Awards Watch: Midseason report

Globes, SAG noms only thicken the awards plot

Now things start to get interesting.

The backers of this year's leading awards contenders head toward the race that matters most -- the Oscars -- with a slew of distinct challenges following this week's announcements of the Golden Globes and SAG Awards nominations.

Three movies that were considered serious contenders now face a more uphill battle, given that they missed the cut for the Globes best picture categories: Paramount's "The Lovely Bones," Sony Pictures Classics' "An Education" and Warner Bros.' "Invictus."

Of the three, "Invictus" may be the best positioned to still score a coveted Oscar best picture nom, given that the Globes nominated its director, Clint Eastwood, and both the Globes and SAG nominated actors Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon -- and given that in recent years the Academy has had an open love affair with Eastwood. "Invictus" also has been a player in year-end critics' lists.

"Bones" hasn't fared as well with critics and was overlooked by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. for picture, director, screenplay and even for Saoirse Ronan, whom many expected to figure as a nominee for lead actress (drama). Stanley Tucci got the movie's only Globe and SAG nominations, as supporting actor.

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Contrast that with Paramount's other awards entry, "Up in the Air," which went six-for-six in the major Globes categories, nominated for picture, director, screenplay (three noms for Jason Reitman alone) and its main cast members: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. That meant the movie was nominated in every major category for which it was eligible, except some below-the-line ones like original score.

Paramount will now have to choose between focusing its awards campaign on "Up in the Air" or splitting its efforts between that film and "Bones." (The studio has been among the most averse to spending money so far this awards season.)

For studio chairman Brad Grey, this means weighing the value of giving an all-out push to the current front-runner -- with the reasonable conclusion that a best picture Oscar for "Up in the Air" could add huge value to the film's DVD sales and library worth -- versus the equally reasonable conclusion that it might be unwise to alienate one of the world's leading directors, Peter Jackson. The studio, for instance, was careful to send out one screener package containing both movies.

If this is the challenge Paramount faces, the little-engine-that-could, Sony Classics, will have an altogether different one. Until just a few days ago, "An Education" was considered a lock for best picture, director, screenplay and supporting actor Peter Sarsgaard -- until the Globe nominations came out and actress Carey Mulligan was the only contender singled out.

The film did score a best ensemble nom from SAG, but the Globes snub is a surprising blow that has led to some serious head-scratching in awards circles. Is the HFPA simply different from the Academy, in which case the movie might stand a chance for best picture after all? Or did allegations of anti-Semitism truly hurt the movie -- in which case it could suffer a similar fate with the heavily Jewish quotient that makes up the Academy.

"An Education" could still be in the running, given that there are 10 slots for best picture at the Oscars and the Academy is not forced to divide them up between drama and musical/comedy, like the Globes. Most believe that dramas will score more than five of the Oscar noms.

So a heavy investment in a publicity campaign that tackles the negative allegations and the picture's "Lolita"-esque theme might be a worthy investment.

Sony Classics' canny chiefs, Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, will have to measure all this against their innate frugality and against the surprising traction that now accompanies their other major awards release, "The Last Station," which resulted in Globe and SAG nominations for Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer.

These are the dilemmas facing the underdog but it's not all that much easier for some of the front-runners.

"Up in the Air," which could give Grey his first best picture Oscar since joining Paramount five years ago, runs the risk of peaking too soon, especially with a young director (though 2007's "Juno" scored noms for best picture and best director). The film also failed to score an ensemble nom from SAG.

"Inglourious Basterds" returns Quentin Tarantino to the front lines of the awards race to a greater degree than with any picture since "Pulp Fiction." But that might not be an unvarnished joy for the Weinsteins, who will face pressure to prove they are still masters of the awards game -- and who will have to decide whether they can afford to campaign.

And "The Hurt Locker" leaves Summit Entertainment -- and in particular its marketing chief, Nancy Kirkpatrick -- with the task of proving that the minimajor's recent cachet doesn't revolve around just the "Twilight" franchise. If Summit can deliver baubles to helmers as well as screaming girls, it will prove it can truly play with the big studio boys.

Not the least of this year's awards challenges falls in the lap of Fox, breathing a sigh of relief that James Cameron's first movie since "Titanic" has not only won over critics (mostly) and audiences, but also scooped up four Globe noms. Fox now has the tough task of converting those Globes noms into an Oscar victory -- yes, a victory, not just a best picture nomination -- if it wants to avoid sniping that the movie failed to deliver on "Titanic" levels.

Unlike last year, when "Slumdog Millionaire" established itself as a Globes and SAG front-runner on its way to Oscar's top prize, this year's noms would seem to indicate an uncertain path ahead. For instance, while "Avatar" was recognized for Globes picture and director, it notably was overlooked in the screenplay category and none of its cast received acting noms -- and actors make up the largest contingent of the Academy's 5,800 voting members. Plus, "Titanic" received eight Globe nominations compared with "Avatar's" four. (It subsequently received 14 Oscar noms and 11 wins, including best picture.)

Of course, come the Oscars, Cameron will benefit from a slew of nominations in the technical arena, where "Avatar" is perceived as such a groundbreaking endeavor that it is almost certain to win several of them -- an area the Globes largely avoids.

If "Avatar" will be hurt by its weakness with the Academy's acting branch, "Precious" may gain there, not least given that Mo'Nique is perceived as a front-runner for supporting actress. The Globe and SAG nominations for lead actress Gabourey Sidibe could add to "Precious' " momentum. But the notable omission of director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher from the Globes party might indicate the picture doesn't have the traction to go all the way.

Director Rob Marshall's omission for "Nine" was equally striking -- especially given that the movie had a total of five Globes noms. Like "Precious," it did particularly well when it came to its cast, with Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard and Penelope Cruz all nominated.

Among those, Cruz may be the most likely to receive an Oscar nomination, given that the Globes only has five supporting actress slots, just like the Oscars, whereas its 10 lead actor and lead actress slots (spread across drama and comedy/musical) mean that Cotillard and Day-Lewis still have time to face the narrowing-down game.

And "Nine" adds to the questions for the Weinsteins: Do they shift money away from "Basterds" or spend lavishly on those pictures and "A Single Man," when they might not have the cash to do so? The Weinstein Co. has hosted tony parties for the film in New York and Los Angeles in recent weeks, suggesting Harvey might spend what he needs to spend.

Among other strategies, Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock may have to make the toughest individual calls, thanks to an embarrassment of riches. Each was nominated twice for Globes -- Streep for "Julie & Julia" and "It's Complicated," Bullock for "The Blind Side" and "The Proposal." Unlike the Globes, the Academy mandates that an actress can only be nominated for one film in each category. But which one?

For Bullock, the answer may be simple: The Academy hugely favors drama over comedy, which means she's probably telling her reps to hush the talk for "Proposal" and remind the world about "Blind Side." The SAG nom for the latter film and its current run at the boxoffice likely will help it emerge as the preferred Bullock showcase.

As for Streep, she has two comedies in contention -- an odd twist for an actress who has spent the bulk of her career developing a reputation for heavyweight drama. She made "Complicated" a joy for many female viewers; on the other hand, she's drawn some of the best reviews of her life for "Julia."

Streep has never been much of an Oscar campaigner, which means she will in all likelihood leave the decision of where to spend money to others.