'The Awards Pundits' on the Box-Office Crash, the Hollywood Film Awards and the Next Lupita

Our Brand is Crisis Billy Bob Thornton and Sandra Bullock Still 1 - H 2015
Courtesy of Warner Brothers

This is the eighth installment of what will be an ongoing dialogue, throughout the awards season, between THR's awards analyst Scott Feinberg and executive editor, features Stephen Galloway.

GALLOWAY Scott, we’re coming off a terrible weekend at the box office. How’s it going to impact the awards race?

FEINBERG I think Mets fans had more fun this week than theater owners. It was a bloodbath — the lowest-grossing weekend in 2015 — thanks in no small part to the abysmal debuts of Our Brand Is Crisis ($3.4 million from more than 2,200 screens) and Burnt (barely $5 million from more than 3,000 screens). On top of the heap of commercial failures, they join Steve Jobs —

GALLOWAY — which, by the way, has made less at this point in its run than the much-derided Ashton Kutcher film about Jobs had earned at the same stage —

FEINBERG Plus Beasts of No Nation (though it lives on through Netflix), The Walk and Truth. But, when you consider that the only awards hopefuls that have done really well commercially are The Martian (which has topped the box office four times in the last five weeks), Inside Out, Straight Outta Compton and Mad Max: Fury Road, I wonder if it really matters all that much.

GALLOWAY It’s a puzzle to me why audiences are staying away from some very good films. Are we living in a Depression-era mentality, where people just want escapism — the present-day equivalent of Busby Berkeley musicals? I wonder if there’s a holdover effect from the Great Recession, where ticket buyers are simply reluctant to see anything that isn’t branded as a great ride.

FEINBERG It certainly seems that way, with the major exception of Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, which has been among the top-three highest grossers in each of its first three weekends, primarily because the geriatrics are coming out for it in force.

GALLOWAY You’re making me feel old here! I’d have bought a ticket — if I hadn’t gone to a screening. I still have that mind-set of wanting to rush out and see anything new from Spielberg as if it’s a major event, although I must say it’s been a while since I felt that sense of exhilaration of watching unbearably brilliant filmmaking that I did with Saving Private Ryan. For anyone who’s middle-aged, it’s so strange to think that Spielberg is now the old guard. It’s interesting that his movie went wide right away.

FEINBERG Just like some of the aforementioned films, which tanked.

GALLOWAY Maybe some of the others would have been better served with a platform release.

FEINBERG In any event, the correlation between a film's box-office performance and Academy reception in the 21st century is virtually nonexistent: The Hurt Locker, one of the lowest-grossing films ever nominated for best picture, beat Avatar, the highest-grossing film ever nominated for best picture. And Star Wars: The Force Awakens is almost certainly going to become the new highest-grossing film of all time, and I don't know anyone who suspects it's going to win Oscars in categories that aren't below the line.

GALLOWAY Let’s see what people think of J.J. Abrams’ direction — though it’s hard to imagine him getting the kind of reception that The Martian's Ridley Scott received Sunday night at the Hollywood Film Awards, at least from what I heard. You were there, weren’t you?


GALLOWAY God almighty. Why?

FEINBERG That's a question I got from several other journalists, who find the HFA's vague selection process objectionable: honorees' work need not have been seen by anyone outside the HFA's unidentified "selection committee," but the honoree must be in attendance.

GALLOWAY So you get a prize for just showing up? I hope they gave you one.

FEINBERG I got some nice hors d'oeuvres. But the fact of the matter is, despite any sketchiness, more stars were there to present or accept awards than you’ll see at any other awards show this season, except — perhaps — the Golden Globes and Oscars. Some pundits need a reality check: These events are designed to promote movies — not just some of them, but all of them. Even the hallowed Oscars were created as a promotional vehicle for movies made by the studios, whose chiefs founded the Academy, and in the first few years Oscar winners were determined not by thousands but by a "central board of judges" — five cronies of MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, who deliberated under his watch. Talk about sketchy! It's a tale as old as time.

