Awards Season: Will Fox Searchlight Try the Sneak Attack Again? (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst wonders if the distributor's late-stage approach, employed for "Crazy Heart" and "Hitchcock," may be reprised this year.
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Wes Anderson

Heading into awards season, Fox Searchlight looks like it has a pretty full slate. Its contenders include Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's The Way, Way Back, a Sundance acquisition; the in-house productions 12 Years a Slave, a drama about slavery that reunites Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender; and Enough Said, a comedy that includes James Gandolfini's last leading performance on film. But it also has some intriguing titles waiting in the wings for 2014, including Richard Shepard's crime comedy Dom Hemingway, which stars Jude Law; Amma Asante's period drama Belle, which has a cast filled with great British thesps; and Wes Anderson's dramedy Grand Budapest Hotel. And that's got some speculating that Searchlight could pull a "sneak attack."

A sneak attack essentially involves telling everyone at the start of an awards season that a film won't open until the following year, and then notifying them later on -- after many have grown tired of the existing contenders and narratives -- that, for one reason or another, that's no longer the case. That the film will, in fact, receive an awards-qualifying run.

Searchlight has employed this approach twice. With Crazy Heart (2009), it was a resounding success; the studio waited until Nov. 5 to announce that the film was joining the race, a move that resulted in Oscars for Jeff Bridges (best actor) and Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett (best original song), as well as a supporting actress nomination for Maggie Gyllenhaal

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With Hitchcock (2012), the sneak attack proved less successful; the studio waited until Sept. 20 to enter the race, and Helen Mirren wound up receiving best actress BAFTA, Golden Globe and SAG noms, but the film's only Oscar nom was for best makeup and hairstyling.

(The sneak attack was perfected last decade by Warner Bros. with a couple of Clint Eastwood films, Million Dollar Baby and Letters From Iwo Jima, with both receiving best picture Oscar nominations, and the former taking home to statue.)

I have heard speculation that Searchlight might try the sneak attack this year for a third time with one of the aforementioned three films it currently lists on its 2014 slate.

In the cases of Dom Hemingway and Belle, this chatter is probably attributable to several factors: the films are already in the can; have already been assigned release dates -- April 4 and May 2, respectively; and have already been announced as selections at September's Toronto International Film Festival. If they are ready to go and generate strong buzz on the festival circuit, some wonder, why wouldn't Searchlight want to get them out as soon as possible?

(It should be noted that many other films that played at Toronto in the past have, indeed, been held over until the next year. Some go on to great acclaim, such as Crash and The Hurt Locker -- both of which wound up winning best picture Oscars -- and this year's highest-grossing specialty film, Focus Features' The Place Beyond the Pines. Others, however, end up clunking. Girl Most Likely, for instance, played at Toronto last fall as Imogene before being retitled and opening to poor reviews and box office earlier this month.)

But the title that has observers most intrigued is Grand Budapest Hotel. Interest is high because Anderson's last film, Moonrise Kingdom, was a critical and commercial triumph with major awards recognition. Also, it is documented that the Budapest production began in January 2013 and wrapped in April, so even if Anderson takes a leisurely postproduction period, it is certainly possible that he could get it done by the end of the year. The questions, therefore, are: (a) Will he? and (b) If he does, will Searchlight adjust its 2013 plans to accommodate him?

Multiple sources close to the film tell me that this is not something that has been planned, nor can they envision an awards-season effort this season: Anderson hasn't yet shown anyone even a rough cut, and, one source says, even if he did so today it would be very hard to organize an effective launch campaign before the end of the year. (Of course, Searchlight did manage to make it happen for Crazy Heart with considerably less time left on the clock.)

A stronger reason why the film would be held until 2014, perhaps, is that Scott Rudin, Budapest's highest-profile producer, already has two other serious contenders in this year's race: Captain Phillips, with Sony, and Inside Llewyn Davis, with CBS Films. (That being said, Rudin has proven in the past that he can keep several balls in the air -- he became only the second individual producer since 1951 to score more than one best picture Oscar nomination in a single year when The Social Network and True Grit both cracked the big race three years ago.)

There are also, it must be noted, strong arguments in favor of holding these films until the first half of 2014. Searchlight -- like other distributors -- has found that unconventional, quality films released during the first half of the year, usually first in Europe and then in the U.S., can actually have longer and more successful runs at the box office as spring and summer counterprogramming than they would during the jam-packed fall. Plus, with a decent "remember us" campaign in the fall, awards voters could still vote for them.

Last year, John Madden's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel came out in May, did very well at the box office (the $10 million film grossed $136 million worldwide) and scored best picture and best actress Golden Globe noms (but no Oscar recognition); and Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom premiered at Cannes in May, then opened in U.S. art houses later in the month and eventually became Anderson's second-highest-grossing film ever (it cost $16 million and took in $68 million worldwide), while also garnering him and Roman Coppola a best original screenplay Oscar nom.

In short, either the sneak attack or the hold can produce the sort of results that Searchlight has come to expect and the industry has come to expect from Searchlight. It will be interesting to see which course they choose over the coming months.