'Birdman' Swoops Into Theaters, Will Attempt to Fly All the Way to Oscars With Clipped Wings

The Fox Searchlight dramedy's director and stars will be largely unavailable for the remainder of the pre-nominations period, but did a barrage of press in the run-up to its theatrical debut this weekend
Marion Curtis
Left to right: THR's Scott Feinberg and Birdman's Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Michael Keaton and Emma Stone

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman, an inventive Gotham-set dramedy about the mid-life crisis of a former movie star desperately trying to revive his career by going to Broadway — played, in an Oscar-caliber performance, by Michael Keaton, with support from Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone — is being released by Fox Searchlight in select theaters Friday.

Over the past week, the aforementioned individuals made a barrage of appearances in New York (Keaton hit Los Angeles last month), some aimed at driving moviegoers to the box-office to see the $18 million film — which is not the easiest sell — but much of it geared toward courting Oscar voters during the small window in which these folks were available to do so.

This week, Inarritu starts filming The Revenant with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy in Calgary; Keaton resumes filming Tom McCarthy's Spotlight in Toronto (he wraps Nov. 21); and Watts resumes filming Jean-Marc Vallee's Demolition in New York. Meanwhile, Stone is deep in preparations for her Broadway debut on Nov. 11, replacing Michelle Williams in the latest revival of Cabaret, which is and will remain more than a full-time job through the remainder of the season. I wouldn't expect to see much more of any of them during the pre-nominations period, except for possible quick-getaways to the Academy's Governors Awards — which is not televised but is packed with Oscar voters — on Nov. 8 and/or the Hollywood Film Awards — which will be televised this year on CBS — on Nov. 14.

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If any distributor knows how to do a lot with a little, it's Fox Searchlight. Over the past decade, the small but well-oiled operation guided low-budget indies Sideways (2004), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Juno (2007), 127 Hours (2010), Black Swan (2010), The Descendants (2011), The Tree of Life (2011) and Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) to best picture Oscar nominations and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and 12 Years a Slave (2013) to best picture Oscar wins.

But is it even possible to lay the groundwork for a similar campaign over one long-weekend in New York? Searchlight certainly tried...

On Friday, as the new Entertainment Weekly featuring Keaton on the cover hit newsstands, Searchlight kicked off a three-day-long press junket at the Park Hyatt, with the entire cast — including folks with smaller parts, such as Zach Galifianakis and Amy Ryan, plus Inarritu's co-writers Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris and Nicolas Giacobone — popping in and out at various times for interviews. Keaton, Norton and Stone also did a Q&A at Comic Con, while Inarritu and producers John Lesher and James W. Skotchdopole did a Q&A following a PGA screening of the film.

The junket continued on Saturday, which was also the day that the film — which had opened the Venice Film Festival and screened at the Telluride Film Festival — hit the New York Film Festival: the whole group participated in an afternoon press conference following the press screening of the film, and then returned to walk the red carpet and introduce the 6pm and 9pm screenings of the film—the closing night gala selection—and to take their bows after it ended. During the screening, they were at a VIP cocktail party The Leopard at des Artistes restaurant, and later made their way over to a bigger party at the Hudson Hotel after the second screening ended.

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On Sunday, as the junket wound down and a CBS Sunday profile of Keaton aired, the film was screened for BAFTA-NY, followed by a Q&A with Inarritu, Keaton, Watts, Norton, Stone, Ryan and Brit Andrea Riseborough. One British member of the cast was absent, though, carrying out duties elsewhere: Lindsay Duncan, who plays the film's acerbic critic (and is currently appearing on Broadway in A Delicate Balance), was dispatched to the Hamptons Film Festival to introduce the film's screening there.

Monday, Columbus Day, brought a flurry of TV appearances — Watts on Good Morning America, Galifianakis on The Tonight Show and Inarritu, Keaton and Norton on Charlie Rose — all scheduled around a series of group appearances. Inarritu, Keaton, Watts, Norton, Stone and Lesher attended a Peggy Siegal-coordinated luncheon at Le Cirque, one of New York's fanciest restaurants, at which were present a considerable number of Academy members — famous (i.e. actress Tovah Feldshuh) and not (i.e. animator Jimmy Picker) — and "tastemakers" (i.e. MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell), and during which the talent (and Jordan Roth, who runs Jujamcyn Theatres, which oversees the St. James Theatre in which the film was largely shot) participated in a Q&A (moderated by yours truly). Keaton, Watts, Norton, Stone, Ryan and Galifianakis later headed over to do a Q&A with Columbia University's Annette Insdorf for her 92nd Street Y screening series (which they packed with SAG nom-com members). Keaton and Norton also introduced a screening at the Broadway Theatre.

The marathon continued on Tuesday with screenings for the NBR (followed by a Q&A with Keaton) and the Academy's New York members (followed by a Q&A with Keaton, Norton and Stone), and a major TV push: Keaton on The Late Show and The Colbert Report; Galifianakis on The Daily Show; and Stone — pushing both the film and Cabaret — on GMA, Kelly & Michael and The Tonight Show.

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Appearances trickled down over the days since, with Keaton doing GMA and Kelly on Wednesday and cast features airing on Nightline on Thursday and on GMA on Friday. But the film was kept in the conversation in other ways — not least of all by sending a cool swag item, a statuette of the Birdman character, to members of the press, many of whom dutifully posted Tweets about it. (Swag has helped to generate excitement for Searchlight films in the past: remember the Juno hamburger phone?)

Now, as the talent disperses and the film hits theaters in limited release, greeted by mostly excellent reviews and solid early box-office numbers, its award fate largely moves into the hands of others: certainly the Academy, but, first, the 90-something members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. I'm told that the HFPA is currently conducting an internal poll to determine whether or not the film will compete for Golden Globe Awards in its musical/comedy — rather than its drama — categories; the studio wants it to (Keaton would probably win a Globe in a walk if it does), but some HFPA members see it more as a drama than a comedy.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg