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Midyear Awards Report: Paramount/DreamWorks Animation (Analysis)

Paramount will push "Flight," an across-the-board contender, and -- in partnership with DreamWorks Animation -- "Madagascar 3" and "Rise of the Guardians."

Rise of the Guardians Film Still - H 2012
Rise of the Guardians

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 -- on Sunday, Aug. 12.

The studios that we have covered, thus far: Warner Bros., Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Disney/DreamWorks/Pixar

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PARAMOUNT/DREAMWORKS ANIMATION

2011 RECAP

Paramount, the only big-name studio still based in Hollywood proper, is coming off a season in which it had an unusually large and eclectic slate of contenders, including several from DreamWorks Animation, the independent animation studio whose films Paramount has distributed since 2008. (The Paramount-DreamWorks relationship has not been renewed and will come to an end later this year.) In terms of nominations, it was delighted to score a collective 18 mentions: 11 for Hugo, Martin Scorsese's 3D love letter to film history, which tied with The Artist for the most noms for a single film; three for best animated feature, DWA's Kung Fu Panda and Puss in Boots and Paramount's Rango; three tech noms for Transformers: Dark of the Moon; and a best original score nom for The Adventures of Tintin. But it was bitterly disappointed to miss out on several others. Presumably because of longstanding genre and technological biases within the Academy, Tintin, which employed performance-capture animation, was denied a best animated feature nom. And the indie pickup Like Crazy, sci-fi blockbuster Super 8, and dark comedy Young Adult were snubbed entirely. On Oscar night, though, the folks on Melrose Avenue had plenty of reason to celebrate: Hugo dominated the below-the-line categories and walked away with as many total Oscars as The Artist -- five -- while Rango took home the animated feature Oscar.

2012 SO FAR

The studio, which is celebrating its centennial this year, returns with a considerably smaller slate than it had in 2011, which means its awards team will be able to devote an even greater degree of attention to each film.

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The first half of the year was dominated by commercial fare with limited designs on awards.

Things really got started May 16 with Larry Charles' The Dictator, the latest vehicle for Sacha Baron Cohen's crazy antics. The raunchy comedy was the subject of considerable advance publicity -- Baron Cohen appeared in character as an unhinged Middle Eastern dictator on the Oscars red carpet in February and at the Cannes Film Festival in May -- but failed to make much of a dent commercially or critically. It failed to make back its $65 million budget stateside but did quite well internationally, and it scored a mere 58 percent favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.com. Still, it's not every film that elicits comparisons to classic satires like the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933) and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940).

A little less than a month later, on June 8, came DWA's Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, the third installment in an immensely popular series of films about a group of New York City zoo animals -- voiced by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith -- who escape and experience adventures around the world, in this case joining a European circus. (My favorite part of the film: the hallucinatory sequence set to Katy Perry's "Firework," of course.) Europe's Most Wanted, which was made for $145 million, has now grossed more than $500 million. Its $200 million domestic intake, as well as its 75 percent favorable rating on RottenTomatoes, are the higher numbers for the franchise. (For point of reference, Brave, the presumptive front-runner for best animated feature at this point, has made only $9 million more domestically and scored only 2 percent higher on RT.)

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Speaking of Perry, July 5 brought Katy Perry: Part of Me, an authorized 3D film -- part concert, part documentary, part puff piece -- that is a veritable pep rally for fans of the Christian music-turned-international pop superstar. The $12 million film has grossed a little more than $24 million domestically and just under $30 million worldwide. Domestically, it is the fourth-highest-grossing concert film and seventh-highest-grossing doc of all time. It also unleashed on the world the original song "Wide Awake," which recently became Perry's ninth No. 1 single on Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 chart, tying Rihanna for the record (the list has been around for 20 years). The most remarkable thing: All nine have come within the past four years, a testament to the singer's meteoric rise that is at the center of Part of Me.

