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Midyear Awards Report: Warner Bros. (Analysis)

The only major to distribute a best pic Oscar winner over the past decade bets on Batman's farewell, Ben's direction, Clint's return and two beloved literary classics.

The Hobbit Door Frodo - H 2012
"The Hobbit"

NOTE: Every other day between July 16 and Aug. 3, The Hollywood Reporter's lead awards analyst and blogger Scott Feinberg will analyze a different studio's 2012 awards outlook. He then will post his first "Feinberg Forecast" of the season -- featuring ranked projections for every major Oscar category -- on Aug. 5.

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WARNER BROS.

2011 RECAP
Warners entered the fall last year with a slate that looked extremely promising: Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, a biopic of the legendary FBI director with the potential to bring Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar; Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, boasting an all-star ensemble including four Oscar winners and four Oscar nominees; George Miller's Happy Feet Two, the sequel to 2006's Happy Feet, which had been the last non-Pixar film to win the best animated feature Oscar; Stephen Daldry's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, an adaptation of an acclaimed 9/11-themed book from a director who had scored best pic noms with two of his three previous films and featuring two of America's most popular actors in key parts; and David Yates' Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the final installment in the epic blockbuster franchise.

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Commercially, the crop proved to be a mixed bag: Deathly Hallows Part 2 did historic numbers at the box office, opening at No. 1 domestically and setting an opening-weekend record by raking in $483.2 million worldwide. (It cost $250 million to make parts 1 and 2, and part 2 alone ended up grossing about $1.33 billion worldwide.) Contagion also opened at No. 1 in the U.S. and made about $75 million worldwide, but Soderbergh said it barely broke even after factoring in marketing costs. J. Edgar made about $44 million worldwide. Extremely Loud made about $8 million worldwide. Happy Feet Two lost $40 million.

From an awards perspective, though, the studio had to feel disappointed. J. Edgar, Contagion and Happy Feet Two were completely snubbed by the Academy. Deathly Hallows Part 2, which some speculated might receive a best picture nom as a salute to the entire franchise, wound up only with noms for art direction, makeup and visual effects. And Extremely Loud, which was completed and released so late in the season that voters from some early awards groups never got to see it before casting their ballots, did wind up with a best picture nom (which, because it was so poorly reviewed by critics, surprised virtually everyone but me), plus another nom for best supporting actor. But at the end of the day, none of the five collective noms resulted in Oscars.

2012 SO FAR
Adam Shankman, who directed Hairspray! (2007) for New Line, adapted another hit Broadway musical for Warners' New Line unit, Rock of Ages (released June 15). After about a month in theaters, the $75 million film has grossed less than $50 million worldwide and earned only middling reviews. THR critic David Rooney seemed to speak for most pundits, though, when he wrote that the film's "main attraction" is the supporting performance of Tom Cruise, who portrays an "outrageously egomaniacal" rock star and had scored a best supporting actor Golden Globe nom for a similarly over-the-top appearance in Tropic Thunder (2008).

2012 STILL TO COME
Warners, the only major studio to distribute best picture Oscar winners over the past decade -- Million Dollar Baby (2004) and The Departed (2006) -- has such a large and auspicious slate this year that it has brought in Strategy PR's Cynthia Swartz, who helped to guide several films to best picture Oscars during her tenure at 42 West, to help awards specialist Michele Robertson and marketing specialist Judy Schwam, two respected vets who have worked with the studio for years, shoulder the load.

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In fact, the studio will be releasing the first of its Oscar hopefuls Friday, and it's a big one: The Dark Knight Rises (July 20), the final installment in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which THR's Todd McCarthy, in his just-released review, describes as "a truly grand finale ... the peak of big-screen comic book adaptations ... big-time Hollywood filmmaking at its most massively accomplished [and] the best of Nolan's trio." The film reunites Nolan not only with Oscar winner Christian Bale and Oscar nominee Gary Oldman, who starred in the prior two installments, but also introduces to the franchise three first-rate actors who appeared in his best picture Oscar-nominated film Inception (2010) -- Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy -- plus Oscar nominee Anne Hathaway. McCarthy writes that this film "makes everything in the rival Marvel universe look thoroughly silly and childish," but that studio's The Avengers has set a high bar at the box office that this film will have to meet in order for Warners to truly claim that this film is the people's choice of 2012.

