'The Awards Pundits': Late Oscar Entries, Early Frontrunners and the New York Film Fest

Scott Feinberg and Stephen Galloway also discuss the just-announced categorizations of the actors from 'Spotlight,' the 'Truth' controversy and the MPAA's ratings of docs.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 'The Walk'

This is the fourth 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.

FEINBERG: Stephen, we're becoming long-distance penpals — you're working on a story in the Canary Islands and I'm in New York. (The New York Film Festival doesn't get underway here until Saturday night, but I wanted to beat the Pope to town.) What did you make of this week's big news — that Paramount has moved up the release date for its adaptation of Michael Lewis' The Big Short from early 2016 to late 2015, ostensibly with the goal of making some noise in the awards season like the two prior big-screen adaptations of his work, The Blind Side and Moneyball?

GALLOWAY: I was fascinated by that. You know what I think it means? Paramount's Megan Colligan obviously studied the awards landscape and concluded there's no film that can't be beaten. It puts the studio right back in the awards game, after it looked like they'd have no contender. Last year, as you know, their awards strategy took a bit of a turn after Interstellar sputtered, and Selma came out of nowhere to get a best picture nomination. I'm sure they learned from that — not least the danger of having a movie appear so late in the game that nobody has a chance to see it.

FEINBERG: Two weeks ago, they had zero Oscar contenders. Then they acquired Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson's stop-motion animation film Anomalisa, which promptly won the Venice Grand Jury Prize. And now they've announced that The Big Short — a film by Adam McKay, who's been known for broad comedies — will close AFI Fest (an even later unveiling than Selma last year) and will open theatrically on Dec 11.

GALLOWAY: McKay will have to lock it earlier than Selma — that wasn't 100 percent done until just before Christmas, causing nightmarish screener problems. If the DVDs had gone out earlier, Selma would have done way better in the Oscar race. Were you there when it was screened the first time? I still remember the crush of seeing Selma and American Sniper back-to-back at their AFI Fest premieres, which didn't help either one. You had no time to think, or let them settle in, and you didn't know which one to focus on. 

FEINBERG: Both ended up with best picture noms, but American Sniper had quite a few others, primarily because more people went to the theater to see it (it had "names") and were able to check it out on DVD.

GALLOWAY: Some films also register fine on DVD, and others don't. At the beginning of last year, I really wondered whether people would connect with 12 Years a Slave on DVD, but I guess in the end they did. Or else they just voted for it anyway! Do you think any picture has emerged from Telluride with the strength that movie had?

FEINBERG: Of the films we've seen so far, most feel that Spotlight is the strongest best-picture Oscar prospect, and this week we broke the news that its distributor, Open Road, has decided to push all the members of its large ensemble — among them Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and Stanley Tucci — in the supporting categories. 

GALLOWAY: The danger is they'll cannibalize their support. But they're doing the right thing, at least ethically. None of those performances is a lead; it's a true ensemble film if ever there was one — and you know how much I dislike people pushing leads in the supporting categories, and vice versa. McAdams won't be hurt, as she's the only actress in contention, but it'll be tougher for the men — Ruffalo, Keaton and the others. On the other hand, this is exactly what happened with Little Miss Sunshine, and Alan Arkin went on to win the Oscar. I hope other films will learn from this — especially Carol, which should be pushing both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the lead actress race.

FEINBERG: There's a debate brewing at the moment about Blanchett's other Oscar hopeful, Truth, a drama about 60 Minutes and its "Rather-gate" scandal of 2004. I raised some concerns about the way it portrays those events — namely, that it sort of "heroizes" Dan Rather and his producer Mary Mapes for a major screwup (broadcasting footage of documents that implicated George W. Bush for improper behavior, the legitimacy of which quickly came into serious question). This riled up pundits who feel this blunder should have been overlooked by CBS, because the essence of the story was probably correct. Where do you fall on that question? 

GALLOWAY: I agree with your piece. I loved the film — and hated the way it came down so explicitly on the side of Rather and Mapes. It sounds strange to admire a work of art and yet totally disagree with its conclusion, but I did. From what I've read (and I'm still open to changing my mind), they didn't go all the way in doing due diligence on documents that had the potential to swing an election — and that's more than a minor mistake. I wish the movie had portrayed that in a bit more balanced way. On the other hand, I was in awe of Blanchett and just wonder whether this or Carol is the film that will get her a nomination, and maybe a third Oscar. 

FEINBERG: I agree with you about Blanchett. She has a remarkably high batting-average and it's a shame she can only be nominated for one of these two performances —

GALLOWAY: Which really is unfair. If you give two performances that are worthy of being nominated, both should be eligible, shouldn't they? Yet another weird Academy rule.

FEINBERG: Carol will be screening again at the New York Film Festival, after skipping Toronto, and I imagine that this film, which takes place in 1950s New York — like another also playing at the fest, Brooklyn — will go over very well here. Most of the excitement on the ground, though, is reserved for the world premieres of Robert Zemeckis' 3D drama The Walk, which opens the fest on Saturday night, and Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies, which screens on Oct. 4. These are two filmmakers who know a thing or two about making Oscar-caliber movies — in fact, Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) and Zemeckis' Forrest Gump won best picture in back-to-back years!

GALLOWAY: But Zemeckis hasn't had a nomination in a while, has he? I thought his Cast Away was hugely underrated — it did well at the box office, but neither he nor Tom Hanks got the kudos they deserved. Hanks lost to Russell Crowe in Gladiator; but the more I watch Cast Away, the more I think he should have won. Isn't that always the case with the Oscars? You look back years later and see films differently. Raging Bull, E.T., Hitchcock's classics — none of them won.

FEINBGERG: You can add Citizen Kane to that list!

GALLOWAY: Scott, you're more of a documentary connoisseur than I am. How's the lineup this year?

FEINBERG: A considerable number of this year's contenders address subject matter that is dark but very important for young people, in particular, to be exposed to — and I'm very frustrated that the MPAA, which rates movies, is getting in the way of that. Young people, during their formative years, should see and learn from He Named Me Malala (about the young Pakistani girl who was shot while advocating for education equality), A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story (about the bullying of a young girl who suffers from a rare congenital disease) and The Hunting Ground (about the epidemic of rape across American college campuses). But by rating them PG-13 because they use the f-word more than once (once is somehow fine) or might be a little upsetting to some (I think that's a good thing), the MPAA makes it harder for those people to see the film in theaters and for teachers to show it in classrooms, and that's wrong. We need to stop mollycoddling people. Maybe there needs to be a special rating for films that are of social and/or educational value.

GALLOWAY: They should be reconsidering the ratings systems every 5-10 years, as a mandatory thing. But they never will. People forget the battles Jack Valenti had to fight when he wanted to bring in a new ratings system, and the MPAA probably doesn't want to plunge into the thick of it again when it has so many other issues to deal with — piracy, a fractured studio environment. And there's no single person within the business (other than maybe Spielberg) who has the statesman-like stature to call for these things. You know what the Academy should do? It should give out an Oscar for courage each year. Scorsese would have won a few times. Michael Moore would have had his share of statuettes. Even Harvey Weinstein would have a few. I've had my tussles with him, but what would the movie landscape be like without him? The Oscar would be going to Iron Man each year.

FEINBERG: I think that's a terrific idea. You know who wouldn't be getting that award anytime soon? The MPAA.