2012 STILL TO COME

The studio's first fall awards hopeful is Not Fade Away (Oct. 19), a low-budget indie that reunites David ChaseThe Sopranos showrunner making his feature directorial debut, with Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini. Like Sopranos, it also unfolds in an Italian-American community in suburban New Jersey. This one, though, focuses not on modern-day mobsters but rather on three teenagers coming of age in the 1960s -- played by John Magaro, Will Brill and Boardwalk Empire's Jack Huston -- who decide to form a rock 'n' roll band called the Twylight Zones amid the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

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Then, on Nov. 2, comes what appears to be the studio's primary 2012 contender, Flight, Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis' first live-action movie since 2000's Cast Away, following more than a decade of experimenting with motion-capture technology. The film (pictured at left) is a drama in the vein of Michael Clayton, based on an original screenplay by Real Steel scribe John Gatins, made on a midrange $30 million budget. It features a likable actor, two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington, as a likable character named Whip, a commercial airline pilot and family man who winds up in a pressure-cooker of a situation. One night, Whip's plane, with hundreds on board, crashes from the sky (I'm told that the plane crash sequence is, at roughly 10 minutes in length, a real showpiece of the movie), but he miraculously manages to land it with only a few fatalities. Initially hailed as a hero -- tests show that virtually nobody else could have safely landed the plane like he did -- it is soon revealed that he had alcohol and drugs in his blood at the time of the crash, turning him into a pariah. But did the plane fall from the sky because of its pilot or mechanical failure? And does the fact that disaster was averted only because of his piloting prowess make his pre-flight behavior any less of an offense? Oscar winner Melissa Leo, Oscar nominee Don Cheadle and especially John Goodman (in comic relief) and Kelly Reilly (as a fellow substance abuser whom Whip meets along the way) are all said to do standout supporting work.

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On Nov. 21, DWA will unveil its second awards hopeful, the 3D, computer-animated Rise of the Guardians, which is sort of an animated version of The Avengers. The film, based on William Joyce's The Guardians of Childhood book series and adapted for the screen by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole), is fundamentally a story of good vs. evil. The good guys, in this case, are universally familiar characters with unfamiliar personality traits: There's a badass Santa Claus, voiced by Oscar nominee Alec Baldwin, and a sexy Jack Frost, voiced by Chris Pine. They come together to defend children from Pitch (voiced by Oscar nominee Jude Law), the embodiment of all of their fears. The film was executive produced by Guillermo del Toro (who also worked on the story), scored by Alexandre Desplat (who has received four best original score Oscar noms in the past five years) and features, beginning with its opening shot of a man ascending through water toward light, truly beautiful animation. A screening of just 25 minutes generated considerable enthusiasm at Cannes.

Finally, the studio is so bullish about its mother-son comedy The Guilt Trip, which was directed by Anne Fletcher (The Proposal) and stars Oscar winner Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, that it has pushed back its release from Nov. 2 to Christmas Day, a date on which many a movie has opened to big bank and gone on to garner awards attention.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS

Flight is easily the studio's best bet this year when it comes to the Academy, which has always embraced Zemeckis' live-action films (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Cast Away) much more than his more recent animated films (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol). Only one of Zemeckis' films has contended for best picture (Gump, which won), but almost all of them have registered noms in the below-the-line categories, which could happen here thanks in large part to the editing, sound and visual effects work that went into the plane-crash sequence. Zemeckis' past movies also have led to best actor noms, as well, and Washington strikes me as a good bet. Eleven years after winning in the category for Training Day, he again is playing the sort of internally conflicted character that is his specialty. I'd also look out for possible supporting noms for great character actors Goodman and Leo, and maybe even Reilly.

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Guardians probably will make a fortune at the box office but could go either way with voters in the animation branch, who have, in recent years, rewarded several small, 2D and traditionally animated films over movies that used more cutting-edge technology. Still, the studio's confidence in this film and its reception at Cannes lead me to believe it's truly standout material that could register with the Academy. (And, I hear, it's gunning not only for a best animated feature nom, but also for best picture and best original song.)

At this point, the other films on the slate raise more questions. 

Not Fade Away sounds unlike anything Chase has done before, in terms of scale or tone, which is somewhat disconcerting. But he and Gandolfini deserve the benefit of the doubt after their success with The Sopranos.

Given that neither of the first two Madagascar movies scored nominations, Madagascar 3 doesn't have precedent in its favor, but certainly does have favorable reviews. In what is shaping up as a very competitive year in animation, it will be interesting to see how much those count. Regardless of how the best animated feature category turns out, a best original song nomination might also be in the cards. That's also the category in which Part of Me will have its best shot.

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And while Guilt Trip, which is almost certain to do well commercially, conceivably could be good enough to stir up some nostalgia and send Streisand to the big show as an acting nominee for the first time since 1973's The Way We Were, it seems far more likely that the only golden awards for which it will compete will come in the shape of a globe. The Golden Globes' comedy categories are also where The Dictator and Cohen have the best shot of resurfacing.

Paramount Pictures