Paramount plays Oscar waiting game

Studio opts for late-season rollouts for 'True Grit,' 'The Fighter'

Is it better to be early to the party or make a fashionably late entrance? When it comes to the Oscar race, there's no one-size-fits-all answer.  Last year, Paramount went out early with Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air," debuting the movie at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals well in advance of its Dec. 4 opening.

But this year, while the handicappers are all racing to declare an early front-runner -- "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network" have captured the kind of early, breathless buzz that "Air" enjoyed last year -- Paramount is displaying the most patience of any of the major studios, hanging back before unveiling its two year-end awards hopefuls, "The Fighter" and "True Grit."

David O. Russell's "Fighter," which stars Mark Wahlberg in the true-life story of boxer "Irish" Mickey Ward, doesn't open until Dec. 10, when it will be introduced in limited release before going wide the following weekend. While the film, from Relativity and Mandeville, was shot in 2009, Paramount doesn't plan to begin screening it for awards groups until mid-November.

The Coen brothers' "Grit," a new adaptation of Charles Portis' 1968 novel -- also the basis for the 1969 movie that earned John Wayne his one and only Oscar for his performance as Rooster Cogburn -- will not hit theaters until Christmas Day, when it opens wide. The filmmakers haven't yet turned the completed movie in to the studio, so it isn't expected to begin screening until later in November.

While "True Grit" was never a candidate for the early festival route, Paramount could have taken that tact with "Fighter," but decided to lay low for the moment. "It really was a from-the-gut decision," said Katie Martin Kelley, executive vp publicity for Paramount. "For every single campaign, whether it's the awards or release campaign, you have to do the right thing for the movie. While playing the festivals can result in a tremendous amount of word-of-mouth advance publicity, it can be hard to keep the message going all the way to December. So we decided to take a different path this year. The No. 1 objective is obviously getting the movies opened successfully."

Last year, the studio opted to take "Up" to Toronto, since Reitman enjoyed a close relationship with the festival, where his two previous films, 2005's "Thank You for Smoking" and 2007's "Juno," were unveiled. Ultimately, the move paid off at the box office, with the $25 million "Up" grossing $163 million worldwide.

But during the course of its monthslong awards campaign, the movie arguably wore out its welcome: While it earned six Oscar nominations and plenty of other kudos along the way, come Oscar night, it went home empty-handed. The filmmakers and the studio's campaigners were exhausted -- and disappointed.

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In the case of "Fighter" and "Grit," the studio is betting it can build a similar level of awareness -- both among awards voters and the general public -- in a much shorter period of time. And avoid risking any loss of momentum in the process.

Certainly, both films come with plenty of marquee elements, and lots of Oscar bloggers have been including them on their early list of potential best picture contenders sight unseen.

His Calvin Klein days long behind him, Wahlberg earned Academy cred with his best supporting actor nomination in 2007 for "The Departed." The "Fighters' " supporting cast includes Christian Bale and Oscar nominees Amy Adams and Melissa Leo.

Heading into the awards heats, Russell's resume is more problematic. While he picked up trophies at Sundance and the Spirit Awards for his 1994 debut film "Spanking the Monkey" and also earned a WGA nom as co-writer of "Three Kings," the director's explosive blow-ups on the set of "King" and "I [Heart] Huckabees" also made him notorious.

If "Fighter" does live up to expectations, it could find itself in a sweet spot since the Academy has a long-standing weakness for boxing movies -- from 1932's "The Champ," for which Wallace Beery was named best actor, through 1947's "Body and Soul," which resulted in a nom for John Garfield, and on to more recent entries like "Rocky," "Raging Bull" and "Million Dollar Baby."

While the 1969 "True Grit" only earned one other nomination besides Wayne's winning bid -- for its title tune with music and lyrics by Elmer Bernstein and Don Black -- the new incarnation comes with an Oscar pedigree of its own.

Joel and Ethan Coen have each racked up 10 nominations and four wins -- most recently copping writing, directing and producing honors for 2007's "No Country for Old Men," on which they teamed with producer Scott Rudin, who also produced "Grit" with them. (Rudin's also been busy of late, overseeing the launch of "The Social Network.")

Stepping into Wayne's shoes, Jeff Bridges will be in a position to secure back-to-back nominations, following his best actor win for last year's "Crazy Heart." And the supporting lineup includes Matt Damon, Jeff Bridges, Barry Pepper and newcomer Hallee Steinfeld.

Even as a late-entry in the race, "Grit" is guaranteed that attention will be paid. While Paramount is readying last-minute dashes for the two features, it will also be orchestrating awards campaigns for movies released earlier in the year like Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon," which will be making a bid for best picture consideration.

The studio didn't sit out the festival circuit. It used it to set the stage for Davis Guggenheim's doc about America's failing education system, "Waiting for Superman," which first played Sundance in January and then popped up at several other fests before making a stop in Toronto before it opened Sept. 24. It has earned slightly more than $679,000 in its first two weekends of limited release.

Of course, campaign strategies can only take any movie so far: Ultimately, the film has to deliver.

Last year at this time, Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones" also occupied a spot on all the early Oscar tout sheets. But when that drama, from Paramount and DreamWorks, made its own late-season entry into the competition, it ran up against a wall. Grossing just $44 million domestically, it was rewarded with just one Oscar nom, for Stanley Tucci's supporting actor turn.

When it comes to winning Oscar's attention, it's more than just a matter of timing.