of the major problems the Academy has run into in recent years is that because Hollywood has adopted a critically-driven system of campaigning for Oscar nominations, the resulting nominees for best picture tend to be smaller, independent films that receive limited distribution across the U.S. These are the films that critics groups applaud in early December as their favorite films of the year. That imprimatur translates into minimal rooting interest among the large television viewing audience and that, in turn, means lower ratings for the Oscar telecast. In the absence of high profile movies that people have seen and, therefore, care about as contenders, it becomes difficult to attract the huge television audience that the Academy used to get.

An alternative approach to building awareness and interest among awards voters that isn't critics-driven would be to start campaigning earlier in the season than most distributors are now doing. In many cases studios opt to hold off doing serious campaigning for Oscar consideration until November or even December. Some times this results from films not being ready to be screened until shortly before their year-end release dates. But that's not always a problem. There are awards marketers who wait because they think it's not good timing to be campaigning unless people are starting to think about filling out their nominations ballots.

Not everyone shares this view. Some marketers see more potential value in getting the message out earlier in the season -- say in mid-October -- when there's less clutter on the awards contender front and people are receptive to the idea of which films or stars could wind up in this year's pack of nominees. If a studio has a finished film to work with, getting early screenings underway can be a big help. Letting the film speak for itself can be the best approach of all and is a great way to get people talking about it. But if a film isn't available yet to screen, it makes sense to create and show 15 or 20 minutes of well chosen footage at small screenings where filmmakers can chat informally at receptions afterwards with those on hand. It's an approach that takes a leaf from political campaign handbooks that place big value on getting candidates out there to press the flesh. The more personable a filmmaker is, the more likely it is that he or she can pick up votes in this manner.

Putting filmmakers in a position to meet Academy members and other awards voters one on one is potentially more valuable than having those same voters sit through post-screening q&a sessions. As interesting as those discussions can be, when you've ended a busy workday by sitting through a movie that probably ran over two hours and it's now pushing 10 o'clock at night and you're hungry and starting to nod off, a better solution is a glass of good wine, some hors d'oeuvres and a chance to meet the movie's director.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Mar. 7, 1988's column: "Cannon Group chairman Manahem Golan and president Yoram Globus are in the happy situation of having a hit on their hands once again with the success of 'Bloodsport,' their martial arts drama starring world karate champion Jean Claude Van Damme.

"'It was a surprise for us,' Golan told me Friday. 'Sometimes you do a picture with new people -- new stars, a new director -- and you just hope that the picture will be professional and good enough to hit the screen and then cover itself with ancillary markets, etc.

"'It is a wonderful surprise when such a movie goes beyond your expectations. It gives you the completely opposite feeling when a movie you did expect a lot from and you spent a fortune on -- and you have the biggest stars in Hollywood and one of the top directors -- and then you bring it to the public and all your expectations vanish because for some reason or other what you expected didn't come through to the audience. It's always a wonderful feeling when you have what is called a runaway success or a sleeper -- and this is for us no doubt a sleeper...

"As you know, Cannon has gone through an 18-month difficult period. I think we're pulling out of it. We are, nevertheless, in production still doing some high quality, big budget films -- like 'Evil Angels' with Meryl Streep, directed by Fred Schepisi. This is a $20 million production, which we just completed shooting in Australia. But here we are protecting ourselves by having a deal with a major. Warner Bros. bought the domestic rights. So Cannon has protected our budget by pre-selling to Warner the domestic rights and we are keeping the film for international.'

"Is it fair to say that after a difficult period things at Cannon are beginning to look brighter? 'We see the light at the end of the tunnel, as they say,' replies Golan. 'Things are looking better. We are currently shooting two motion pictures. One is 'Salsa,' which I have hopes will be like 'Breakin" because it's a new kind of dance that is capturing America, with South American music...The other film is 'Messenger of Death' with Charles Bronson. We have exclusive commitments with Bronson for two pictures a year at least for another two years. And Chuck Norris has completed a film called 'Hero.' He is preparing for his next picture, for which we have very high hopes because Chuck Norris is going back to his roots (in) martial arts films. Chuck Norris hasn't done a martial arts movie for many years. We are doing a movie with him now called 'Death Match,' which is a martial arts film...'"

Update: "Bloodsport," which only cost about $2.5 million to make, grossed about $12 million in 1988, so with international ticket sales, video and television sales Cannon had to have made money. The other films for which Golan had high hopes did not do well. "Evil Angels" opened in 1988 via Warner Bros. as "A Cry in the Dark" and wound up grossing a disappointing $6.9 million domestically. Cannon launched "Salsa" in May 1988 to $2.6 million and went on to gross only about $9 million domestically. As for "Messenger of Death," Cannon opened it to $1 million in September 1988 and it did just $3.1 million domestically.

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