August will bring The Campaign (Aug. 10), a hotly anticipated absurdist comedy directed by Jay Roach (who recently took a foray into TV drama with HBO's Game Change) that stars two of Hollywood's most popular funnymen, Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, as rival candidates for a seat in the U.S. Congress representing a small North Carolina district.

In September, the studio will unveil two films that have some degree of awards potential.

First up is Gangster Squad (Sept. 7), a star-studded crime drama set in late 1940s/early '50s Los Angeles that chronicles the efforts of the LAPD to keep the East Coast mafia out of town. With a cast that includes two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn, Oscar nominees Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Nick Nolte, plus Mireille Enos, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi and Emma Stone, it's hard to bet against it. But -- fairly or not -- some are questioning whether Ruben Fleischer, who made his name directing such comedies as Zombieland (2009) and 30 Minutes or Less (2011), was the right man for this directing job.

Then comes Trouble With the Curve (Sept. 28), in which 82-year-old Oscar winner Clint Eastwood -- whom many assumed had retired from acting after his performance in 2008's Gran Torino  -- steps back in front of the camera under the direction of Robert Lorenz, his occasional assistant director and Oscar-nominated producing partner at Malpaso Productions. In this film, scripted by first-time screenwriter Randy Brown, Eastwood plays a baseball scout who is losing his eyesight but embarks on one last road trip, accompanied by his daughter (Oscar nominee Amy Adams), to check out a highly touted prospect (Justin Timberlake).

In October, if not sooner at one of the September film festivals, the studio will unveil Argo (Oct. 12), Ben Affleck's third film as a director, which follows the critically acclaimed Gone Baby Gone (2007), which Miramax distributed, and The Town (2010), which was handled by Warners. (Both of those films scored a single acting nomination.) Affleck's direction has arguably improved with each film, and this one, in which he also stars (like The Town), is his first based on a true -- albeit little-known -- story. It re-creates the "Canadian Caper," a high-risk mission mounted by U.S. and Canadian intelligence forces, with help from Hollywood, to rescue six U.S. foreign diplomats from the U.S. embassy in Tehran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. The film features an all-star team of character actors in supporting parts: Oscar winner Alan Arkin, Kyle Chandler, Bryan Cranston, Victor Garber, John Goodman, Philip Baker Hall, Richard Kind and Chris Messina.

Also in October, Warners will release Cloud Atlas (Oct. 26), a sci-fi flick adapted from David Mitchell's epic novel and directed by siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. The film -- which stars Oscar winners Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Jim Broadbent, plus Hugh Grant, James D'Arcy, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving and Ben Whishaw -- depicts several storylines that unfold in different centuries and ultimately illustrates how the past impacts the present. It has apparently tested extremely well at early screenings, not least of all because of its awe-inspiring visuals, which is not surprising considering that its filmmakers are responsible for The Matrix (1999) and Run Lola Run (1998).

Finally, in December, come Warners' two biggest guns.

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Peter Jackson -- the man responsible for the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03), the third installment of which won 11 Oscars, including best picture and director -- returns to the Shire, after a nine-year hiatus, with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Dec. 14), an adaptation of half of J.R.R. Tolkien's celebrated novel. (The second half will be released next year as The Hobbit: There and Back Again.) Those earlier films famously raised the technological bar for all filmmakers, and this one apparently does the same, based on testimonials from Jackson, as well as footage that was shown at CinemaCon in April -- but controversially withheld from ComicCon this month -- that previewed the film's groundbreaking 48 frames-per-second footage (super hi-def compared with the usual 24 frames-per-second). The cast features Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage and Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as a host of LOTR vets: Oscar winner Cate Blanchett, Oscar nominees Ian Holm and Ian McKellen, plus Weaving, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis and Elijah Wood. And, if the popularity of HBO's Game of Thrones is any indication, there is still a large audience for a well-made, adult-targeted fantasy epic.

Australian Baz Luhrmann, meanwhile, joins the long list of writer-directors who have attempted to adapt The Great Gatsby (Dec. 25), F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Great American Novel." Virtually all of the earlier attempts -- the most notable of which came in 1974, starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and won Oscars for costume design and original score -- were regarded as overall disappointments, unable to capture the post-WWI, Jazz Age, Prohibition-era America of 1922 with the same power as Fitzgerald's words. Luhrmann, who is best known for his Red Curtain Trilogy -- Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge (2001) -- seems in some ways the perfect person to break the trend: He specializes in hyperkinetic energy, heightened drama and -- in partnership with his wife, two-time Oscar-winning costume and production designer Catherine Martin -- style, three of the key ingredients of Gatsby. More important than anything, though, are the characters, which is why much of the burden for this film rests with the actors who have accepted the tall task of bringing from page to screen the enigmatic Jay Gatsby (DiCaprio, who worked with Luhrmann 16 years ago on Romeo), Daisy Buchanan (Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan) and Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). Isla Fisher and Joel Edgerton also star.

