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Why Tom Hanks' 'Captain Phillips' Is Opening the New York Film Fest (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg outlines why the Sony contender snagged the coveted opening night slot, and speculates about the fest's other showcase slots.

Captain Phillips Trailer Screengrab Hanks - H 2013
Tom Hanks in 'Captain Phillips'

This morning's announcement that the 51st New York Film Festival will kick off Sept. 27 with the world premiere of Sony's Captain Phillips, which recounts the 2009 hijacking of a U.S. container ship by Somali pirates, makes a lot of sense.

The film, which is set for an Oct. 11 theatrical debut, is produced by Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti and Michael DeLuca, whose last collaboration, The Social Network -- also a Sony release -- provided the NYFF with one of its most memorable openers three years ago. It was directed by and stars talent whose work appeals to both cineastes and average moviegoers -- namely, Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks. Ex-fest topper Richard Pena told me in an exit interview last year that a mix of serious and splashy was always a key criterion he considered in filling that slot, since the opening night screening and its Harvard Club afterparty need to attract big donors. And I've heard from reliable sources that it has tested through the roof, which would support the notion that it is of the Oscar caliber that the fest has sought for its opening film in recent years. In addition to The Social Network, recent fests have launched with About Schmidt (2002), Mystic River (2003), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), The Queen (2006) and Life of Pi (2012).

STORY: Tom Hanks' 'Captain Phillips' Set for N.Y. Film Festival

That being said, I wouldn't have been shocked if the prestigious honor of opening the second-oldest American film festival -- in the media capital of the world -- had been bestowed upon Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street -- a Paramount pic, set in Gotham and slated for a Nov. 15 release. The movie, written by Terence Winter, stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill and Jean Dujardin, among others, and also fits the aforementioned criterion. Wolf of Wall Street is in the can and trailered and has not yet been announced as a Venice Film Festival (Aug. 28-Sept. 7) or Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 5-15) premiere. Perhaps it will end up debuting in New York's midfest centerpiece slot or closing night slot, which last year went to Paramount pics Not Fade Away and Flight. Or maybe it will have an off-the-books sneak screening at the fest, like those which generated considerable excitement for Paramount's Hugo (2011) two years ago and for DreamWorks' Lincoln (2012) last year.

Frankly, I'm baffled as to why Sony Classics' Blue Jasmine -- Woody Allen's latest, which features a terrific performance by Cate Blanchett -- wasn't held for New York, instead of opening last Friday in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles without much attendant fanfare. But it's apparently doing just fine: Its opening weekend brought with it rave reviews and the largest per-theater take of any film currently in release.