'The Awards Pundits' on Oscar/Presidential Race Parallels, Big Little-Opening for 'Jobs'

Scott Feinberg and Stephen Galloway also discuss Netflix's uphill climb with 'Beasts of No Nation', the controversy over China's Oscar submission and more.
Miller Mobley
'Steve Jobs'

This is the sixth installment of what will be an ongoing dialogue, throughout the awards season, between THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg and executive editor, features Stephen Galloway.

GALLOWAY Scott, I'm fascinated by the parallels between the Oscar race and the presidential race. Which picture's the Hillary Clinton of this awards season, which one's Bernie Sanders, and is there a Joe Biden waiting in the wings?

FEINBERG I'll tell you this: Donald Trump is The Hateful 8 — all eight wrapped into one! Since Hillary's the one everyone expects to do well, but still has to deliver on her promise, I suppose her Oscar counterpart is The Revenant or Joy. The Bernie of the race — a contender that has a lot of support, but I can't imagine winning — is The Martian. And Biden is Star Wars: apart from the fact that he sometimes seems to exist in a galaxy far, far away, people hope he'll fare well, but are highly skeptical that he will.

GALLOWAY I disagree. The Martian is Hillary — both are looking better and better each day. Martian is a big studio movie, just like Hillary's a big Democratic Machine candidate; it has a huge donor in the form of Rupert Murdoch (OK, he's not a Hillary fan); and its campaign is being fronted by a candidate who's been at this a long time and who's proving that experience matters, Ridley Scott. (I think both Ridley and the film could go all the way.) Hollywood wants a winner, just like the Democrats, and that's more likely to come from the studios than the indies.

FEINBERG What about a hybrid studio/specialty release like Steve Jobs, which Universal released last weekend in select cities, and which performed very strongly. Scott Rudin may not be everyone's cup of tea, but there's no denying he knows what he's doing.

GALLOWAY This movie proves he's still the most brilliant producer alive, even though Universal's marketing department might not feel that way at the moment — the whole industry's buzzing about their massive marketing spend. The film's done well in New York and L.A., but it's still unclear how it will do in Middle America, which will test whether Michael Fassbender's a star as well as a great actor. (He's not.)

FEINBERG It's interesting what a different release pattern Steve Jobs is taking from the last Rudin-Aaron Sorkin collaboration about an unlikable tech-world genius, 2010's The Social Network. The Social Network opened nationwide and topped the box office for two weeks; Steve Jobs opened in just four theaters and scored the highest per-screen take of any 2015 release —

GALLOWAY — which has helped lift it to front and center of the awards race. Success matters, and success in Hollywood is still measured by money. I remember when the terrific Dana Harris joined us as a reporter in the 1990s, and after a year on the job I asked her what most surprised her about Hollywood. She said, "It's not just that money counts; it's all that counts." That doesn't bode well for pictures that don't make money.

FEINBERG An interesting case study will be Beasts of No Nation, Cary Fukunaga's graphic drama about a child soldier in an African war zone, which had its L.A. premiere this week and simultaneously came out on Netflix and in a handful of theaters this week. (The major theater chains won't touch day-and-date releases like this, which they believe pose an existential threat to them.)

GALLOWAY Do you think it's even possible for a movie to compete at the Oscars without a proper theatrical run?

FEINBERG It's always proven to be tough — but there's never been a narrative film from Netflix before. Films with small theatrical releases generally face an uphill climb because people can't vote for something they haven't seen —

GALLOWAY — with the possible exception of 12 Years a Slave, which I loved, but I bet it snagged a healthy number of votes from people who never actually watched it.

FEINBERG — but that's not going to be a problem for Beasts because (a) virtually everyone has Netflix, even the fogies in the Academy, and (b) Netflix is promoting it in the same aggressive way it pushed its doc contenders over the last couple of years — 2013's The Square and 2014's Virunga both got nominated. That said, it's a graphic and upsetting movie to watch, and I'm not totally convinced people will want to sit through it even if they can do so easily.

GALLOWAY I saw it in Telluride where several people couldn't take the violence and walked out of the theater. Without a big name — and Idris Elba, like Fassbender, still hasn't proved he's a movie star — it'll face an uphill battle. But I do love those posters Netflix is splattering all over town, which are intriguing. If I hadn't seen the movie, they'd make me want to watch it.

FEINBERG Doesn't every contender so far — even the presumptive frontrunner, Spotlight — face some major hurdle like that? (I really liked Spotlight, but I must acknowledge there's no real conflict in the story, since everyone watching it must be disgusted by the child abusers, who are almost invisible in the film anyway.)

GALLOWAY You're right. Every picture has some strike against it, and there still aren't a solid 10 viable best picture nominees. I can only think of three or four that I'd consider a lock. (OK, since you no doubt were about to ask: The Martian, Spotlight, Straight Outta Compton and Steve Jobs.) Which may lead voters to revisit movies that were released earlier in the year, like Love & Mercy, the Brian Wilson biopic —

FEINBERG — which was released in June. This week, the film's two supporting hopefuls, Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks, were omnipresent, participating in multiple Q&As and attending a luncheon at Craig's as well as an evening performance by Wilson at Vibrato (where Dano joined him in song), all attended by voters from key constituencies.

GALLOWAY You're our man-about-town, Scott. Have you spotted any other early-bird contenders on the campaign trail?

FEINBERG Mr. Holmes' Ian McKellen and 99 Homes' Michael Shannon have been making the rounds. And Blythe Danner from I'll See You in My Dreams — which also was the first screener to go out to Academy members — is about to be joined on the campaign trail, if only for one luncheon, by her Academy-approved daughter Gwyneth Paltrow. Never say never! (I can also exclusively report that Straight Outta Compton screeners will be going out next week, which will help to keep that August release top of mind.)

GALLOWAY You know what's striking about all the films we've discussed? There isn't a single foreign-language contender among them. It seems that the Academy has recently been more open to subtitled films in categories outside best foreign-language film (City of God, Amour, Ida), but none seems to have caught fire this go-around.

FEINBERG Well, our friends at Sony Classics believe that Son of Saul, the Hungarian film about a Jew trying to bury his son while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, could be that film this year. They maintain that it's a best picture contender and that its lead actor, Geza Rohrig — who is, in real life, a punk rocker turned rabbi, if you can believe it — might sneak a nom, too. While those scenarios seem a bit far-fetched to me, I've learned the hard way that, when predicting Oscar noms and wins, it's dangerous to bet against a Holocaust movie, however bleak it may be (and this one is bleak).

GALLOWAY It's a pretty impressive film, and I have to assume it's a lock for a foreign-language nom.

FEINBERG I agree. We should mention that, earlier this month, 81 countries submitted a movie for consideration in that category, and that was Hungary's pick.

GALLOWAY Rather remarkably, when you look at how hostile its government is being to migrants whose plight echoes that of some of the Jews fleeing the Holocaust. What else is going on in the foreign-language world?

FEINBERG There's been a bit of a brouhaha this week because the film that mighty China submitted, Wolf Totem, was returned to them as unacceptable because, in the view of the Academy's foreign-language film award executive committee, too much of its principal creative team is not Chinese. This sort of thing has happened before, but that didn't make the film's French director any less angry. Anyway, we now know the field from which the good folks in the Academy will pick their shortlist of nine (in December) and then five nominees (in January).

GALLOWAY And with any luck, a couple of people out in America might actually pay to watch them.

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