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David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar Special: London Film Festival & Oscar

I would argue, always, that world premiering a movie at a film festival with limited media access is a terrible idea if you are trying to get into the awards race—specifically Oscar—unless you figure out a way to embrace all of the awards press and mainstream media in the US at the same time or earlier.

Why? First, because by avoiding the mainstream festival circuit in early September (Venice/Telluride/Toronto), you are putting a target of presumed limitations on your film to start. In other words, if it is so good, why can’t it compete with the number of big movies at the big September festivals.

But that is a problem that can be overcome by a strong showing at New York in late September/early October or AFI in November. The New York Film Festival, in particular, has stepped up as a launching pad in the last two years, premiering 3 awards chasers in both of those two years, after having their first world premiere in quite a while with The Social Network in 2010. (In 2011, NYFF opened with Carnage, which was at Venice, but not at Toronto, and closed with The Descendants, which had launched at Telluride/Toronto.)

Second problem is, the media that cares about such things—whether they claim to or not—is then anticipating the first screenings of the film. So you drop it into London and then make American writers who are not in London via the handful of outlets that have UK correspondents, or are willing to pay a freelancer to review an important movie out of the country, wait a couple weeks. Until today, only three films had actually put American writers in this position… and all three were soft at the box office and in the awards game, in spite of being quite good.

Going back to NYFF for a moment, two of the three films premiering at NYFF this year chose to go the smart route and played their films pretty much at the same time for L.A. writers, avoiding any delay or bad feelings. The third was screened in NY and LA before and during the week of Toronto, also avoiding conflicts. Two of the three films got mixed reviews, but interestingly, there is not a lot of negative energy out there for the two mixed films. Any negativity was somewhat diffused.

Back to London, this is only the 11th London Film Festival to take place in October. Before that, it was in November and not a player of any kind in the award season. Moving to October gave the film festival an opportunity for world premieres that connect to the American award season that it really didn’t have before.

In 2008, Frost/Nixon opened the festival without screening in the U.S. and never quite recovered. Was this because of the London premiere? That seems silly. But it certainly one of the factors that took away from anticipation of the film in a crowded field where every edge counts.

(By the way… for those of you who are given to Harvey negativity overhype… that is his real secret… every stone turned… every idea worth trying tried. Lots of people work their asses off in this game and The Movie is The Movie is The Movie, but relentlessness is a powerful thing.)

In 2009, Fantastic Mr. Fox opened the festival, but Fox Searchlight took the opportunity to junket the film in London, bring a lot of press overseas, and to stay ahead of the negativity. Closing the festival that year was Nowhere Boy, a movie I quite like, which never got off the ground in the U.S., even though its star and director have both been hot commodities since.

No World Premiere until 2012, when Newell’s Great Expectations closed London and never really opened in the U.S.

And now, Saving Mr. Banks.

Everything in the anticipation of award season suggests that this film will break the curse of awards movies premiering at London and not even getting nominated. Maybe such things just don’t really matter anymore. Maybe Tom Hanks and the joyous return of Emma Thompson to a movie lead, and Disney in every way helps this title rise above those that have crashed and burned (surprisingly and not) in the past.

Pretty much positive reviews from both trades (which I didn’t read enough to do anything but ascertain whether the reviews were positive or negative for the purposes of this piece). Presumably positive stuff from others (whose reviews mean even less). And now, two and a half weeks of waiting until a real consensus can begin to exist.

The subtext here is that while people will get irritated by being forced to wait, causing some negativity where none was needed, there is a worse problem…

Problem Three: Will anyone care in 2.5 weeks? Has the balloon stayed inflated, not being burst by London reviews, but not rising in importance in this period either? Ambivalence is the only award season killer as deadly as hatred/discomfort.

In the end, if Disney effectively plays to Academy members, nothing that happens in the press will matter. That is another advantage of launching late in the season. You don’t have to feed the maw for month after month. But if people aren’t getting buzz from London that makes them really excited about seeing Saving Mr. Banks right NOW… well, the movie has lost. In this case, the loss may be incremental. But so are the margins in Academy nomination voting.

(The full list of London openers and closers since 2003, from the BFI, after the jump)

47th (2003)
Opening: In the Cut (Jane Campion)
Closing: Sylvia (Christine Jeffs)

48th (2004)
Opening: Vera Drake (Mike Leigh)
Closing: I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell)

49th (2005)
Opening: The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles)
Closing: Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney)

50th (2006)
Opening: The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald)
Closing: Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu)

51st (2007)
Opening: Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)
Closing: The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson)

52nd (2008)
Opening: Frost/Nixon (Ron Howard)
Closing: Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)

53rd (2009)
Opening: Fantastic Mr Fox (Wes Anderson)
Closing: Nowhere Boy (Sam Taylor-Wood)

54th (2010)
Opening: Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek)
Closing: 127 Hours (Danny Boyle)

55th (2011)
Opening: 360 (Fernando Meirelles)
Closing: The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)

56th (2012)
Opening: Frankenweenie 3D (Tim Burton)
Closing: Great Expectations (Mike Newell) (played Rio first)

57th (2013)
Opening: Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)
Closing: Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock)

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15 Responses to “20 Weeks To Oscar Special: London Film Festival & Oscar”

  1. BoulderKid says:

    WELLS POWER. According to him the film is good, but might not have capitalized on the strong screenplay by Kelly Marcel.

