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Midyear Awards Report: Sony Pictures Classics (Analysis)

Sony's art house division boasts a slew of indie, doc and foreign contenders, including two that were big hits at Cannes: "Amour" and "Rust & Bone."

Rust & Bone - Matthew Schoenaerts Marion Cotillard - H 2012
Rust & Bone

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.

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SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

2011 RECAP

In 2011, the indie film division of Sony Pictures Entertainment continued to do what it has done so well for the 21 years that it has been run by co-chiefs Michael Barker and Tom Bernard: take low-budget American independent films, documentaries and foreign films by directors with real voices, tactically market and distribute them and then reap major financial returns on their investments, along with key Oscar nominations and wins. Last year, SPC wound up with eight noms and two wins. Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, which opened the Cannes Film Festival, became the legendary writer-director's highest-grossing film ever, taking in more than $150 million worldwide; it scored noms for picture, director, original screenplay and art direction, and Allen's script bagged him his first Oscar in 25 years. The company also distributed three of the five films that were nominated for best foreign-language feature: Joseph Cedar's Israeli film Footnote, Agnieszka Holland's Polish film In Darkness and Asghar Farhadi's Iranian film A Separation (which won the category and was also Oscar-nominated for best original screenplay, a rare feat for a non-English-language film). SPC's biggest disappointments: the complete Oscar snubs of longtime collaborator Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In; Roman Polanski's New York Film Festival opener Carnage; David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method; and, perhaps most of all, Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, in which Michael Shannon gave a standout lead performance.

STORY: Inside the Cannes Premiere of Woody Allen’s 'Midnight in Paris'

2012 SO FAR

SPC's 2011 Oscar-nominated foreign films only went into release stateside after February's Academy Awards, and they each performed magnificently at the box-office throughout the spring.

But, in terms of 2012-eligible films, things got off to a bumpy start this spring with the April release of Darling Companion, the sixth collaboration between writer-director Lawrence Kasdan and Oscar-winning actor Kevin Kline, which also stars Oscar winners Diane Keaton and Dianne Wiest, Oscar nominees Richard Jenkins and Sam Shepard, plus Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass. Co-penned by Kasdan and his wife, Meg, the $5 million, semi-autobiographical story of a woman who loves her dog more than her husband opened this year's Santa Barbara International Film Festival, but subsequently was pilloried by critics (only 21 percent of its reviews were favorable, according to Rotten Tomatoes) and largely ignored by the public (it grossed less than $800,000).

As summer arrived, SPC hoped to repeat the success of Midnight in Paris with Allen's next European-set film, the $17 million To Rome With Love. The film features an impressive ensemble cast, including Oscar winners Allen, Roberto Benigni and Penelope Cruz; Oscar nominees Alec Baldwin, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg and Ellen Page; and Greta Gerwig, Alison Pill and a bunch of Italian actors. But, after opening the Los Angeles Film Festival, it fell flat with a number of critics -- its favorability rating is only 45 percent on Rotten Tomatoes -- though it did have its champions like The New York Times' A.O. Scott, who called it as "frothy as the milk atop a cappuccino." Commercially, after eight weeks of domestic release, it has grossed $15 million; at the same point in its run, Paris had grossed $40 million on its way to its domestic take of $57 million. Still, Rome is one of Allen's better performing films of the last decade.

PHOTOS: 'To Rome With Love,' in New York: Woody Allen Celebrates His Latest in His Hometown

Oscar winner Jonathan Demme's music doc Neil Young Journeys, the third installment of the director's three-part trilogy about the life and work of the Canadian singer-songwriter, opened a week later and was somewhat better received: It generated a 93 percent positive response on Rotten Tomatoes but grossed less than $150,000.

The studio kicked off its second half of the year on July 27 with Searching for Sugar Man, a doc that marks the directorial debut of Malik Benjellouil. Acquired shortly after it opened this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award for best international doc, the film recounts the strange story of Rodriguez, a soulful American musician who was discovered in the late 1960s by two top producers but whose debut album bombed, after which he completely disappeared. Amazingly, a bootleg copy of the album reached Apartheid-era South Africa and became a massive hit, inspiring two South African fans to investigate what really became of the man behind the music, leading them to discover a story that is even more remarkable than anything that has been rumored over the years. Now in limited release, it has a 96 percent favorability rating among both critics and fans at Rotten Tomatoes.

