The road to Oscar

Jeremy Renner, left, Kathryn Bigelow, Brian Geraghty and Anthony Mackie at "The Hurt Locker's" 2008 Venice Film Festival premiere.


It was just a month after the 81st Annual Academy Awards.

The thrill of the event had barely faded when the Academy's analysis committee -- a group that gathers annually to do a postmortem on each show-- shuffled into a March meeting inside its Beverly Hills headquarters.
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Show producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon were there, along with then-Academy president Sid Ganis and the man who would succeed him, Tom Sherak, plus executive director Bruce Davis and a dozen board members.

The committee concluded that they liked almost everything about the 2009 show except its length. Ratings were up slightly, even though there was only one boxoffice megahit among the five best picture nominees.

Almost as an afterthought, Condon and Mark suggested a way to boost viewership: Expand the best picture category at next year's ceremony, opening the door to more high-profile movies.

It would not be until June 24 that the Academy officially upped the best picture count to 10 nominees. But already, the elements of this year's race were falling into place.

Today, two movies are front-runners heading toward what may be a neck-and-neck finish. But a year ago, the outlook was very different. How did "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker" emerge as the pack leaders and the other contenders lose steam along the way?

"Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker" are front-runners heading toward what may be a neck-and-neck finish at the Oscars. But a year ago, the outlook was very different.

At Oscar-time a year ago, at least three movies were being positioned as leaders in the race to come: Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones," Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" and Rob Marshall's "Nine." Each had an award-winning helmer and a big studio behind it -- and "Nine" had the advantage of veteran campaigners Bob and Harvey Weinstein.

The pundits all but ignored another picture that was opening in limited release the same week as the Academy's announcement.

"The Hurt Locker" had debuted at the Venice International Film Festival the previous September without a distributor or stars. Its producers had managed to scrape together the $11 million production cost through foreign presales by Voltage Pictures, founded in 2005 by sales veteran Nicolas Chartier and "Independence Day" producer Dean Devlin.

"Nicolas had the most passion and his projections were the highest," says Greg Shapiro, a "Locker" producer.

But after the movie's first public unspooling, "Locker's" future didn't appear promising. The very night it debuted, during a post-premiere dinner on the Lido, BlackBerrys began buzzing with the first critique, a mixed review from Variety.

"It was dispiriting," Shapiro recalls. "We knew every (domestic) distributor was going to read the review, which basically said it's not a commercial film."

While Shapiro and his colleagues were figuring out what to do next, Quentin Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender were wrestling with whether to even make their film.

"Inglourious Basterds" had been conceived a decade earlier, but it wasn't until the July Fourth weekend in 2008 that Tarantino had a workable script. He had contemplated turning his sprawling manuscript, hundreds of pages long, into a miniseries -- until a pep talk from French producer Luc Besson convinced him to hone his script into movie length.

Over the years, Tarantino read passages of his work-in-progress to Harvey Weinstein, who encouraged him to keep going, and to Bender, his frequent producer. When Bender called to say he loved the new draft, Tarantino immediately asked, " 'Do you think we can make Cannes?' " Bender recalls.

Sundance buzz and a charming Carey Mulligan helped make "An Education" a contender.

The festival had brought them good luck with previous pictures, especially "Pulp Fiction," and Bender was optimistic. But that meant rushing into production with just three months to prep a huge period piece that was not yet budgeted, financed or cast.

Tarantino funded preproduction out of his own pocket until a deal with the Weinstein Co. and Universal could be hammered out. The rush to be ready for Cannes was on.

While Tarantino was in Europe shooting in early 2009, two less-known filmmakers were at Sundance, hoping their movies -- a coming-of-age dramedy named "An Education" and a bleak urban drama then called "Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire" -- would find domestic distributors.

Each had traveled a bumpy road to Park City. "Education" had almost collapsed when its initial director left the project, only to re-emerge a year later under helmer Lone Scherfig; and Lee Daniels' "Push" had floundered until two neophyte Denver producers, Gary Magness and Sarah Siegel-Magness, agreed to bankroll the entire $10 million budget.

