Midyear Awards Report: The Weinstein Co. (Analysis)
After the back-to-back picture, director and actor Oscar wins for "The King's Speech" and "The Artist," the awards powerhouse returns with three major contenders from auteurs whose previous films were Academy favorites.
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.
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THE WEINSTEIN CO.
Last season, this mini-major, whose awards efforts are overseen by Harvey Weinstein, claimed Oscars for best picture, best director and best actor for the second year in a row, thanks to its Cannes acquisition The Artist, which followed in the footsteps of The King's Speech. The Weinstein Co. also took home Oscars for best actress (delivering Meryl Streep her long-awaited third statuette), best documentary feature (the sports-themed Undefeated prevailed in a fiercely competitive year), best costume design, best makeup and best original score. In short, 2011 reaffirmed that, for better or worse, nobody knows how to play the game like Harvey.
2012 SO FAR
There was no celebratory vacation for this studio in the wake of its Oscars triumph. Little more than a month after the ceremony, following a barrage of advance publicity as a result of a ratings dispute between Weinstein and the MPAA, the studio released Lee Hirsch’s Bully, a doc that it had picked up at the Tribeca Film Festival. The $1.1 million film, which looks at the troubling rise in school bullying around the country, grossed a very respectable $3.5 million domestically, despite never playing on more than 263 screens.
Then, on May 25, the studio released Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s The Intouchables, an $11.5 million French film based on the true story of a wealthy middle-aged white man (played by Francois Cluzet) who became a paraplegic and hired an impoverished young black man (Omar Sy) to serve as his aide, resulting in an unlikely friendship. TWC purchased the film's North American distribution rights last summer, prior to its November release in France. By the time it opened stateside, it was already a blockbuster of historic proportions in France, where it is now the second-highest-grossing French film of all time. It has traveled well, too, grossing more than $355 million internationally; that's more than any other French film and, for that matter, any non-English-language film, save for The Passion of the Christ (2004). TWC hoped to capitalize on that international buzz here at home -- Weinstein himself even granted a series of interviews, speaking to everyone from Rachel Maddow on The Rachel Maddow Show (see 15:28 on) to film bloggers -- but American moviegoers have purchased only $5.7 million worth of tickets thus far.
2012 STILL TO COME
No studio's second-half slate for 2012 -- save, perhaps, for Warner Bros.' -- is packed with more buzzed-about titles than TWC's.
Early in the fall, the studio will release two films that it premiered in May at Cannes, where they were greeted politely but didn't capture any prizes: John Hillcoat’s Lawless, arriving Aug. 29, is a Prohibition-era ensemble drama originally known as The Wettest County in the World, the title of the book from which it was adapted. Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, set for an Oct. 19 release, is a crime thriller starring Brad Pitt that was originally titled Cogan’s Trade, after the source book -- its new title sounding oddly like a 1995 Fugees song.
TWC's main attractions of the fall, though, are three hotly anticipated titles that the studio has kept close to its vest, each of which was directed by one of America's most celebrated young(-ish) auteurs who saw his previous film nominated for a best picture Oscar.
First up on Sept. 14 is The Master, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since There Will Be Blood. A thinly veiled depiction of the rise of, and eventual dissention within, the Church of Scientology, the $42 million venture stars Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson’s longtime muse, as a charismatic L. Ron Hubbard-like figure who, like Hubbard, founds a religion after World War II. His character is helped by a young drifter-turned-true believer (Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix) and supported by his wife (Oscar nominee Amy Adams). The film, which was sneak-screened Aug. 4 in Santa Monica and will have its world premiere Sept. 1 in Venice, also features performances by Oscar nominees Laura Dern and -- get this -- Patty McCormack (who was last nominated 56 years ago for The Bad Seed), plus a score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who also scored Blood.
The Silver Linings Playbook
Next comes The Silver Linings Playbook on Nov. 21. David O. Russell’s follow-up to The Fighter is a dramedy set in the present. Adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel, it revolves around a depressed high school teacher (Bradley Cooper) who, after being institutionalized for four years, is released into the care of his parents (Oscar winner Robert De Niro and Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver). While attempting to woo back his ex-wife (Brea Bee), he becomes romantically entangled with a neighbor who has problems of her own (Oscar nominee and current "It" girl Jennifer Lawrence). Julia Stiles also stars as Lawrence's sister. The film, which has been described to me as an intense but funny exploration of mental illness, will have its world premiere at Toronto in September.
And then, on Christmas Day, Quentin Tarantino’s first post-Inglourious Basterds effort, Django Unchained, hits theaters. Weinstein has said of the film, “The intelligence is high and the body count is higher.” Its premise reads like one of the old B-movie spaghetti Westerns that inspired Tarantino's love of movies, but it actually takes place in the South two years before the U.S. Civil War. In that setting, a freed slave-turned-bounty hunter (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx) plots, with the help of his mentor/employer (Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar for Basterds), to rescue his wife (Kerry Washington) from the evil plantation owner to whom she is enslaved (Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio), who has a loyal slave of his own (Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson).
In-between those films, the studio could release as many as four other titles, though one or two might well be pushed to 2013. The two most likely to remain in 2012: The Sapphires and Quartet.
The Sapphires, a musical dramedy, tells the true story of the Sapphires, four young Aboriginal Australian singers, described as Australia's answer to the Supremes, who were sent to entertain the troops in Vietnam in 1968. It was written by Aboriginal playwright Tony Briggs and marks the directorial debut of Aboriginal actor/TV director Wayne Blair. The film -- which TWC picked up just days before it premiered at Cannes -- received a 10-minute standing O following its midnight screening there. The only internationally known member of the cast is Chris O'Dowd, who played the cop in Bridesmaids and plays a talent scout in this film.
