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Screener Wars: 'Mud' and 'Place Beyond the Pines' First to Hit Voters' Mailboxes

THR's awards analyst reports that the films, both released on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, have been sent to HFPA members and select journalists.

Place Beyond The Pines Mud Split - H 2013
Focus Features/Roadside Attractions

It happens every year, but in 2013, it's happening even earlier than usual: Distributors of little films with dreams of big awards clamor to be the first to get a "screener" of their contender into the hands of awards voters and the press. Their hope is that it might improve the chances that recipients will actually take the time to watch the film before they are inundated with screeners and screening invitations to higher-profile titles. That strategy has worked in recent years, at least with the Academy, which awarded major Oscar noms to the indies Frozen River (2008), Animal Kingdom (2010) and A Better Life (2011), all of which got an early jump on the competition.

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This year, the first two films out of the gate are Focus Features' The Place Beyond the Pines, an epic multi-generational triptych written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, and Roadside Attractions' Mud, a coming-of-age drama written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Both titles were mailed out over the last week to members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (whose voters determine Golden Globe nominations and winners) and awards bloggers. However, they may not have yet reached members of the Academy, which requires that screeners be sent in specially produced unmarked packaging, as opposed to commercial Blu-rays that contain artwork and endorsements.

 Both films received theatrical releases in the spring and were very well-reviewed (Mud is at 98% and Pines is at 82% on RottenTomatoes.com), and have been neck-and-neck for the spot of highest-grossing specialty film of the year -- Mud ($21,448,600), which is still in 35 theaters, passed Pines ($21,403,519), which has completed its theatrical run, last weekend. Their DVD/Blu-ray release dates were locked in long ago -- both came out on Tuesday -- and because commercial copies of the films are now available, both distributors decided to spend the relatively little dough necessary to send Blu-Ray copies of them to the roughly 90 members of the HFPA and a few dozen journalists.

(Neither distributor is ready yet to send copies of the films to Oscar voters; meeting the Academy's specific requirements is far more tedious and expensive.)

"We're using the retail Blu-ray as an opportunity to introduce the movie to some new press and to provide our champions in the press with a copy," said a source at Roadside. A source at Focus told me, "The Blu-ray came out and we decided to take that opportunity to do a 'reminder campaign'," adding that copies were sent "to critics, awards pundits and champions of the film, in addition to the traditional press who cover DVD and Blu-ray releases."

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Both distributors plan to mount across-the-board campaigns, but acknowledge that their prospects are clearly stronger in some categories than others -- namely, in both cases, supporting actor and original screenplay. Roadside's best bets for Mud are Matthew McConaughey for supporting actor (he'll be pushed in the lead category for Focus' forthcoming Dallas Buyers Club) and Nichols for original screenplay. Focus, meanwhile, is pushing Cianfrance for original screenplay and, for supporting actor, adopting an approach similar to the one that Paramount employed a few years ago for Babel (2006). The source at the studio declared that, because the film is an ensemble piece, all of its stars -- including Bradley Cooper (who will probably be pushed in the lead for Sony's forthcoming American Hustle) and Ryan Gosling -- should be considered for supporting categories.