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Midyear Awards Preview: Columbia/Sony Animation/Screen Gems/TriStar (Analysis)

Sony's labels account for an eclectic batch of contenders, including Meryl Streep's latest showcase, the 23rd Bond film and Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's sure-to-be-controversial Osama bin Laden film.

Hope Springs - H 2012
Hope Springs

NOTE: Throughout July and August, The Hollywood Reporter's lead awards analyst and blogger Scott Feinberg will analyze each studio's 2012 awards outlook. He will then post his first "Feinberg Forecast" of the season -- featuring ranked projections for every major Oscar category -- by the end of August.

The studios that we have covered, thus far: (1) Warner Bros., (2) Fox Searchlight, (3) Focus Features, (4) Disney/DreamWorks/Pixar, (5) Paramount/DreamWorks Animation, (6) The Weinstein Co., (7) Sony Pictures Classics

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COLUMBIA PICTURES/SONY PICTURES ANIMATION/SCREEN GEMS/TRISTAR PICTURES

2011 RECAP

Sony Pictures Entertainment's five distribution labels account for a great number and variety of films: Sony Pictures Classics -- which was addressed separately from the others in this series' previous installment -- handles art house films; Columbia Pictures, which was an independent operation, regarded as one of the "Big Six" studios during Hollywood's Golden Age, produces event films and some artsy films that possess the potential to reach a wide audience; Sony Pictures Animation, which celebrated its 10th birthday in May, turns out animated movies; and Screen Gems and TriStar Pictures both focus on genre and/or urban fare.

PHOTOS: 'The Amazing Spider-Man' Premiere: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone Swing Into Action on the Red Carpet

Last Oscar season, in addition to Sony Classics' eight noms (two of which resulted in wins), Columbia delivered an additional 13, including at least one for each of its four awards hopefuls: six for Moneyball, including best picture, actor, supporting actor and adapted screenplay; five for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, including best actress; one for The Ides of March, for best adapted screenplay; and one for Anonymous, for best costume design. Only one, however, resulted in a win: Dragon Tattoo pulled off an upset to take home best film editing.

Screen Gems and TriStar films didn't produce any nominations -- that's not really one of their primary aims, though they occasionally stumble into some, as was the case with TriStar's District 9 three years ago -- but neither did Sony Animation, which had hoped that Arthur Christmas and/or The Smurfs would crack into the best animated feature category.

2012 SO FAR

Sony Animation kicked things off in March with The Pirates! Band of Misfits, an animated comedy that it made in partnership with Aardman Animations, the British animation studio best known for the Wallace & Gromit films, several of which won Oscars. (The two operations also collaborated on last year's Arthur Christmas.) Based on the first two books of Gideon Defoe's The Pirates! series, which chronicle the adventures of a group of swashbuckling pirates, and featuring the voices of Oscar nominee Salma Hayek, Hugh Grant and Jeremy Piven, among others, the film was made with clay, shot using stop-motion techniques (that were later enriched using computer graphics) and released in 3D. After generating a very favorable response from critics (86 percent positive, according to Rotten Tomatoes), it made $31 million domestically and more than $87 million abroad.

STORY: Summer's Studio Smackdown: From 'Men in Black 3' to 'Prometheus,' Which Franchises Will Get Another Chapter

Then, in late May, Columbia released Men in Black 3, which arrived 15 years after Men in Black and 10 years after Men in Black II. Like the sci-fi/action buddy-comedy franchise's earlier installments, this film was inspired by Lowell Cunningham's comic book series, executive produced by Steven Spielberg, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and stars Oscar nominee Will Smith and Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones as agents J and K, respectively. This time, though, Earth's extraterrestrial police are depicted in 3D, and J manages to go back in time to try to pre-emptively address an imminent threat to the life of K -- the younger version of whom is played by Oscar nominee Josh Brolin -- not to mention the agency and humankind itself. (Oscar winner Emma Thompson, Michael Stuhlbarg and Bill Hader also star.) Rotten Tomatoes indicates that the series' third film generated a 66 percent favorable response from critics (down from the 90 percent for the first but up considerably from the 39 percent for the second), with particularly strong notices for Brolin and the film's futuristic settings and special effects. It also has grossed an impressive $621 million worldwide, more than either of the earlier two, prompting plans for a fourth installment.

Columbia then kicked off the summer on July 3 with The Amazing Spider-Man, Columbia and Marvel Studios' reboot of the not-even-a-decade-old Spider-Man franchise. Stepping in for director Sam Raimi was Marc Webb -- who made his name with a movie of a very different sort and scale, (500) Days of Summer -- and taking over for stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst were Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (an equally likable duo of charming twentysomethings posing as teens). Working from a script by two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent and up-and-comer James Vanderbilt, they created a film that is not markedly different from the earlier installments -- sure, CGI has improved a bit over the past few years, but the underlying story of a boy who acquires superpowers and employs them to fight crime remains the same as it ever was -- but that still managed to seem fresh and exciting. That's thanks in large part to the leads (whose strong on-screen chemistry might be explained by the fact that they became a real-life couple during the making of the film) and charming supporting players (especially Martin Sheen and two-time Oscar winner Sally Field, who replaced the late Oscar winner Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May). The $230 million film has grossed nearly $700 million worldwide -- the fourth-highest total of 2012 (after The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and Ice Age: Continental Drift), though still less than the earlier three films -- while accruing a 73 percent favorable rating from critics, according to Rotten Tomatoes.