GALLOWAY You wonder what the stars do to get through some of these things.

FEINBERG They cover themselves a bit by crapping on the event — this year, Concussion's Will Smith got laughs for saying, "Of all the awards I've received, this is the most recent.” But they show up. They show up because they, or their publicists, realize there’s real value to being seen as a winner (standing on a red carpet, posing with an award, delivering an acceptance speech, etc.) when you're trying to convince other people to vote for you. The deep, dark secret of this business is that most awards voters cast their ballots without having seen more than 12 to 15 contending films —

GALLOWAY Do you really believe that? I truly think most awards voters — certainly the ones I know — make a real effort to see a lot of films.

FEINBERG But they have to be persuaded to do so. And receiving something like a Hollywood Film Award — and giving a powerful acceptance speech that will get media pickup, as Suffragette's Carey Mulligan did when she spoke about the role of women in Hollywood — will motivate some voters to watch a film they might otherwise have skipped.

GALLOWAY Those awards also give a chance for lesser-known contenders to introduce themselves, I suppose. You wonder if Lupita Nyong’o would have come out of nowhere and become a real star if she hadn’t traipsed from one of these events to another, each time with a new outfit.

FEINBERG Do you know where she picked up her first award and made her first moving speech? That's right, the Hollywood Film Awards.

GALLOWAY So who will be this season's Lupita?

FEINBERG Well, it could be Brooklyn's leading lady, Saoirse Ronan, who got an Oscar nom eight years ago but is still largely unknown. She was presented with the New Hollywood Award — the same HFA prize Lupita won — by her onetime costar Ryan Gosling (sit up in your seats and pay attention!), who sang her praises and took a moment to educate the audience about how to pronounce her name ("like 'inertia' "), and she then gave a very impressive speech. In addition, the stars of Straight Outta ComptonO'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins and Jason Mitchell — were on hand at the HFAs to receive the breakout ensemble award, and gave a powerful acceptance speech that hammered home the point that they're quite different from the people they play in the film (they're actors!); they're proud of having told a story about an important issue that remains relevant to this day (they're worthy of respect!); and they're humbled and grateful to be in such great company (they're likable!). These things are not coincidental.

GALLOWAY Did the awards hold any clues about the season to come?

FEINBERG Absolutely. The fact that Will Smith and Youth's Jane Fonda got standing ovations when they accepted acting awards for movies few have seen says something about how the Hollywood community feels about them. And the fact that Black Mass's Johnny Depp showed up to present an award (to co-star Joel Edgerton), while Joy's Robert De Niro was there to receive one (a career achievement honor), indicates they intend to put themselves out there in the hope of landing larger recognition.

GALLOWAY Scott, isn’t this all just a trifle silly?

FEINBERG Sure, the whole season is — I mean, how else can you describe opening your email and finding a press release trumpeting the fact that Michael Moore has "rejected" the R-rating that the MPAA bestowed upon his doc Where to Invade Next? Or opening your mailbox and finding a package containing a tote bag emblazoned with the text "Straight Outta [insert journalist's hometown or media outlet]”? Or going to the Hollywood Film Awards and hearing someone accept an award for a film he says he himself hasn't yet seen [Kurt Russell, regarding ensemble award winner The Hateful Eight] —

GALLOWAY — which I’m dying to see.

FEINBERG The only person who doesn't seem to get how this all works is Hateful Eight's writer-director, Quentin Tarantino, who took a stand on a controversial social issue and in so doing incited a firestorm. Then again, perhaps he gets it better than anyone: He's about to open his movie, and in this town there's no such thing as bad publicity — although Harvey Weinstein, who's distributing Tarantino's film, is reportedly less than happy.

GALLOWAY I suppose we need to remember that without the awards season, we’d be sitting through endless sequels and remakes all year long instead of just most of it.

FEINBERG That's right. If you love quality movies, you should thank your lucky stars it exists.

GALLOWAY I take it you’ve already booked your ticket for next’s year’s Hollywood Film Awards?