By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 27, 2011 at 12:05PM
As Academy members get their ballots this week, if one movie can challenge "The Artist" in the race for the Best Picture Oscar, it's "The Descendants." For one thing, with $33 million in the till after the Christmas holidays, where it landed in the top ten, it's a box office hit in a way that "The Artist" is not. In fact, the Weinstein Co. is spending heavily to support black-and-white and silent "The Artist" through the holidays (it has earned $2.4 million to date) and sorely needs the box office boost that multiple nominations and a Best Picture Oscar would bring. It did not play as strongly over the holiday as did "The King’s Speech" or "Slumdog Millionaire."
Harvey Weinstein has played "The Artist" like the Oscar maestro he is. Before Cannes he approached French foreign sales company Wild Bunch for tips on Oscar-worthy fare; he screened "The Artist" before the fest and saw what it could be. He scooped it up and maneuvered with Thierry Fremaux to move it into Competition. Jean Dujardin went on to win Best Actor.
Through the fall festivals, Weinstein positioned this hommage to Silent Cinema as something new, fresh and original. Some people give him perhaps too much credit for massaging the likes of the New York Film Critics (Michel Hazanavicuus won best director), SAG (three nominations) and the Golden Globes (six nominations). He did convince the Indie Spirits, unaccountably, that the film was American enough to be eligible (five nominations). But the movie is more than a heartfelt consensus title (with a 97% Tomatometer rating). It's also a well-made period film that will score through such technical categories as cinematography, score and costume design, whereas small-scale contemporary film "The Descendants" will not.
But Fox Searchlight also know their way around Oscar hunting. The trick is to hang through the holidays--this Christmas eleven big guns clamored for moviegoer attention--and come out the other side with enough juice to broaden their theater break to capitalize on a slew of nominations.
As they did with "Sideways," "Slumdog Millionaire" "Juno," and "Black Swan," Searchlight assessed "The Descendants'" playability and competitiveness in the holiday marketplace. Originally slotted for December 16, Searchlight co-president Steve Gilula moved the movie up to November based on how well it played at fall festivals with moviegoers and critics. While "Juno" and "Black Swan" faced the Christmas fray armed with youth appeal, Searchlight hung tight with "The Descendants," which had an older demo. Go wide too early and the movie could lose. Instead the film landed in tenth place, grossing $3.4 million on its sixth weekend on 813 screens.
When Fox expands the movie to 2000 runs on January 27, they'll put on a new blitz with George Clooney, who is still the front runner for best actor (he won the National Board of Review, and earned SAG and Golden Globe nominations). "The Descendants" scored well with audiences (earning an A- CinemaScore) and critics (89% on Rotten Tomatoes), landing on many top ten lists (it won Best Picture from the Los Angeles film critics, and earned two SAG, four Indie Spirit and five Globe nominations, respectively). "We think it's a close race," says Fox Searchlight co-president Nancy Utley, "accumulating accolades and awards. We'll come back with a big push. We'll stay on screens."
Adds Gilula: "Slow and steady wins the race."