  2. johnrieber says:

    Great analysis. There is so much about awards season that is “finesse”, anticipating where momentum is and how to keep ahead of the message.

    Already seeing a “12 Years” backlash and it only opened in limited release…let the games begin.

  3. berg says:

    I also quite liked Nowhere Boy, having read the philip norman bio of Lennon it put many pieces into the puzzle

  4. pj says:

    I think they did alright opening in London. They kept the knife wielders just far enough away and still generated enough buzz to matter in the long run.

  5. Daniella Isaacs says:

    Didn’t TITANIC premiere at a festival in Japan? I know it was f***ing TITANIC. Just sayin’.

  6. movieman says:

    Foundas’ review really got me pumped.
    I’ve always loved the concept of “Mr. Banks.” (“Mary Poppins” was one of my seminal childhood faves, and who wouldn’t love this cast?)
    But I still think it’s going to be of limited interest to general auds and will need all the critical huzzahs and Oscar nods it can muster.
    Films about filmmaking have never been a particularly easy sell.

  7. Bob Burns says:

    good article. thanks.

    sad it matters, but since films rely on free media to open/contend, it does.

  8. movieman says:

    (And “Argo” doesn’t count.)

  9. YancySkancy says:

    Agree with movieman. General auds don’t care how the sausage is made. And it certainly doesn’t follow that if you love Mary Poppins, you’ll love to see how the sourpuss who created her almost derailed the project. If the execution is great and “award-worthy,” grownups may turn out in sufficient numbers for it to turn a profit. Either way, I’m sure it will do better than Under the Rainbow. 🙂

  10. movielocke says:

    Really the question here is about the risk-reward tradeoff of whether or not you bruise the fragile ego of film/awards ‘journalists.’

    Journalists provide needed oxygen, spin, buzz and word-of-mouth for a film to survive.

    Journalists also RELISH with enormous pleasure taking down a few movies every year. I feel like there’s a secret Oscar given on the sly to some journalist every year for the most accomplished execution of a contender.

    The whole purpose of being FIRST is either to be the first champion (see DP on Sideways or Dreamgirls) of a film, thus having ‘made’ the film (ie the self-flattering idea that a journalist (me!) is more responsible for a film’s success than the filmmaking team); or to be the executioner who begins an industry wide pile-on (thus showing the filmmaking team who is boss and who has real power).

    So there’s a risk-reward calculus to be made. Is your film vulnerable to Journalist take-down, most films are. Gravity could easily have been tarred early with epithets like, “Alfonso Cuaron decides to pretend he’s Michael Bay in a pathetic and predictable plot of tedious explosions and hair’s breadth escapes that isn’t worthy of his talents.” It’s often hard to tell if your film is going to be attacked or praised, journalists are a fickle bunch. So perhaps there’s too much risk showing a film to journalists early, or perhaps there’s potentially stratospheric upside to showing a film to journalists early. You have to measure and gauge your film and the situation and decide if you want to get it in front of real audiences, friendly audiences, first or if you want to put in front of ‘fake’ audiences, journalists, who are usually hostile audiences, looking for moments or bits of films that fail because successful filmmaking bores them (they’ve seen so many movies).

    Films that are potentially very audience friendly, or dependent on a friendly audience, probably should screen for the Academy, SAG and the DGA first, with no restrictions on the response, Journalists will probably get into one of those screenings, or wait for their screening, scheduled the morning after the DGA screening, but you’ve effectively neutered the ability of journalists to redefine the film on their own terms, it already got defined by the early screenings. However, given enough concerted, unified effort by journalists (fueled by their boundless hate and hellfire) they can transform a response to a film from overwhelmingly positive to viciously, mind-boggling negative and they did manage to do this to Avatar (though Avatar did most of the work transfiguring the critical response to it by making too much money, critics led the most amazing unified charge against a film I’ve ever seen, so they deserve huge credit for flipflopping their responses on the film so robustly).

  11. Guy Lodge says:

    I think IMDb has failed you here, David – Newell’s ‘Great Expectations’ had its world premiere in Toronto last year.

  12. LexG says:

    Last year, otherwise known as 2012.

  13. movieman says:

    I’m pretty sure “Great Expectations” is finally slated to open here next month.
    Although since Freestyle (are they still in business??) is, uh, releasing, I’m not expecting it to get a whole lot of traction. Or theatrical dates.

  14. Stephen Holt says:

    the loss may be incremental. But so are the margins in Academy nomination voting.

    I LOVE this sentence! This is IT, in a nutshell!

  15. dinovelvet says:

    Um…I believe I won’t be visiting that website, thanks anyway bro.

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