Pete Hammond’s Notes On The Season: Strategists Woo Critics As Voting Deadlines Near; ‘La La’ & ‘Lion’ Buzz Grows

Pete Hammond
Deadline

A weekly column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit

Everywhere I to go, people ask me if I’m gearing up for the big awards season, which kind of makes me laugh. We have been in the thick of this contest since at least Labor Day, and here we are at Thanksgiving finding out that for many in the industry this thing is just getting under way. Don’t tell that to Emma Stone or Damien Chazelle, Tom Ford or Amy Adams, Casey Affleck or Andrew Garfield,  Dev Patel or Hugh Grant, Warren Beatty or Ruth Negga and on and on.

These contenders and others have been out and about on the circuit already for weeks, even months, and are just about ready to start reaping the rewards of their hard work on the stump OR begin to wonder if it has all been worth it as the first returns of the season come in next week. Actually it all pretty much started this week with the announcement of the nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards, not that these kudos have a tremendous impact on the race for Oscar. They are traditionally one of the very first to jump into the fire with their noms, but almost the very last to name their winners, which they will again do in a big tent on a Santa Monica beach the day before the Oscars. As usual they giveth and they taketh away. Predictably Manchester By The Sea and Moonlight were the front runners going in and coming out, but it was a very mixed bag for the likes of such strong Oscar contenders like Loving and Hell Or High Water which both inexplicably failed to make the cut for Best Film (movies with bigger budgets than $20 million are not eligible so no La La Land among many others possibly headed to Oscar glory).

WILL WATERMELON RIND AND SNICKER DOODLE COOKIES SWAY CRITICS VOTE?

But the tsunami of various awards groups will be crashing the shore starting next week to try and make an impact. Thus we will have the New York Film Critics and National Board Of Review weighing in with their winners, as well as the Broadcast Film Critics Association’s Critics’ Choice Awards for movies announcing their nominations at the same time, all hoping to influence the Oscar race as well. I am a member of the latter group and they have consistently been a good barometer for the way the Academy winds may be blowing. This is why voters in all these groups have been besieged with screeners of every possible contender, and even other items designed to make them remember to watch.

Focus Features sent a Thanksgiving care package from Loving, the Virginia-set interracial marriage film, that included bottles of Sweet Pickled Virginia Gourmet Watermelon Rind, Mrs. Bryant’s Blueberry Apple Sauce, as well as her Moroccan Black Bean Soup Mix, plus a giant Snicker Doodle Cookie. For their A Monster Calls the distributor sent a heavy coffee table book, CD, and original novel. Warner Bros has sent copies of the books both Sully and Live By Night are based on. In fact, as usual, the scripts and books are piling up from everywhere. Universal sent a stuffed bear with microphone from Sing. In an apparent effort to bring back vinyl, Fox sent a 45 RPM  record of Pharrell Williams songs from the early 60’s period-set Hidden Figures and an LP album from Trolls. Lionsgate also went the vinyl route for a couple of La La Land songs. For A24’s 20th Century Women, set in 1979, we got a 2017 Calendar highlighting significant events in ’79. Captain Fantastic sent a bandanna with the phrases “Power To The People” and “Stick It To The Man” emblazoned on it. Of course, stodgy Academy rules forbid these types of things to be sent to Oscar voters who might be unduly influenced by swag, so studios send the swag to others in hopes that it will encourage them to vote for their film and thus possibly influence Academy votes down the line. Most studios pick and choose the screeners they want considered. Box office can figure into that. For instance, Lionsgate sent La La Land and Hacksaw Ridge, but not American Pastoral, thought to be a contender at one time but a movie that came and went quickly in October. An early dire box office forecast for Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply didn’t stop Fox this morning from sending a deluxe book bound copy of the script complete with color photos.   Magnolia, on the other hand, delivered every single one of the 20 movies (by my count) they released in 2016, a nice politically correct gesture on their part.

