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Midyear Awards Report: Universal (Analysis)

The century-old studio is best known these days for blockbuster franchises but believes "Les Mis" could produce its first best picture Oscar in more than a decade.

Les Miserable Film Still - H 2012
Les Miserables

NOTE: Throughout July and August, The Hollywood Reporter's lead awards analyst and blogger Scott Feinberg has been analyzing each studio's 2012 awards outlook. He will post his first "Feinberg Forecast" of the season -- featuring ranked projections for every major Oscar category -- after the Toronto International Film Festival.

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, (8) Columbia/Sony Animation/Screen Gems/TriStar

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UNIVERSAL PICTURES

2011 RECAP

The studio, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, originally made its name in the horror genre. But these days, it juggles an array of franchises -- from the Bourne movies and the animated Despicable Me to The Fast and the Furious movies and a Jurassic Park sequel that's being developed for 2014. Since creating its specialty films division Focus Features (which was separately previewed in an earlier installment of this series) in 2002, Universal largely has left awards fare to the smaller company. Universal's most recent best picture Oscar winner was A Beautiful Mind in 2001, and its latest best picture nominees have been Seabiscuit (2003), Ray (2004), and Frost/Nixon (2008).

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The studio did have one unexpected critical and commercial success last year in Bridesmaids, which elbowed its way into awards contention with Oscar nominations for best supporting actress (Melissa McCarthy) and original screenplay (Annie Mumulo and Kristen Wiig).

2012 SO FAR

Less than a week after the 84th Oscars, Universal released the animated musical-comedy Dr. Seuss' The Lorax -- the fourth big-screen adaptation of a Seuss book and the second using computer animation -- in both 3D and Imax. Directed by Chris Renaud, who also co-helmed Despicable Me, the film features the chirpy voices of a wide array of likable talent, from young stars Zac Efron and Taylor Swift to Ed Helms and Rob Riggle and on to veterans Danny DeVito and Betty White. It cost about $70 million to make, and grossed $70.2 million its opening weekend, taking the No. 1 spot at the domestic box office. Despite middling reviews that criticized it for failing to capture the simple charm of the book, Lorax went on to gross $335 million worldwide.

The studio kicked off the summer with Snow White and the Huntsman -- aka SWATH -- a reinterpretation of the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale. The film marked the feature directorial debut of 41-year-old Rupert Sanders, and the cast included twentysomething stars Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth as the eponymous characters; Oscar winner Charlize Theron as their wicked-queen nemesis; and a plethora of great character actors including Oscar nominee Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan and Ray Winstone in supporting parts. Still, its most memorable elements probably were Dominic Watkins' production design, Oscar nominee David Warren's art direction and especially three-time Oscar winner Colleen Atwood's costumes. Although, the $170 million film generated poor reviews (its favorability rating is 48 percent on RottenTomatoes.com), it still opened at No. 1 domestically and grossed nearly $400 million worldwide, almost 60 percent of which came from overseas. Its commercial success, though, has since been marred by the scandalous affair between the married Sanders and Stewart, 19 years his junior, which was exposed by the tabloids and has complicated prospects for a sequel.

PHOTOS: 'Snow White and the Huntsman' Starring Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth


Snow White and the Huntsman

Less than a month later, Universal scored another hit with Ted, a raunchy R-rated comedy co-written and directed by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, making his feature directorial debut. The film stars Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis -- two immensely likable actors with first-rate comedic sensibilities who barely missed out on Oscar nominations two years ago for the dramas The Fighter and Black Swan, respectively. The film involves a troublesome teddy bear brought to life through the power of computer animation and visual effects. It earned surprisingly strong reviews; its favorability rating is 70 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and Roger Ebert hailed it as 2012's "best comedy screenplay so far." And it proved to be another No. 1 opener for the studio, taking in $370 million worldwide, more than seven times its $50 million budget.

Ted was followed by Savages, a sexy and violent crime thriller set in the Mexican drug underworld, which was co-written and directed by multiple Oscar winner Oliver Stone. The film boasts an enviable cast that includes Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Blake Lively, Oscar nominees Salma Hayek and John Travolta and Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro, but it was chided by many critics -- only 53 percent of whom liked it, according to Rotten Tomatoes.com -- for being overlong and meandering. So far, the $45 million production has grossed just $49 million, almost all of it from stateside moviegoers.