INITIAL IMPRESSIONS
It seems to me that Warners' safest bet at a best picture nomination is The Hobbit. It's true that many members of the Academy voted for the LOTR trilogy's final installment, The Return of the King (2003), out of a desire to acknowledge the massive effort that produced the entire trilogy, rather than that specific film, and they may be less inclined to support another Jackson film of the same ilk, feeling that it's simply one too many trips to the same well. But there is also a significant percentage of the Academy -- primarily in the tech branches rather than the acting branch, which remains apprehensive about CGI replacing real actors (they bestowed one acting nom upon the original three films) -- who will cheer another large-scale undertaking and accomplishment of this sort. They will almost certainly number enough to deliver it a handful of tech noms, and it would be very surprising to me if the number of them who list the film at No. 1 on their ballots don't collectively account for at least 5 percent of submitted ballots, which is the threshold that a film must meet to score a best picture nomination under the new voting system.

Gatsby, it seems to me, has a huge potential upside and a huge potential downside. Luhrmann's unique tone and style can either make a film (i.e. Moulin Rouge!) or break a film (i.e. Australia). The writer-director, who usually writes and directs original material, has, in this case, opted to tackle one of the most widely read and loved novels of the past century, and critics will have their knives out ready to shred him if it's anything but great. I'm actually quite optimistic that it will be, having considered how his strengths align with the story's and seen the terrific trailer that is already playing in theaters. If all goes well, this could be the film for which DiCaprio finally bags his elusive best actor Oscar and further cements Mulligan as one of the great actresses of her generation.

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The Dark Knight Rises will, like its franchise-predecessor The Dark Knight (2008), present the Academy with a huge and highly public test of character. The earlier film was as embraced by critics as any popular film in recent memory but was still passed over for best picture and best director Oscar noms in favor of a Holocaust drama and its director (typical Academy), provoking so much outrage that the Academy expanded the best picture category to include 10 films to try to make sure that such an oversight would never happen again. As it turned out, of course, the category expansion didn't really end up bringing more popular films into the fold, but rather more of the same sort that they had always embraced. The new voting system gives a film like The Dark Knight Rises as good a shot as any that has been employed yet, but I can't say that I'm confident that it will make the cut. The bottom line is that the Academy remains dominated by older voters, many -- and quite possibly most -- of whom regard popcorn movies, particularly of the comic-book variety, as inherently unworthy of being a part of the best picture discussion. Time will tell if 5 percent of those who submit ballots feel differently.

The real incidents that inspired Argo are truly remarkable and, in the hands of Affleck, who has proved a very capable director, should make for a great film. The trailer, which alternates between being funny and deadly serious, has prompted concern among some who wonder if a film with that sort of a tone can click with voters. My own hunch is that it's something of a cross between Munich (2005), which scored a best picture Oscar nom, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), which didn't, but did register in the best actor category. Also, as we were reminded with The Artist (2011) last year, Hollywood -- which plays a key supporting role in this film -- really likes self-reflexive flattery.

Trouble With the Curve could go either way. Eastwood told me after Gran Torino and also just last year that he would only act again if presented with a truly great part. Is this that, or is it a favor for a friend who has never before directed a feature and is now doing so from a script penned by a novice screenwriter? It's certainly worth considering, though, that the last time that the legendary actor starred in a film structured around a father-daughter dynamic -- Million Dollar Baby, eight years ago -- he was nominated for best actor and the film won best picture.

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I honestly don't know what to make of Gangster Squad and Cloud Atlas, which could be purely commercial, could score a few below-the-line noms or, if the whispers are to be believed, could be unlike anything their respective filmmakers have ever done before. Meanwhile, look for The Campaign to contend in the musical or comedy categories at the Golden Globes; the HFPA has yet to recognize Galifianakis for anything (though it did honor The Hangover) but has twice nominated Ferrell (for mediocre films).