One of the big box-office surprises of the summer, meanwhile, has been the quick start of the Aug. 3 release Celeste and Jesse Forever, which SPC also acquired at Sundance. The $1 million rom-com -- which deliberately defies the conventions of the genre -- was co-written by Parks and Recreation actress Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, directed by Lee Toland Krieger (who has only one other feature under his belt) and stars Jones and Andy Samberg as a divorcing couple who try to remain friends while becoming involved with other people. (Elijah Wood, Emma Roberts, Chris Messina, Ari Graynor, Rob Huebel and Chris Pine also star.) The film, which has a 75 percent favorability rating among critics and fans at Rotten Tomatoes, has yet to expand beyond a few locations but already has grossed more than $300,000, making it one of the summer's top specialty debuts.

Q&A: Rashida Jones on Her Screenwriting Debut, 'Celeste and Jesse Forever'

2012 STILL TO COME

Aug. 17 brings Chicken with Plums, a somewhat surrealist French live-action drama adapted from Iranian author Marjane Satrapi's 2004 graphic novel by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, who most recently collaborated on the 2007 best animated feature Oscar nominee Persepolis. Plums played at last year's Telluride and Toronto film festivals, after which SPC acquired it and decided to hold it until this year. Set in 1958 Tehran, it centers on Nasser-Ali, a talented but tortured musician who loses the will to live after his wife breaks his beloved violin during one of their many arguments.

At next month's Toronto International Film Festival, the studio will unveil Love Is All You Need, the latest from Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier. Her previous film, the SPC-distributed In a Better World, won the best foreign-language film Oscar two years ago. This rom-com, set in Italy and featuring multiple languages, stars Irish A-lister Pierce Brosnan along with Danish actors Trine Dyrholm and Paprika Steen.

Later this year, SPC will offer up three films that played at Cannes in May: two French-language films that the studio bought before the fest and one Spanish-language film that it picked up there.

Rust & Bone (Nov. 16) is French writer-director Jacques Audiard's first film since A Prophet, a best foreign-language feature Oscar nominee three years ago. Adapted by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain from Craig Davidson's short story collection, it stars 2007 best actress Oscar winner Marion Cotillard opposite Matthias Schoenaerts, the Belgian star of last year's best foreign-language feature Oscar nominee Bullhead. The duo portray characters who are, respectively, physically and emotionally handicapped: Cotillard is a whale trainer who loses her legs, and Schoenaerts is a broke tough guy who is ill-equipped to care for his 5-year-old son. They meet and, against all odds, become key parts of each other's lives.

PHOTOS: 'Rust & Bone' Premiere in Cannes

Amour (Dec. 19) is Germany-born Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke's first film since The White Ribbon, also a best foreign-language feature Oscar nominee three years ago. (This film, like that one, was awarded Cannes' highest honor, the Palme d'Or.) Made for $9 million, it is a heart-wrenching depiction of a long- and happily married octogenarian couple's final chapter together, during which their love is tested by old age, illness and ultimately death. The film is highlighted by the touching performances of the veteran French actors Emmanuelle Riva, who is best known for Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Jean-Louis Trintignant, who starred in numerous classics including ... And God Created Woman (1956) and Z (1969) and came out of a 14-year retirement to make this film. Isabelle Huppert, who starred in Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001), plays the couple's daughter.


Amour

At Cannes, SPC acquired Chilean director Pablo Larrain's historical dramedy No, which wound up winning the festival's CICAE Art Cinema Award. The gritty-looking film, which does not yet have a release date, is based on a true story and stars Gael Garcia Bernal as Renee Saavedra, a hotshot advertising exec who was recruited by the opposition to Chile's longtime dictator Augusto Pinochet after Pinochet called for a referendum on his presidency in 1988.