The first screening of what became "Precious" started late so all the potential buyers could be assembled. By the end of the festival, the film had sold to Lionsgate (the Weinstein Co. later sued claiming it bought the movie first) and Daniels had taken a call from Oprah Winfrey telling him she and Tyler Perry were coming aboard to executive produce.

"'Oh, this isn't going straight-to-DVD now,'" Daniels recalls thinking.

As for "Education," Sony Classics leaped in quickly after the packed Egyptian theater premiere, where star Mulligan charmed the crowd in a post-screening Q&A.

"We were very aggressive," SPC co-president Michael Barker says. "We bought not just North America but all the territories left in the world."

It was only January, but insiders anointed "Education" and "Precious" alongside "Bones," "Invictus" and "Nine" as early Oscar front-runners.

One studio that wasn't bidding at Sundance was Paramount. The studio already had its hands full with multiple contenders, including "Bones," Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" and the $30 million-plus dramedy "Up in the Air."

Long in development, "Up in the Air" had questionable commercial prospects. A hybrid of mainstream and indie elements, it wasn't easily explained in 30-second TV spots. But it did feature a genuine movie star in George Clooney and the cachet of being Jason Reitman's first film since 2007's smash "Juno."

Paramount would incur a whopping expense if it campaigned for all those pictures. And a year earlier, the studio had spent millions on "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" only to lose major awards to "Slumdog Millionaire." As it geared up to unveil "Up in the Air" at Telluride, the question was which of Paramount's babies would get the most attention.

"District 9" did not become a full-fledged awards contender until Sony sent DVDs of the film to Academy members who might have thought the film was just a sci-fi effects show.
While Paramount was ruminating, Tarantino was racing to finish his film. He had struggled to cast his villain but hit pay dirt with an unknown Austrian actor, Christoph Waltz, who joined an ensemble led by Brad Pitt. With the world media assembled on the Croisette in Cannes, a 152-minute cut debuted in May to mixed reviews. Its only festival win was best supporting actor for Waltz's gleeful turn as a Nazi.

Another debut on the Riviera was the first animated movie to open the festival, Disney/
Pixar's "Up," which also drew mixed reviews. It was good, critics said, but hardly Pixar's best.

As Tarantino returned home to re-edit "Basterds" before its late-summer domestic release, Fox was busy prepping 25 minutes of the most anticipated movie of the year, James Cameron's "Avatar," for its debut at San Diego Comic-Con International. When the footage finally screened, it drew raves for the visuals but left many wondering about the story.

"District 9" was arguably a bigger hit at Comic-Con than "Avatar," which led to a surprisingly strong boxoffice performance when it was released in August. Still, the film did not become a full-fledged awards contender until months later, when Sony sent DVDs of the film to Academy members who might have thought "District 9" was just a sci-fi effects show.

The same week "District 9" opened, Paramount pulled the plug on plans to distribute "Shutter Island" in the fall. Instead, the studio pushed the release to February and threw its resources behind "Lovely Bones" and "Up in the Air," with a modest push planned for "Star Trek."

By late August, "Hurt Locker" was gaining momentum.

Back in Venice in 2008, Time magazine had become the first to herald it as special. A spate of glowing reviews had followed the picture to Toronto that September, where it received a standing ovation. Immediately afterward, executives from Summit Entertainment, including co-chairmen Rob Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger, asked for a meeting at the Four Seasons, where they negotiated with CAA's Roeg Sutherland and Chartier for domestic rights to the picture. "We wouldn't let them out of the room until we made the deal," Friedman later recalled.

Summit had a full slate that fall, so even though producers argued for a late-year awards push, Friedman scheduled it for the summer as counterprogramming.

Despite an underwhelming boxoffice performance, "Locker" opened to hugely positive reviews. Awards buzz was building, but most of the fall festival movies were yet to premiere.

