Midyear Awards Report: Focus Features (Analysis)

The Oscar hopes of Universal's specialty division rest on Wes Anderson's summer hit, Bill Murray's FDR, and Joe Wright and Keira Knightley's third collaboration.
Focus Features
Moonrise Kingdom

NOTE: Throughout July and August, The Hollywood Reporter's lead awards analyst and blogger Scott Feinberg will analyze each studio's 2012 awards outlook. He will then post his first "Feinberg Forecast" of the season -- featuring ranked projections for every major Oscar category -- on Sunday, Aug. 12.

The studios that we have covered, thus far: (1) Warner Bros., (2) Fox Searchlight Pictures

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2011 RECAP

The specialty division of Universal Pictures likes to associate itself with talented young filmmakers, make money at the box office and attract attention from awards groups. Last year, it succeeded on all three fronts. At Sundance, it picked up Dee Rees' gritty drama Pariah, for which Rees went on to win the breakthrough director award at the Gothams and the John Cassavetes Award at Film Independent's Spirit Awards. Over the summer, it released two films, John Madden's The Debt and Joe Wright's Hanna, which both opened at No. 2 at the box office and ultimately earned well over twice what they cost to make. And at season's end, three of its films earned a collective five Oscar noms, all in different categories: Cary Fukunaga's Jane Eyre (best costume design), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (best actor, best adapted screenplay and best original score) and Mike Mills's Beginners (which earned best supporting actor Christopher Plummer his first Academy Award). The studio's only film to come up short was One Day, Lone Scherfig's follow-up to An Education (2009), which was a critical and commercial disappointment.

2012 SO FAR

Focus picked up domestic distribution rights to Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom shortly before last year's Cannes Film Festival, and the film had its world premiere at Cannes' opening night this year. Arguably, the most Anderson-y of Anderson's quirky films, this one revolves around two adolescents who are almost as iconoclastic as the auteur himself. Wisely, the studio unveiled it stateside in just a few theaters at first, helping it to achieve the highest per-theater opening for a non-animated film and generating considerable interest before its wider rollout. The $16 million film -- which also stars Bruce Willis, Oscar nominees Edward Norton and Bill Murray and Oscar winners Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton -- is among the year's best-reviewed (it's at 94 percent on RottenTomatoes.com) and has grossed more than $47 million worldwide, more than any Anderson film except The Royal Tenenbaums, which collected $71 million in 2001.


Focus will close out the summer with two very different kinds of films.

ParaNorman, coming Aug. 17, is an animated flick that was shot using stop-motion and is being released in 3D, just like the last film for which the studio scored a nomination in the best animated feature category, 2009's Coraline. Both films are from the Laika animation studio. Co-directed by Chris Butler (who also wrote the script) and Sam Fell, this zombie movie for kids employs the vocal talents of Kodi-Smit McPhee as Norman (an 11-year-old loser who sees dead people and who heroically steps up to save the town that has long spurned him) as well as squeaky-voiced Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick as his older sister and Chris Mintz-Plasse, who usually plays nerds, as the school bully.

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Two weeks later comes For a Good Time, Call... (Aug. 31), a dramedy by newcomer Jamie Travis that reportedly cost less than $600,000, but sold to Focus for more than $2 million shortly after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film revolves around two 28-year-old former college frenemies -- Lauren (Lauren Miller, who also co-wrote the script with Katie Anne Naylon), who is reserved, and Katie (Ari Graynor), who is not. They wind up moving in together after one loses a boyfriend and the other a rent-controlled home. In order to pay the high rent of their beautiful New York City apartment, they embark on the unlikeliest of entrepreneurial ventures: a phone-sex business. Justin Long and Seth Rogen also star.

Later in the fall, the studio will unveil its two big guns of 2012.

Nov. 9 will bring Anna Karenina, the third collaboration between 39-year-old director Joe Wright and 27-year-old actress Keira Knightley, following Pride & Prejudice (2005), for which Knightley became the third-youngest woman to receive a best actress Oscar nomination, and Atonement (2007), which won the Golden Globe for best picture (drama) and was also a best picture Oscar nominee. This one also is an adaptation of a literary classic set in the past -- Leo Tolstoy's famous 1877 novel, adapted for the screen by Tom Stoppard, who won an Oscar for writing Shakespeare in Love. But unlike Wright's previous two films, it won't be mistaken for a Merchant-Ivory style period piece costume drama, because Wright decided to take literally the idea that 19th century Russians lived their lives as if they were on a stage and shot the entire film on a single stage. Telling the story of Anna (Knightley), whose unhappy marriage to an aristocrat (Oscar nominee Jude Law) leads her to have a scandalous affair with a cavalry officer (Aaron Johnson), the director has said that he is aiming for "true cinema ... like Dogville," a 2003 film that was shot without sets. The film also stars Kelly MacDonald, Matthew Macfayden, Olivia Williams, two-time Oscar nominee Emily Watson and newly minted Emmy nominee Michelle Dockery.