STORY: Gael Garcia Bernal Becomes Youngest Actor to Receive Locarno Fest's Career Prize

Finally, SPC will unveil two gravely serious docs.

Amy Berg's West of Memphis, which opens Dec. 25, premiered at Sundance and also played at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival earlier this year before it was acquired by SPC. It focuses on the controversial case of the West Memphis Three -- three men who were tried and convicted as teenagers in 1994 of the murders of three young boys in a small Arkansas town. This is the same case that was at the center of HBO's Paradise Lost trilogy (the last installment of which was nominated for the best doc feature Oscar this year), but this film, which was already underway when HBO began filming its final installment, is less focused on proving that a miscarriage of justice took place than it is about establishing who actually committed the crime in question. Berg, whose first film Deliver Us From Evil (2006) was nominated for the best feature doc Oscar, closely collaborated on this venture with the Oscar-winning couple Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who served as its financiers and co-producers.

VIDEO: Peter Jackson on 'West of Memphis,' New Evidence Points to Stepfather

Then, at some point, the studio will release The Gatekeepers, the rights to which it acquired last month. The doc from Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh features the insights of six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic secret service agency, on their accomplishments and shortcomings over the 45 years since the Six Day War. It is said that they have never before -- individually or collectively -- spoken with such candor about their operations.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS

My hunch is that, despite its upsetting subject matter, Amour will be the studio's top contender with the Academy. A best foreign-language feature nom seems a given -- I had assumed that it would be deemed a French film (since that's where it is set and was shot), but have been advised since that it will more likely be claimed by Austria or Germany (on account of Haneke hailing from there); in either case, I can't imagine it not being among the final five. A best actor nom for Trintignant and best actress nom for Riva also seem very likely -- at least one older person is usually among the nominees in those categories, and these two veteran thespians not only carry the film but never have been recognized with a nomination for their standout work in many others. A best original screenplay nom for Haneke, who never has been nominated either, certainly seems possible; Sarah Polley scored one for her film Away From Her (2006), which deals with similar subject matter, and, though Oscar noms don't often go to films in a foreign language, sometimes a great script simply cannot be denied, as SPC proved last year with A Separation. The tallest tasks, of course, will come in the categories of best picture and best director. A best picture nomination requires passionate support, requiring a place in the top slot on at least five percent of all submitted ballots, and the best director nominations have only five slots. But if this movie resonates with the Academy, which is dominated by older folks, then anything could happen.

Rust & Bone strikes me as a major player as well. It might wind up as France's submission in the best foreign-language film category, and Cotillard certainly looks like a strong contender for best actress. Nominations for performances given in a foreign language are few and far between, but Cotillard already has had one (and won) for her performance as Edith Piaf in La vie en rose. And she is now an internationally known star (thanks primarily to Christopher Nolan's Inception and The Dark Knight Rises) and is said to kill in this film (particularly in the scene in which she realizes the extent of her injuries, which some have likened to the famous one played by Ronald Reagan in the 1942 film Kings Row). Best actor hopeful Schoenaerts faces more of an uphill climb, being less well-known and competing in a more crowded race. But it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Alexandre Desplat receive a best original score nomination for the fifth time in six years. (He has yet to win.)

Q&A: 'Rust & Bone' Director Jacques Audiard on his 'Unpitchable' French Film

SPC's other films are all angling for one or two specific nominations: Searching for Sugar Man, West of Memphis and The Gatekeepers seem like strong prospects for best feature doc (though that category, which is employing a new voting system this year, is always unpredictable). Chicken With Plums seems like a long shot for best adapted screenplay, and Celeste and Jesse seems like a long shot for best original screenplay (though certainly right up the alley of Film Independent's Spirit Award voters). And No and Love Is All You Need seem, at this early date, as likely as any films to be submitted by their respective countries for consideration for the best foreign-language film Oscar.

SPC, of course, has been known to bolster its slate with acquisitions at the fall festivals (particularly the North American ones: Telluride, Toronto and New York), so this list might yet grow even longer.


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