Notes On The Season: Steven Spielberg On Why ‘1917’ Is “Revolutionary”; Oscar Goes Dialing For Votes; ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Gets Serious

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A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

It is now just two weeks and counting until ballots go out to Oscar voters. Except that with the speed of this shortened season, which will bring us on February 9 the earliest Oscar show ever, a lot of Academy members just getting into holiday-break mode don’t know what is going to hit them once the New Year’s ball drops in Times Square. Just one day later, on January 2, they will be told they can access their ballot and will have just five days to choose nominees for the 92nd annual Academy Awards.

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As I have noted here recently, so many members I speak to don’t realize they have virtually no time to see these movies. One member, usually pretty engaged in the process, emails us: “I’m struggling to watch films. Between work and (kids) and not wanting to start them late so I fall asleep I’m way behind.” They are not alone.

The Academy knows that better than anybody and has formulated a fairly relentless information campaign designed to inform members repeatedly whether by text, email or now live phone calls that this is indeed a shortened season and they better get their acts together. The Academy has prided itself with the onset of online voting about the record-setting turnout they have gotten, but there is deep concern members just haven’t been focusing on how little time they have this year. Some who are out and about at screenings tell me they are making an effort to see as many films as possible, but that it is daunting.

Perhaps that is why I keep hearing from them about the live phone calls they are receiving urging them to pop in those DVDs, or visit the new digital screening portal, or get out to theaters. This is a first as far as I know — not a robocall, but a real person calling members directly. Sources at the Academy tell me they outsourced this to a firm that is expert in doing these kinds of calls, and that no personal information will be at risk since those making these calls are under NDAs and other security measures to make sure the phone numbers don’t get out. When the call comes in it has the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters number; those calling aren’t there, but rather spread out over the U.S. One member told me they asked where they were calling from and was told “Minneapolis.” Another told me they heard from someone in Texas. It is an all-out effort by AMPAS to leave no stone unturned in getting out the vote.

The Academy has already started the process leading up to the nomination announcement January 13 by putting out shortlists this week in nine categories including International Film, Documentary Feature and Documentary Shorts, Special Visual Effects, Make Up and Hair, Song and Score.

Taylor Swift’s and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new song from Cats, sung halfway through the end credits, didn’t make the cut of 15 contenders despite its earlier Golden Globe nomination. But last-minute entry Cats did make the semifinalist list of 10 movies still standing for Visual Effects — primarily due to its groundbreaking work in digital fur enhancement in turning the likes of Judi Dench into a cat. It seems that while critics, if you look at Rotten Tomatoes, largely think the technique and the film itself is beyond creepy, the Academy clearly begs to disagree, equating the feat of putting whiskers on Jennifer Hudson to the effects wizards who lopped 30 years off Robert De Niro in The Irishman, or the massive work in Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

But will the critical pile-on and lethally wicked reviews keep Cats from making the final five nominees, or does Oscar even care what these sourpussy critics standing in solidarity against the Jellicle set think? I know I don’t — I had a great time with the movie. At least one high profile Academy member I know was at the New York premiere on Monday and went back to see it again the next day. Take that, Rotten Tomatoes.

Universal released Cats, which lists Steven Spielberg’s Amblin and also Working Title among its production entities. Amblin is on there because it held underlying rights to the iconic Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and at one time intended to make an animated film. Those plans changed and director Tom Hooper and Working Title, which had made Les Miserables with Universal, stepped into the driver’s seat and developed the new technology that has gotten it this far in the Visual Effects contest.

STEVEN SPIELBERG HAS HIGH PRAISE FOR SAM MENDES

Spielberg may not be involved anymore in Cats, but this week, on the eve of his birthday, he turned up at the Landmark Theatres Annex on Tuesday for a reception and screening of the DreamWorks film 1917, also from Universal. I spotted a number of Academy members in the crowd at this one, there to meet and greet director Sam Mendes and his filmmaking team including producers, cinematographer Roger Deakins and film editor Lee Smith, and castmembers George McKay and Dean-Charles Chapman before the film rolled.

I sat through it again, seeing it for a second time, which was just as powerful an experience as the first. One Oscar-winning actress told me afterwards that it moved her so much she was going to put it in the No. 1 position on her ballot. Others seemed to concur. Another well-known actress told me she thought Shia LaBeouf’s Honey Boy was great among recent movies she has seen, but now was blown away by this intimate yet epic World War I-set movie like no other.

Spielberg felt the same thing. “This is such a revolutionary and groundbreaking film and I am so proud that the little boy fishing in the half moon gets to be a logo on this picture. I am just so honored to have been the company that co-financed this film,” he said. “But also in a way this is more of a homecoming for me and us at DreamWorks, because in 1997 I was making a film in London and saw a great musical there directed by Sam Mendes. A couple of years went by and I got this script, American Beauty… I sent the script to Sam and asked if he would be interested in making this his first movie. And that’s how our relationship began, and it was his very first film and he won his very first Oscar, and won DreamWorks our very first Oscar for Best Picture.

“There are scripts I read, and then there are scripts that I can get lost reading. The experience pulls me so deeply into it, and that was how I felt when I read Sam and Krysty Wilson-Cairn’s script for 1917,” he continued. “The screenplay was extraordinary. It was a real story in three acts and it put me right back into a period that I am very personally interested in, World War I, but also it is a moral story, a human story, a story about survival, about brotherhood, and it is a story I think with a lot of qualities to aspire to. I just thought it was extraordinary.