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Universal then closed out the summer strongly thanks to the action thriller The Bourne Legacy, the fourth film inspired by Robert Ludlum's popular book series. Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) -- who co-wrote this film with his brother Dan Gilroy and wrote or co-wrote the three earlier movies in the series -- assumed the directing reins for this fourth installment. Since Matt Damon, who played the title character in the first three films, didn't return for this one, the studio turned to two-time Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner, a swap that was explained away by the promotional tagline for the film, "There was never just one." Renner was supported by an impressive batch of veteran actors: Oscar nominees Joan Allen, Albert Finney, Edward Norton and David Strathairn, plus Oscar winner Rachel Weisz as his love interest. The real star of the film, in a lot of ways, is the fast-paced editing of John Gilroy (Tony's other brother), which compensates for a convoluted plot. The $125 million film opened Aug. 10 at No. 1 and thus far has grossed $130 million, a third of which has come from overseas.

2012 STILL TO COME

The studio has two film still to come in 2012, both due in mid-December, that could be big players this year's awards race. 

First up is This Is 40, a dramedy for adults that is being promoted as "a sort of sequel" to the five-year-old blockbuster hit Knocked Up (2007). Like that film, this one was written and directed by Judd Apatow, who has worked a lot as a producer in recent years -- his recent credits in that capacity include Get Him to the Greek, Bridesmaids, Wanderlust and The Five-Year Engagement -- but has not directed a feature film since Funny People in 2009. This one reunites Apatow with his frequent collaborator/bromance partner Paul Rudd and Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann. They both reprise their characters from Knocked Up, only now they are grappling with marital and parental challenges, as well as their impending 40th birthdays. The rest of the cast includes Oscar nominees Albert Brooks, John Lithgow and Melissa McCarthy; Emmy nominee Lena Dunham, who has become a star via the Apatow-produced TV series Girls); Apatow regulars Jason Segel and Chris O'Dowd; and the one and only Megan Fox.

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Just two days later, Universal rolls out its biggest gun of all, Les Miserables, which is that rarest of things these days: a good old-fashioned movie musical. Adapted from the hit Broadway play based on the 19th century Victor Hugo novel, the film, which has been in development for decades, marks director Tom Hooper's first project since The King's Speech for which he won the best director Oscar two years ago. As Valjean, a man whose past comes back to haunt him, Hugh Jackman has his first film role that showcases his talents as a singing-and-dancing performer. The rest of the cast includes Oscar winner Russell Crowe (who also sings in the film); Oscar nominees Anne Hathaway (whose vocal abilities are beautifully demonstrated in the movie's trailer) and Helena Bonham Carter (who earned the second of her two Oscar noms for her work in The King's Speech); Hollywood stars Amanda Seyfried and Sacha Baron Cohen; and theater actors Samantha Barks (who was retained from the stage production for very good reason, I'm told) and Aaron Tveit. The number of Oscar nominees and winners who handled the below-the-line responsibilities for this film suggests that its production values will be as impressive as well.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS

Universal hopes that Les Miserables will bring the studio its first best picture Oscar nomination in four years and its first win in 11 years. It will face an uphill climb, though: No film from a major studio has won since The Departed six years ago, and no movie musical has won since Chicago 10 years ago -- and none had won prior to that since Oliver! in 1968. Still, if any musical ever had a good shot, it is this one. The 1987 Broadway version of the show won Tonys for best musical, best book of a musical, best original score, best featured actor and actress in a musical and several tech awards. The studio probably will push Jackman for best actor and Crowe for supporting actor, even though the actors who played their corresponding parts on the stage both competed in the same lead category, which strikes me as a smart move. Everyone else apparently will compete in their respective supporting categories, with Hathaway reportedly standing the best chance at a nom, despite -- spoiler alert -- relatively brief screen time. As far as below-the-line categories, the sky is truly the limit.

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Speaking of below-the-line categories, nominations certainly are possible for Snow White and the Huntsman for best art direction and best costume design and The Bourne Legacy for best film editing, sound editing and sound mixing -- the same three categories the previous installment, The Bourne Ultimatum, won for in 2008 -- as well as best cinematography.

Ted is probably purely a Golden Globes contender in the various musical/comedy races; best picture is probably a stretch, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which famously drools over A-listers, nominated Wahlberg for best actor and/or Kunis for best actress.

The Lorax joins a long list of enjoyable but not outstanding animated films that hope to score one of this year's five best animated feature nominations. But given the competition it will face, it might have to be content with its tremendous box-office performance.


This Is 40