From the moment that Ben Stiller's new take on "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (December 25) played the New York Film Festival, the mainstream movie ran into the crosshairs of the film critics. So did World War II heart-tugger "The Book Thief" (49% on the Tomatometer) which went on to do strong business in limited release based on the popularity of the original book and word-of-mouth. The critical fate of the P.L. Travers vs. Walt Disney story "Saving Mr. Banks" (December 13) is also up for grabs (so far so good on early reviews), along with the last two studio movies to hit the awards derby, "American Hustle" (December 13) and "The Wolf of Wall Street" (December 25), which judging from their trailers and early clips, look like broad commercial entertainments.
Point is, any studio movie with a substantial budget has as its first obligation the need to entertain an audience and make its money back. The films that are able to rise above those commercial considerations and reach for the realm of art are rare indeed. This is where the difference between film critics --who are ramping up for their influential voting in early December--and Oscar voters come into play.
While the Academy's 6000 members are by no means a monolithic group--they range from brainy directors, editors, writers, documentarians, production and costume designers, sound mixers and visual effects supervisors to the more mainstream actors, producers, executives, and publicists, who make up a large proportion of the voters. They are all much more likely to appreciate the degree of difficulty that went into the production of a period movie like "Book Thief" or a movie about show business like "Saving Mr. Banks" or a tricky romance/adventure/VFX fantasy like "Mitty" than your average film critic, who doesn't tend to think in those terms. It's movies like "Argo" and "The Hurt Locker" that pull a consensus from all those branches that win.
So while the critics groups are more likely to reward the risks taken by "12 Years a Slave," "Gravity," "Nebraska," "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "All is Lost" than "Mitty," "Book Thief" or "Saving Mr. Banks," the varying achievements of these more "mainstream" movies will register with some Oscar voters. Think "Crash," "The Ciderhouse Rules," "The Green Mile," or "Chocolat."
It's just that these films need to win the hearts of Academy voters without that extra boost from critics group wins. So they may wind up bolstered by the Hollywood Foreign Press instead--a more internationally flavored group with mainstream taste.