Anna Karenina

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A month later on Dec. 7, the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Focus will release Roger Michell's Hyde Park on Hudson, a film, based on a true story that unfolded two-and-a-half years before that attack prompted the U.S. to join forces with its British ally in World War II. In June 1939, King George VI (Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (Olivia Colman) -- that's right, the same couple who were at the center of the Oscar-winning The King's Speech -- became the first British monarchs to visit America, staying with U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt (Oscar nominee Bill Murray) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Olivia Williams) at their country estate in Hyde Park, New York. Over the course of that short visit, the leaders and their wives come to know each other, imperfections and all -- the King's stutter, the president's physical handicap and FDR's growing interest in his distant cousin Margaret "Daisy" Stuckley (Oscar nominee Laura Linney), etc. The meeting served as the foundation of a bilateral relationship that would prove crucial for both nations after the war broke out in Europe three months later.

Finally, I'm hearing that the studio will release two-time Oscar nominee Gus Van Sant's Promised Land before the end of the year, even though it only recently finished shooting. The drama, which Van Sant wrote with Dave Eggers, stars Oscar winner Matt Damon (who, 15 years ago, wrote and acted in Van Sant's Good Will Hunting) and John Krasinski. It confronts the controversial practice of natural gas extraction called "fracking," a procedure that was the subject of the Oscar-nominated doc GasLand (2010). Set in the present day, it focuses on an economically hard-hit town that is visited by two reps of a natural gas company (Damon and Oscar winner Frances McDormand) who hope to convince its residents to sell them the drilling rights to their property. When a pair of locals (Oscar nominee Hal Holbrook and Krasinski) raise objections, it sparks a community-wide debate. Rosemarie Dewitt also stars.


Talk about an eclectic slate! My sense is that the studio's strongest best picture contender is Hyde Park, which is the sort of historical period piece that Academy members eat up. (The fact that some of them personally remember the era in which it is set will only help the film, just as it did The King's Speech.) Moreover, Murray and Linney are both popular and respected actors who remain Oscar-less, so look for that to be a recurring narrative throughout the season. Michell guided Peter O'Toole, who had also never won, to a nomination for Venus (2006), but the actor wasn't inclined to beat the pavement seeking votes and came up just a little short. Murray, who is famously reclusive and press-shy, will probably have to do a better job of showing that he wants to win in order for the Academy to give it to him, and it remains to be seen if he's willing to do so.

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Anna Karenina, meanwhile, could go either way. None of the many previous adaptations of the Tolstoy classic -- including one starring Greta Garbo -- was nominated for best picture or best actress, which makes me wonder if a new version, told in a nontraditional way, can be. Still, considering Wright and Knightley's impressive track record, and the fact that Wright has said this film will cut out everything from the famously dense novel except for the love story, this might be the one to break the mold, particularly in the best actress field. Knightley, though still very young, has been doing standout work in films of this sort for a decade, and I think that voters, who respond to both talent and beauty, will find it difficult not to recognize her. Also, look for a strong showing in below-the-line categories like art direction, cinematography and especially costume design (Jacqueline Durran was nominated for both Pride & Prejudice and Atonement).

Some people are already predicting that Moonrise Kingdom will crack into the best picture and best director races, something that no previous Anderson film has ever done. While that's not out of the realm of possibility, those categories tend to favor stories of great social importance and gravitas. As a fun, escapist yarn, the film's best shot might be a nom for original screenplay, where quirky works are often embraced.

The studio, through words and deeds (such as the tone of its trailer and its August release date), seems to feel that For a Good Time, Call... is more of a commercial movie that is more likely to score noms at the indie awards (the Gothams, the Spirits, etc.) than the Oscars. But if it really catches on in the way that, say, Bridesmaids did last year, that calculation could certainly change.

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Finally, ParaNorman stands a strong shot at following in the footsteps of Coraline by scoring an animated feature nom, particularly since the number of publicly announced animation releases for the rest of 2012 indicates that the category will almost certainly include the maximum (five) rather than the minimum (three) slots. It might also benefit, interestingly enough, from the fact that members of the branch still seem to prefer old-fashioned animation techniques (such as stop-motion) to newer methods (such as motion-capture), as demonstrated by last year's nominations for two obscure GKIDS films and the snub of The Adventures of Tintin.

Hyde Park on Hudson