COVER STORY: Steve Carell Says Comedy Has Become 'Uber-Cynical,' 'Borderline Mean'

That was followed a month later by Columbia's Hope Springs, an unusual sort of film: a dramedy with a midrange budget ($30 million) starring sexagenarian actors (three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep and Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones) and targeted at the 50-and-over crowd (who usually have little to pick from at the box office during the summer). Based on an original screenplay by Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Frankel (who won an Oscar for a live-action short 16 years ago and directed Streep in the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada), the film revolves around a couple who have grown apart -- emotionally and physically -- during the course of their 31 years of marriage and who, at her urging and despite his vocal resistance, go out of town for a week of intensive couples therapy with a marriage counselor (an understated Steve Carell). The two hope to salvage and reinvigorate their relationship but do so at the risk of discovering that it is beyond repair. Watching these two wounded individuals fumbling around sexually and also revisiting deeply painful memories is not always easy but is helped by injections of periodic humor. The film, due primarily to its strong lead performances, has achieved a 74 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has, in its first two weeks in release, grossed about $26 million, primarily from older folks, especially women.

2012 STILL TO COME

Sony Animation will kick off the fall on Sept. 21 with the long-gestating Hotel Transylvania, a computer-animated 3D comedy flick that marks the feature directorial debut of Russian animator Genndy Tartakovsky, a three-time Emmy winner best known for his TV projects (which have included Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and Star Wars: Clone Wars, for which George Lucas handpicked him). This film, which will have its world premiere at next month's Toronto International Film Festival before opening wide later in September, is a "coming of age" story, at least by vampire standards: Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler), the owner of a five-star resort for the world's monsters, invites some of the most famous monster friends to celebrate the 118th birthday of his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez), but it is an unexpected human visitor (Andy Samberg) who catches her eye, to the great dismay of her father. (Other characters are voiced by Kevin James, Fran Drescher, Jon Lovitz, Cee Lo Green, Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon and David Spade.) The studio reportedly was so pleased with the finished product that it quickly signed Tartakovsky to a develop and direct two other features.


Hotel Transylvania

On Sept, 28, writer-director Rian Johnson's Looper, a TriStar production, will hit theaters nationwide, a few weeks after having its first public screening as the Toronto festival's opening-night film. Like Johnson's 2005 breakthrough film Brick, this one is a neo-noir thriller that stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a guy who gets mixed up in serious criminal mischief; in this case, though, the events are set not in the present day but rather 30 years into the future, by which point time travel has become possible. Gordon-Levitt is one of the "Loopers," a mob syndicate called that is contracted to kill people who have been blindfolded by their bosses and sent back in time from the year 2072. He dutifully discharges his job until, one day, he recognizes as one of his targets a future version of himself (Bruce Willis). As his older self attempts to outsmart and escape from his younger self, he faces a dilemma: kill his older self or risk being killed before he ever becomes it. Emily Blunt and Paul Dano also star.

VIDEO: 'Hotel Transylvania' Trailer: Adam Sandler Takes on Dracula

On Nov. 9, Columbia will release Skyfall, the 23rd film in the James Bond series, which it jointly produced with MGM, the financially struggling studio that has long owned its rights. Coming 50 years after Dr. No, the first film that was centered on Ian Fleming's classic spy character, and four years since Quantum of Solace, this one will star Bond vets Daniel Craig (it's his third go-round as 007) and Oscar winner Judi Dench (it's her seventh as M) and introduce to the franchise Oscar nominees Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney, Oscar winner Javier Bardem as the villain and Berenice Marlohe and Naomie Harris as the requisite Bond girls. The film was directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), who becomes the first Oscar-winning director to helm an installment, working from a script first tackled by Oscar winner Peter Morgan but ultimately seen through by Bond regulars Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, as well as longtime Mendes friend John Logan. (Mendes, who previously directed Dench on the stage and Craig in a film, also brought aboard for this film some first-rate below-the-line talent with whom he had collaborated, including cinematographer Roger Deakins, composer Thomas Newman and production designer Dennis Gasner.) The little we know about the plot suggests that Bond, presumed dead after a disastrous operation, turns up alive and ready to answer the call of duty after the names of all of MI6's undercover agents are leaked, the service comes under attack and the government begins to investigate M. He crisscrosses the globe hunting the terrorists and trying to re-establish order -- in the most stylish possible way, of course -- but, in so doing, discovers that M might not have been totally forthcoming to him about her past.