Quartet, meanwhile, marks the directorial debut of 74-year-old, two-time Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman. An adaptation of Oscar winner Ronald Harwood’s play-turned-screenplay, it concerns four bickering residents of a home for retired opera singers who decide to unite to mount one last performance. It is said to be a light film, but the pedigree of its four principal septuagenarian actors is formidable, to say the least: Tom Courtenay, who was Oscar-nominated 29 years ago for The Dresser (1983), and 18 years before that for Doctor Zhivago (1965); Pauline Collins, an Oscar nominee 23 years ago for Shirley Valentine (1989); Billy Connolly, a veteran Scottish actor-comedian; and Maggie Smith, a six-time Oscar nominee who has won twice, for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and California Suite (1978). Revered vet Michael Gambon also stars.
The two titles most likely to move to next year, it seems to me, are Song for Marion and Only God Forgives. Marion a dramedy from writer-director Paul Andrew Williams, features veteran actor Terence Stamp, an Oscar nominee 50 years ago for Billy Budd (1962), as Arthur, a grumpy old man who joins the local choir after his wife Marion (Oscar winner Vanessa Redgrave) falls ill and dies. There, he is inspired by the choir director (Gemma Arterton) to change the way he looks at the world. Only God Forgives, which reunites writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn and Oscar-nominated actor Ryan Gosling, who teamed up for last year's Drive, is a dark story set in the criminal underworld of Bangkok, with Oscar nominee Kristin Scott Thomas playing Gosling's godfather-esque mother.
Of all the titles on the TWC slate, my hunch is that The Master will be the most widely embraced by the Academy. It even could score more than the eight noms that Blood received just five years ago. That film nabbed above-the-line noms for picture, director, actor, screenplay and below-the-line attention for art direction, cinematography, film editing and sound editing. This one would seem to have a strong shot at all of those, plus best supporting actor (Phoenix will be pushed for lead and Hoffman for supporting), supporting actress (Adams) and original score (Greenwood's Blood score was deemed ineligible). One potentially important consideration, though: It is likely to generate a backlash from the members of Hollywood's Scientology community, some of whom rank among the industry's most famous and influential people. Anderson, who directed Tom Cruise, the world's most famous Scientologist, in the 1999 film Magnolia, reportedly has screened the film for him, ostensibly to try to gauge what that response might be.
Silver Linings strikes me as less up the Academy's alley -- its members generally like films that possess "gravitas" and "social importance" -- but, in fairness, many people initially had the same reservations about Russell's previous film, The Fighter, another ensemble effort about a complex family, and it wound up with seven Oscar nominations and two wins. Of his new film's cast, I'm told that Lawrence and De Niro have real shots at noms for best actress and supporting actor, respectively. But the person I'm most interested in monitoring is best actor hopeful Cooper. An Actors Studio alum , he has shown great potential in more "serious" films -- he was terrific in the criminally underappreciated Limitless -- but still is regarded by many film aficionados as something of a lightweight, "the dude from the Hangover films." It will be interesting to see if this collaboration with Russell persuades people to look at him in a new light, as The Fighter did for Mark Wahlberg; in that case, a best actor nomination ultimately was not bestowed by the Academy, but you don't hear people taking Wahlberg for granted anymore.
I have no doubt that Django, like virtually all of Tarantino's films, will provide for rollicking entertainment, but I could see it going either way, in terms of the Academy. Will it be more like Kill Bill (i.e. a super-violent film that is just too over-the-top for Academy members) or Basterds (i.e. a super-violent film with which they are willing to roll)? It has going for it the fact that, like Basterds, it is set against a historical backdrop and grounded, to a greater extent than some Tarantino films, in reality, which makes it easier to argue that it possesses the necessary gravitas and social importance. But going against is the fact that it is arriving in the wake of several instances of horrific violence on American soil -- the shootings of Rep. Gabby Giffords in Arizona, moviegoers in Colorado and worshippers at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. These incidents have prompted many, including Weinstein himself, to begin a discussion about violence in the movies, and might give pause to some who otherwise would consider backing the film. In any case, look out for acting and below-the-line noms, which Tarantino delivers as reliably as anyone. His villains, in particular, tend to be too delicious to ignore in the supporting categories -- Jackson was nominated for Pulp Fiction (1994) and Waltz won for Basterds -- which bodes well for DiCaprio, who is still in search of his first Oscar.
As for the studio's other offerings, awards prospects are more limited. Sy is terrific in Intouchables -- indeed, he beat The Artist's Jean Dujardin to win the best actor Cesar Award, France's version of the Oscar, less than a month before Dujardin won the best actor Oscar. But performances given in foreign languages are almost never nominated. Sapphires and Quartet both sound like cute little indies with impressive ensemble casts -- the sorts of films that get nice-enough reviews and maybe make a few bucks but fail to break through with the Academy. (Think Fair Game or Made in Dagenham.) Stamp, if amazing in Song for Marion, conceivably could pull off a career-tribute nom in the vein of Richard Farnsworth for The Straight Story (1999), but those are few and far between. And, based on how things went at Cannes, Lawless and Killing Them Softly could face an uphill challenge as far as awards are concerned, save for perhaps a below-the-line nod or two.
Sundance: On the Scene