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When the final envelope was opened at the 86th Academy Awards, distributor Fox Searchlight could claim the best-picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, but it was rival Warner Bros. that took home the most gold, a whopping 10 statuettes.
Gravity collected seven of those trophies: While Alfonso Cuaron was singled out as best director, the survival-in-space tale also prevailed in the categories of cinematography, film editing, visual effects, score, sound mixing and sound editing. Warners’ dominance also got a boost when Spike Jonze won the prize for best original screenplay his quirky, futuristic romance Her, and Catherine Martin and her collaborators took home the Oscars for costume and production design for the sumptuous The Great Gatsby, directed by her husband Baz Luhrmann.
It was a moment of triumph for the new Warner team, headed by CEO Kevin Tsujihara and the trio of Sue Kroll, Greg Silverman and Toby Emmerich. But while thanking the current team, Cuaron also tipped his hat to the previous administration headed by Alan Horn and Jeff Robinov, who were at the studio when he first began the project.
Warner Bros. — which fielded last year’s best picture winner Argo – may be on a roll, but there was nothing predestined about Gravity’s success. On paper, the tale of two astronauts left adrift in space might at first have looked like a genre offering, promising spectacular visual effects but lacking the gravitas that the Academy traditionally honors. So Kroll and her marketing team could take a bow for taking a movie that in years past might have picked up Oscars only in the technical categories, and transforming it into one of the evening’s big winners.
Cuaron’s film, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, got a prestige launch when it was selected to make its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in late August, and then continued to pick up critics’ endorsements as it played Telluride and Toronto in advance of its October 4 release. Even then, there were some who doubted the movie’s eventual commercial appeal, but Gravity, produced by David Heyman and Cuaron, proved them wrong by going on to take in $705 million worldwide, making it the biggest commercial hit among this year’s best picture nominees.
The one-two punch of Telluride and Toronto also jump-started Steve McQueen’s 12 Years, which was immediately hailed as one of the year’s best, and most provocative and demanding, films.
The film was produced by Searchlight, Arnon Milchan’s New Regency, Bill Pohlad’s River Road, and Brad Pitt’s Plan B, but it fell to Searchlight presidents Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula to nurture it through its commercial release, which began with a limited opening on Oct. 18. Eventually, the film confounded naysayers and topped $50 million at the domestic box office, while collecting $140 million worldwide.
Throughout awards season, there were some who fretted the film, with its unflinching scenes of human degradation, would be too tough for a lot of academy members. Ultimately, though, Oscar voters not only awarded it best picture, but embraced newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who was named best supporting actor, and saluted John Ridley for the screenplay he adapted from Solomon Northup’s account of his years in slavery.
For Searchlight, it was a return to the best picture winners circle, which it last inhabited when it steered 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire to victory.
Dallas Buyer’s Club also emerged as one of the night’s multiple winners for its distributor Focus Features, Universal Pictures’ specialty film division, which is currently undergoing a makeover. Dallas picked up three Oscars — for its two actors Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto and for best makeup and hairstyling.
Disney racked up two awards as the billion-dollar-grossing Frozen emerged as best animated feature and its tune “Let It Go” was applauded as best song.
Sony Pictures Classics could claim one Oscar after Cate Blanchett was awarded best actress for her work in Blue Jasmine.
The Weinstein Co’s VOD label Radius-TWC figured in the documentary film race, where its 20 Feet To Stardom, took the prize.
And Netflix got its foot in the Oscar door when The Lady In Number 6: My Life in Music was named best documentary short, since Netflix picked up streaming rights to the film about the late Holocaust survivor Alice Herz Sommer just last week.
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