VIDEO: 'Looper' Trailer Puts Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a Tough Spot: Killing Bruce Willis

Finally, Columbia's Zero Dark Thirty will hit theaters Dec. 19. The project, which the studio regards as its strongest awards contender, marks a professional reunion of the personally involved writer-producer Mark Boal and director-producer Kathryn Bigelow, who collaborated three years ago on best picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, for which Boal also won best original screenplay and Bigelow also won best director (becoming the first woman to do so). That film was about the troops who risk their lives to try to defuse IEDs in Iraq; this film also recounts a story of anonymous courage and daring in a war zone by the many people who provided information and expertise that led to the Navy SEALs' fateful 2011 mission to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. (Everyone knows how the story ends, but most people don't know what led up to that ending.) The action-thriller -- the title of which is derived from a military term that is interchangable with "Oh Dark 30" and means 30 minutes after midnight but also refers to general darkness and secrecy that enveloped the decade-long hunt from start to finish -- stars Joel Edgerton, Jessica Chastain, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Ehle. It is already the subject of considerable controversy, having received unusual levels of cooperation from the Obama administration (prompting the president's critics to speculate that it will be a puff piece, even though Boal says he isn't even depicted in the film). Columbia decided to withhold the film until after November's presidential election. 

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS

Sony got into the movie business in 1989. During the 23 years since, its various labels have turned out many films that became critical and/or commercial triumphs. One thing the company has failed to produce or distribute during that time period, however, is a best picture Oscar winner -- Columbia's most recent one was The Last Emperor, which was released two years before it was acquired by Sony -- an unparalleled dry stretch among Hollywood's major studios.

VIDEO: 'Skyfall' TV Spot Debuts During Olympics Opening Ceremony Broadcast

Zero Dark Thirty probably will provide Sony with its best chance at ending that streak since it spent heavily on an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for The Social Network two years ago. Indeed, it is everything that Oscar best pictures tend to be: a film about real people and events of immense historic consequence, made by widely respected filmmakers who already have received the Academy's seal of approval, presented in a way that is palatable to both hardcore cineastes and common cinemagoers. I would look for it to contend in a variety of categories, like The Hurt Locker -- picture, director, and screenplay, to be sure; one or more of the acting categories, if any individual shines enough to be noticed from the large ensemble, as Jeremy Renner did in Locker en route to a best actor nom (Edgerton is probably the best bet); and quite possibly cinematography, film editing, original score, sound editing and sound mixing, the same below-the-line categories in which Locker registered, even though none of the people who served in those capacities on Locker returned for this film, save for the sound folks. (They have been replaced by top-notch folks including the Oscar-nominated film editors William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor.)

The rest of the slate faces an uphill climb.

Pirates! Band of Misfits and Hotel Transylvania seem like worthy contenders for best animated feature noms, but the race for that category's five slots has rarely been as crowded as it is this year, which means that Sony Animation will be lucky if one of them can find a way in. (Their performance at the box-office might provide some consolation.)

Hope Springs is a solid movie that resonates most with people who are the age of the average Academy member. But its midyear release, small-scale subject matter and understated delivery probably will preclude even longtime Academy favorite Steep -- who plays a role far less flashy than any of the four for which she has received best actress noms within the past five years -- from being remembered at year's end.

VIDEO: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Trailer Teases Bigelow's Bin Laden Takedown Film

The caliber of the behind-the-scenes talent that worked on Skyfall -- led by perennial Oscar bridesmaids Deakins and Newman -- is arguably unequaled in the history of Bond films. But no 007 film has received an Oscar nom in any category in the past 31 years. indeed, the only categories in which the franchise has ever been recognized are best art direction (The Spy Who Loved Me), original score (Spy), original song (Spy, For Your Eyes Only), sound editing (Goldfinger) and visual effects (Thunderball, Moonraker). That leads me to believe that Academy members have come to regard them like they do "summer popcorn flicks" -- inherently unworthy of their consideration -- though, to borrow from the title of another Bond movie, never say never.

Some also might dismiss Men in Black 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man both as summer popcorn fare, but their earlier incarnations still managed to receive some attention from the Academy: Men in Black won best makeup and was nominated for best art direction and original score; Spider-Man was nominated for best sound mixing and visual effects; and Spider-Man 2 won best visual effects and was nominated for best sound editing and sound mixing. I think MIB 3 will show up for best makeup and Spider-Man again will contend in the sound and visual effects categories.

Looper might be the hardest one of the group on which to get a good read. Johnson's original screenplays are always intricate and interesting, yet also a bit too quirky and bizarre for some people. Could this be the one to finally break the mold? And might it also show up in a tech category or two? Perhaps noms for best film editing or visual effects? Only time will tell.


Zero Dark Thirty