HITCHCOCK AND KUBRICK JOIN FOCUS CAMPAIGN FOR NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

Focus Features,  joining up with Turner Classic Movies, is trying to get creative with Nocturnal Animals by setting up a screening series at the Arclight in Hollywood of director Tom Ford’s favorite films that might have had an influence on his latest, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Richard Brooks’ In Cold Blood. It is probably no coincidence that the directors of those films each went on to get an Oscar nomination for them. I mean let’s face it. You don’t want to say you were influenced by Scream 3. No Oscar cred there! Actually, while we are at it, Ford’s stylish and excellent thriller also owes a tip of the hat to the likes of David Lynch, Douglas Sirk and Brian De Palma

SILENCE AIMS TO BE LAST SERIOUS CONTENDER SHOWN TO CRITICS

Paramount is trying something interesting next week. They have tied in with American Cinematheque to present a “Tribute To Irwin Winkler”, the producer of the upcoming movie Silence directed by Martin Scorsese. It will culminate on Saturday Dec 3 with an in-person discussion with Winkler, moderated by none other than Scorsese, who coincidentally just happened to direct every single movie (Goodfellas, Raging Bull, New York New York)  in the Winkler “tribute”.  This is called killing two birds with one stone.

Silence itself, which Scorsese just finished, isn’t included, but Paramount is screening it under the wire for critics groups this week. Sometimes that is considered an effective strategy to be the dead-last movie shown before these groups vote, top of mind or that sort-of-thinking. One group that won’t  be seeing Silence before their voting deadline is the aforementioned Broadcast Film Critics Association, the largest critics group in the nation, and that is the problem Paramount tells me. The BFCA is so spread out all over the country it is impossible to set screenings of the still-wet Silence for all those members. It is easier to hit groups concentrated in New York and Los Angeles studio strategists say. Voting for BFCA’s Critics Choice nominations starts Monday morning and ends Tuesday night prior to their December 1st big reveal, so that’s that.

LIONSGATE AND LION PARTIES DRAW OSCAR VOTER ADULATION

Meanwhile, whatever and whenever the verdict is in on Silence, two other movies this week were definitely winning the hearts and minds of Oscar voters I ran into at their respective soirees, even though their nominations are still two months away and many distribs are holding back on sending that most important group of voters screeners until next month. Lionsgate not only threw a Holiday party Sunday night at Bouchon that drew several Academy types, they also had a Bradley Cooper-hosted screening and a reception that followed Monday night at Chateau Marmont for their contemporary musical La La Land. This was preceded by a screening and Craig’s restaurant lunch on Friday for the movie. Those on hand at all these events  gave it a rapturous response. One actress said with conviction, “This will get Best Picture. There’s no question.” Another producer, who isn’t easily impressed, said “This is what a winner looks like”.  Of course, remember it IS only November, but director Damien Chazelle and star Emma Stone have been tireless on the circuit since premiering the movie at the Venice Film Festival nearly three months ago and the response has been consistent. The more it gets seen, the more the La La cult grows.

But then the next night The Weinstein Company threw an industry screening at the Motion Picture Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre for their emotional tearjerker, Lion, that drew many of the same voters I saw at the La La events, and I was hearing much the same thing. “It’s my favorite movie this year,” said one PGA voter, still drying away the tears, from the true story about a young adopted Indian man’s obsessive search to be reunited with his birth mother. One member of the Academy’s producers branch similarly said, “I loved this film. I think it is the best I’ve seen so far”.  I replied that he had just said the same thing the night before about La La Land, and earlier in the week about Manchester By The Sea. “I know. I don’t know what to do. This is getting to be a problem,” he laughed. Interestingly, La La Land and Lion held the number one and two slots in the often predictive Toronto Film Festival People’s Choice poll of the 300 films they showed there in September, and Post-Trump blues may be causing some voters to look for uplifting and happier movies. But I suspect critics groups may muddy these waters by splitting their top honors between those aforementioned Indie Spirit favorites Moonlight and Manchester. Add in  Fences, Hidden Figures, Sully, Hacksaw Ridge, Loving, Patriots Day, Jackie, Arrival, Hell Or High Water, Live By Night, and Nocturnal Animals, just to name a few and it all could very well indicate that 2016 is turning out to be a pretty damn good year for movies, and the race to crown one of them with Oscar’s Best Picture is definitely on.

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