“This is a movie where the images and the words are together, where the images are interchangeable with the words,” he added before praising the cast and crew.

“The other thing I want to point out is that when Sam gave me the script he said and ‘Oh by the way, as I indicated in the pages, I am going to shoot this entire picture in one shot.’ And I said, ‘Sam this is not Birdman. This is outside, this covers miles and acres, and it is under a sky and its day and night and day.’ And he explained about the concept of one shot — that it is not to show off, it isn’t to show how inventive Sam is as cineaste. It is literally to make the audience that third character trying to get from A to Z in this amazing, amazing survival trip. It really makes you feel like you are watching something in real time. It’s not a gimmick, but a way to deeply involve you and press all your empathy buttons. This is one of the most revolutionary motion pictures I have ever seen, and one of the greatest examples of filmmaking I have really ever experienced.”

The film is one of the last to be released this year, platforming on Christmas Day and then going wide January 10, the weekend before Oscar nominations are announced. I think you can safely say there will be more than a few for this one. And for DreamWorks and Universal, it puts them right back in the center of the Best Picture race, just a year after winning with Green Book, yet another movie Spielberg championed behind the scenes. A second consecutive win in Oscar’s top category would be pretty remarkable, but don’t count it out. 1917 is the kind of film that shows off the craft of movie-making that filmmakers themselves can instantly recognize. It had its official AMPAS screening last weekend and observers not connected to the film told me the applause was the most they had heard at these Academy screenings this season. One thing for sure, this is a movie that should be seen in a theater.

JOJO RABBIT PROVES THERE ARE MORE THAN LAUGHS WHEN IT COMES TO OSCAR CAMPAIGNS

Another movie in the mix is Fox Searchlight’s Jojo Rabbit, director Taika Waititi’s comedy that has rabid fans but has divided some critics and audiences who feel that Hitler and the atrocities of Nazi Germany are not proper subject matter for a comedy. It has become a real contender, though, with key Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice and SAG nominations, as well as landing on AFI’s prestigious Top Ten Movies list. Although the first posters for the release of the movie were quite comical, steering away from any serious subject matter, a new campaign as Oscar-nomination balloting nears aims to show the importance of the film and Waititi’s stated goal of using humor in making a movie featuring Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust that he wants to reach a younger generation with, a movie he hopes in a new period of rising Nazi sympathizers will remind people of this horrific time and get their attention in ways perhaps a preachier, more serious approach would not.

Thus this week new ads and posters have been creeping up with quotes emphasizing the film’s message, as well as a series of new ad lines including “Never Too Soon For Peace,” “Never Too Soon To Love,” and “Never Too Soon To Teach.” Searchlight has been expert in the past coming up with newly refreshed campaigns and more pointed messages aimed at voters, such as the second phrase they devised for their Best Picture Oscar winner, 12 Years a Slave: “It’s Time.” Or for another of their Best Picture winners, The Shape of Water, with “Choose Love.”

Jojo Rabbit launched at the Toronto Film Festival in September and pulled a big surprise when it won the People’s Choice vote, a huge indicator of Oscar success for many films before it. Searchlight hasn’t let up since, and with a shortened season this year isn’t even waiting for Phase II to shake up their campaign. On Thursday, they took it even further by announcing the studio is partnering with the USC Shoah Foundation on a new education initiative aimed at teens.

“USC Shoah Foundation’s Jojo Rabbit education initiative will bring together the powerful anti-hate message of the film with Holocaust survivor testimony from the Institute’s Visual History Archive (VHA). Through a robust suite of resources for educators, classroom-ready activities incorporating clips and content from the film and a dedicated landing page on the Institute’s IWitness website, these educational resources will help students understand the peril of prejudice, anti-semitism, and bigotry as well as the power of individual agency and resiliency. The partnership will leverage the historical aspects of the film, such as the power of propaganda and depiction of how the Hitler Youth and Nazi fanaticism brainwashed millions of children in Nazi Germany, to make relevant important lessons of the past to teenagers today,” the release said.

Comedies don’t always have it easy with Oscar voters, but serious-minded movies dealing with the Holocaust and Nazi Germany often have. This new campaign looks like a way to give Jojo Rabbit more visible gravitas as voting draws nearer, something Fox Searchlight has proven time and again they know how to do.

NETFLIX SPREADS CHRISTMAS CHEER

Finally, this is the last Notes on the Season before that other season kicks into high gear as Christmas arrives Wednesday. There aren’t a whole lot of new Christmas movies in theaters, but Netflix put one out for an Oscar-qualifying run a few weeks ago and now the animated Klaus is streaming on the service. It’s a truly heartwarming origin story of Santa Claus, an idea that surprisingly hasn’t been done before, or least in films I can think of. Director Sergio Pablos has done a terrific job with it, enlisting a great voice cast including J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones and Joan Cusack among others.

The other night at the Landmark I moderated a panel with producer Jinko Gotoh and Netflix VP Original Animation Melissa Cobb for an industry crowd. The film, which is beautifully done in the old fashioned 2D, hand-drawn style, has received seven Annie Awards nominations included Best Feature — a real dark horse in the race against juggernauts Frozen 2, Toy Story 4, How to Train Your Dragon 3 and perennial favorite Laika’s latest Missing Link.

For Netflix it was a big deal as this is its first original animated production. They are putting the money behind it and have created a special, and very Christmas-y, exhibit open all this week at the Landmark Annex. Check it out. I found some free cookies, and it all just might put you in the holiday mood.

And speaking of that, have a great one.

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