Summer is fading away, and we're gearing up for festival season right now: we're packing our bags for Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York as we speak. And the inevitable consequence of the films that will be making their debuts means that the awards season will start to crystallize a little more. Up to now, most of the films have been under wraps, but we'll soon find out if heavy hitters like "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "The Descendants" and "My Week With Marilyn" will continue to figure into the conversation. But all that is for another time. What interests us this week is those films which won't hit the festivals at all, and won't be seen until the very end of the year.
Maintaining your momentum, particularly when you've been appointed the front-runner, is a tricky thing. Almost six months pass between a film's debut at, say Telluride, and the Academy Award ceremony in February. Last year, "The King's Speech" managed it, thanks no doubt to its underdog status and a Thanksgiving release, while "The Social Network" was an early front-runner, but hit theaters early in October, and couldn't keep the heat up all the way. Perhaps more importantly, last year saw Paramount hold two of their big films, "The Fighter" and "True Grit" from festivals, and releasing them in December, and got a fistful of nominations, and huge box office totals between them.
And they seem to be continuing their technique this year. "Young Adult," from director Jason Reitman -- whose last two films, "Juno" and "Up in the Air," both took the route from Telluride and Toronto -- will skip the fest circuit entirely to go straight into theaters in December. There are likely a couple reasons for this. Firstly, "Up In The Air" was tipped as a huge front-runner but couldn't maintain its momentum with fatigue setting in far before the Oscar broadcast and secondly, unlike Reitman's previous efforts, "Young Adult" is a decidedly darker, less crowd-pleasing affair and Paramount will likely want to focus on getting the message right themselves rather than leave the reaction in the hands of festival audiences. Meanwhile, Warner Bros.' "J. Edgar" is skipping Clint Eastwood's usual NYFF haunting grounds and keeping fingers crossed that it'll pick up good notices on its November 9th release.
And to be honest, all the really big hitters -- films like "War Horse" and "Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close" -- are being kept under wraps until November and December. But, it's not that movies can't use the festival route productively. "The Artist" used Cannes as a launchpad, and is now using the "The King's Speech" route, hitting every festival it can -- an essential move, considering its lack of names, unfamiliar director and the little-film-that-could status that the Weinsteins would like to bestow on it. Fox Searchlight are going old school with "The Descendants," the same tactic that they used on Alexander Payne's last film "Sideways:" Telluride (almost certainly), then Toronto and NYFF. But both movies won't go into limited release until the end of November, leaving George Clooney's "The Ides of March" -- which premieres in Venice -- as the sole real contender to hit theaters first in October (and our gut says that the film, regardless of quality, is too modest in scope to be a true Best Picture candidate; we'll find out next week).
But it seems like, this year at least, the concept of a first-quarter release like "The Silence of the Lambs" or "Erin Brockovich" getting big awards love is an unlikely one. There's an inherent bias against anything that doesn't hit in the fall, regardless of quality: while there's no way of proving it, we'd bet good money that, had Focus held "Jane Eyre" for the fall, it could have been a contender. Instead, it's destined for ''most overlooked' lists, but little beyond that. Aside from "Midnight In Paris," even summer releases look unlikely to make the Kodak Theater this year, a definitely change from 2010 which saw Best Picture nominations for "Toy Story 3," "Inception" and "The Kids Are All Right."
Of late, awards-watchers have, for lack of anything else to talk about, started floating the possibility that one of the two August surprise hits might find their way to the Kodak. The idea of a nomination for Andy Serkis' performance-capture turn in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" has already gone viral, with some even suggesting that the film might follow in the footsteps of "District 9" and sneak a Best Picture nomination. Meanwhile, "The Help" is on its way to becoming a true box-office phenomenon, and with generally positive reviews and Oscar-friendly subject matter, it's certainly entered the conversation.
But the thing is, we're not sure either will manage it. Partly it's because of the big rule-change: in a year with ten nominees, it might have happened, but we cant see either picking up a lot of first choice votes. Partly, it's that time gap: they might have control of the narrative now, in the dead of summer, but it'll be difficult to sustain in the face of so much late breaking competition. They also have individual problems. Unless Fox are able to educate the actor's branch in a way that didn't work on "Lord of the Rings" or "King Kong," Serkis doesn't have a chance: many actors are still afraid of the CG-happy technique, and in the face of, say, a human turn like Christopher Plummer in "Beginners," they're not going to give it more than an effects award (which the film is close to a lock for).
As for "The Help," for one thing, it doesn't have that much critical love on its side. Its likely to be popular with older Academy voters, but films like "War Horse" and "The Artist" will be more fresh in the mind, and its thunder could be stolen (crucially, Disney/DreamWorks are behind both Tate Taylor's film and Steven Spielberg's, and we know who they'd rather keep happy...) . Furthermore, Academy membership is gradually becoming younger and hipper, relatively speaking, and the make-up is no longer the same that brought "Driving Miss Daisy" to a Best Picture win, although let's not forget "The Blind Side" got in a couple of years ago, albeit in a field of ten. The tricky racial issues have already been raised in a few dozen articles, and the more the film looks like a threat, the more they'll be brought back. It's not that "The Help" won't have a presence on Oscar night: Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer should both be big players, and it's likely they'll race in Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories respectively.
Next time we talk, we'll be fresh from Venice and Telluride so some of the big question marks will have been filled in, so we're going to hold off on our next chart until then.