An early Oscar front-runner, "Nine" dropped from the best picture radar after poor reactions to screenings.

The word from Telluride and Toronto was that Reitman had delivered again. "Up in the Air" was heralded as touching, funny and especially resonant given the country's economic climate.

Paramount's big problem was that its strongest marketing asset, Clooney, was shooting a movie and unavailable for much of the fall. So the burden to get the word out fell on Reitman, who was tireless in attending festivals and screenings.

But then, just as "Up in the Air" opened in December and began topping critics' lists, Reitman became the subject of some controversy. A Los Angeles Times story suggested a behind-the-scenes effort to wrest co-writing credit from Sheldon Turner at a WGA arbitration. When the two co-writers appeared onstage to accept the Critics' Choice award for best adapted screenplay, Reitman didn't thank Turner or let him speak, leading to more griping -- though the duo later made joint appearances that seemed to quell the controversy.

The real push came in January when Clooney was finally available. Just as the movie went wide, he was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly and appeared in other major media.

Paramount's other awards hopeful, "Lovely Bones," wasn't faring as well. Negative reviews and a tepid rollout in limited release had all but killed the film's best picture hopes, so the studio decided to pull the movie from theaters in December and relaunch it in January with a more traditional female-centric campaign.

"Peter Jackson is a talented artist, but also a very smart businessman and he is capable of hearing the truth about a situation," says Paramount's marketing co-president, Megan Colligan. "When we didn't get the reviews, he looked at the rollout pattern, which was very supportive of an Academy campaign, and said, 'I just want you to know, if there's anything you would do to ensure this movie finds its broadest commercial audience, I want you to feel OK doing that.' "

By now other pictures had started to make their mark -- or failed to. "Invictus" screened late in the game to a generally lukewarm response. The Coen brothers' "A Serious Man" was liked but not loved, earning praise for the screenplay but only a single acting nomination from Golden Globes voters. And "Nine," one of the last major pictures to screen, disappointed and dropped from the best picture radar.

No picture took the personal approach to Oscar campaigning more to heart than "Inglourious Basterds," which hosted private parties across the country.

At the same time, "Up" was gaining year-end momentum by appearing on several critics' top 10 lists. Although hurt by not being eligible for WGA and DGA Awards, Disney began a full-court press campaign timed to the DVD release, seeking not just animation honors but a best picture nom as well.

Sony Classics also boosted its spend on "Education," sending DVDs to every SAG member for the first time in SPC's history. That paid off with SAG nominations for the cast and Mulligan.

Private screenings and parties began to proliferate, in many ways replacing ad spend.

"Up in the Air" executive producer Tom Pollock says everyone involved made personal pleas to their friends to see the movie, and celebrity pals hosted screenings. At the same time, Relativity Media's Ryan Kavanaugh co-hosted a lavish party for "Brothers" star Tobey Maguire at the Chateau Marmont and Fox Searchlight threw a birthday party for "Crazy Heart's" Jeff Bridges, co-hosted by Willie Nelson.

No picture took the personal approach more to heart than "Basterds." One of the highest-profile events was a party at Bender's home that allowed Tarantino to make the rounds, greeting guild members and Globes voters. Although billed as a personal invite from the filmmakers, the Weinstein Co. "paid for everything," Bender says.

Meanwhile, the "Hurt Locker" campaign was being boosted by a steady stream of award wins and critical acclaim in New York, L.A., Chicago and elsewhere. Events and awards media followed.

"I basically went any place, any time, if I thought it would get people to see the movie," writer-producer Mark Boal says.

The "Hurt Locker" team also held personalized screenings, like one hosted by Ben Affleck for actor Jeremy Renner.

When the Globes noms were announced in mid-December, however, it was "Up in the Air" that scored the most and was anointed the picture to beat.

Then "Avatar" opened.

Fox's strategy with the Cameron pic was to let it open huge before starting an awards campaign. When the reviews were overwhelmingly positive and the film started breaking box­office records, the positioning began.

Fox hosted several private event
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