New York Film Fest: Can 'The Walk' Make a Run at Oscar?

THR's awards analyst offers his take — and gets Sony chief Tom Rothman's — on Robert Zemeckis' new 3D drama, which recounts the exploits of the same colorful character who inspired the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary 'Man on Wire.'
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Robert Zemeckis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the world premiere of 'The Walk'

The 53rd New York Film Festival kicked off on Saturday night — 24 hours later than originally scheduled, thanks to the Pope's trip to town — with the world premiere screening of The Walk, a drama about French daredevil Philippe Petit's tightrope prance between the World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974. The PG pic, which Sony will release on Sept. 30, was greeted warmly by the audience at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, which saw it in RealD 3D — one particularly thrilling scene received applause, and there was a 30-second ovation when the credits began to roll. But at a splashy Tavern on the Green afterparty, industry insiders were divided about whether it will resonate with Academy members like Man on Wire, the 2008 documentary feature about Petit that took home an Oscar.

"It's a privilege to premiere this movie in New York," co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis remarked from the stage before the screening, acknowledging the deep connection many New Yorkers still feel to the iconic buildings that have been gone for more than 14 years now. He then introduced his cast — led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit. And finally he acknowledged in the audience Petit himself, who is now 66 but still loves playing to a crowd and acknowledged the applause he received by jumping up onto his chair and waving while balancing on one leg.

One interesting thing about The Walk is that it is immensely suspenseful to watch despite the fact there's never any doubt that Petit, a Werner Herzog-like character, will survive his crazy adventure. Even if one didn't see Petit at the screening, isn't old enough to recall the actual events, didn't see the doc or hasn't read Petit's memoir To Reach the Clouds (from which Zemeckis and Christopher Browne derived their screenplay), much is made clear from the start of the film by — somewhat strangely — having Gordon-Levitt's Petit recount his own story, with the accent and charm of Maurice Chevalier (or Pepe Le Pew), from the top of the Statue of Liberty sometime before Sept. 11, 2001.

The fact that Petit's most famous walk is still tremendously heart-pounding is a testament to the effectiveness of the visual techniques employed by Zemeckis — in 3D, they truly make you feel that you're on the wire with Petit, 110 stories above Manhattan. This sort of experience isn't for everyone — a colleague told me he visited the men's room shortly after the scene depicting Petit's World Trade Center walk and encountered three people simultaneously vomiting. But it was thrilling for enough people that it elicited a round of applause when it was over, which is far from a common occurrence, especially amongst the somewhat snobbish New York Film Festival crowd.

"Listen, I love television, YouTube is swell and I look at Vines, okay, but that only cinema can do," Sony chief Tom Rothman — who greenlighted and became a producer of the $35 million project while running TriStar — told me in the lobby after the screening. "There is no other way to go back there." Rothman, who started on the Sony job in February, said he was delighted by the film's reception: "I thought it was very moving to hear such a rapturous reaction in New York. It's a movie that will do very well around the world because it's a visual and emotional experience, but there is obviously a particular resonance here — the movie is a love letter to the city and the town." He also heaped praise on Zemeckis: "There's a tendency to take his skill for granted, but there aren't four directors on planet Earth who can do that film."

Indeed, Zemeckis has been on the cutting edge of VFX throughout his entire career — seamlessly mixing humans and animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), floating a feather and manipulating archival footage in Forrest Gump (1994), advancing motion-capture animation in The Polar Express (2004) and crashing airplanes in Cast Away (2000) and Flight (2012), the latter of which closed the New York Film Festival three years ago. It makes sense that he would want to tackle this film next.

When I asked Rothman if he had ever been associated with another film like The Walk, he cited one that he greenlighted during his days running Fox that also opened the New York Film Festival — en route to major Oscar noms and wins. "Life of Pi is the closest," he said. "It's also a PG live-action movie. Bob and I talked about it from the very beginning. Both movies are what I like to call '8-to-80 movies.' They're not target-audience movies, they're not made for 21-year-old guys or 45-year-old women; they offer a complete audience experience." He added, "This is actually even more ambitious, in the sense that Life of Pi was based on a giant bestselling book — 4 million-plus copies — but only a tiny number of people saw Man on Wire. I mean, the documentary did less than $3 million, so people don't know the story."

Rothman and everyone associated with The Walk obviously would love for it to resonate with critics, moviegoers and awards voters in the same way that Life of Pi did — but that's a tall order for any film. Mostly, I suspect, they want it to make money, since it's something of a gamble to make a non-franchise film with a budget this big in this day and age. When it comes time for the Academy to weigh in on the film, I expect it will be a top contender for visual effects; a possible contender for sound editing and sound mixing; and an on-the-bubble prospect for picture, director, actor, adapted screenplay and original score (Alan Silvestri has been nominated for two other Zemeckis films). Those categories are extremely competitive this year, and the Academy is likely to follow the lead of critics and moviegoers.