Martin Grove’s Hollywood Report 01-10-11

Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network

Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit

Scene from The Fighter starring Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg

Scene from The Fighter starring Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg

The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech

Oscar outlook: What started out as an Oscar race dominated by Sony's "The Social Network," and then became a two-way race between "Social" and The Weinstein Company's "The King's Speech" is now a four-way battle thanks to Paramount and Relativity Media's "The Fighter" and Paramount's "True Grit."

Early on, "Social" seemed a Best Picture shoo-in propelled by its broad support from critics and critics groups. But the downside of being a front-runner is that Oscar handicappers are a fickle bunch who are quick to embrace new films with potential that emerge later in the awards season.

In some respects, being a critical darling can work against a film because Academy members don't appreciate being cast as a group that follows the critics' lead. That's not to say they aren't influenced by day after day headlines about critics groups' awards going to a film like "Social." With that kind of heat, a best picture nomination is assured, if anything in this world can be said to be assured.

It's when the time comes to cast their final votes that Academy members might opt to turn their backs on the critics and do their own thing. Of course, that's only possible if there are other films to vote for that resonate with them better than "Social."

And that's a problem -- because "Social's" a beautifully made picture that's easy to like.

But, then, in their own way so are "King's," "Fighter" and "Grit." With four well made contenders, all of which have done well at the boxoffice and with critics, the edge would typically go to the film with the best Oscar marketing.

However, we're looking at four titles with support from distributors that all have deep pockets, great marketing teams and plenty of hired publicity guns to do what needs to be done.

So what could make a difference?

For most would-be nominees the uphill struggle is just to get seen by Academy voters. But that's not a problem for these four contenders. By now, it's safe to say that the Oscar crowd has either made time to attend a screening or has cracked the seal on a DVD screener and spent two hours at home seeing these titles.

If I were Sony and trying to figure out how to hold on to "Social's" early lead, I'd do my damndest to persuade Academy members to watch the movie a second time. When I did that myself I was surprised to find just how much more I enjoyed "Social."

Now, the fact is I liked it a lot the first time I saw it. And with those reviews and critics awards, it appears that just about everybody else did, too. But seeing it a second time really hammered home how good it is because there's more there than a first viewing reveals.

That's because "Social" is, as the New York Times' review said, a "hyperkinetic (movie) that rushes headlong on a tsunami of snapping verbiage." In other words, everybody talks so fast -- and for me the sound mix tends to favor the music and background sounds entirely too much -- that it's easy to miss some of what's being said. In fact, I don't believe David Fincher actually wants us to hear all the dialogue in some of those scenes. He just wants us to get the general idea of what's being said -- almost as if we were in a noisy bar, ourselves, and weren't quite hearing everything being said to us.

Seeing "Social" a second time helps us get past much of what we missed and despite being "hyperkinetic" the picture now seems to play slower. Familiarity breeds contentment, as it were.

What Sony should try to do is get Oscar voters to commit another two hours to seeing "Social" instead of using those two hours to catch up on some other wannabe nominee in the stack of DVDs that's piled up on their nightstands.

Considering that Oscar voters are no youngsters, some of them must have missed some of "Social's" rapid-fire dialogue in the opening scene between Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara that sets up the storyline. Seeing the picture again will fill in many of the blanks and make voters more comfortable with what's there.

Moreover, it's anybody's guess how familiar the aging Academy crowd is with Facebook, the Internet or even e-mail. Yes, of course, these are intelligent and successful people and many of them certainly do know how to navigate the web. But, on the other hand, we know anecdotally that some of them really do rely on having assistants print out their e-mails and wouldn't be able to find someone on Facebook to save their lives.

In a tight race with four strong contenders every vote really matters, so anything Sony can do to let Oscar voters get more comfortable with "Social" will be very meaningful.

In contrast, "King's," "Fighter" and "Grit" are more straightforward dramas that really don't need to be seen a second time. What you see at first is what you get. And they all have something going for them that could appeal to Academy voters.

With "Grit" moving up to first place at the boxoffice last weekend and crossing the $110 million mark domestically, it's achieved the kind of boxoffice success that's meaningful to Academy voters. It's actually done even more than the roughly $94 million "Social's" grossed since opening last Oct. 1. More than a few Academy members probably got their start way back working on westerns and they may be happy to have a chance to celebrate this classic and uniquely American kind of movie.

"King's" already grossed over $33 million, which is outstanding for a small period piece foreign film about people that most Americans don't know or really care about. With that kind of acceptance, Oscar voters could let their admiration for great traditional English storytelling run wild.

And with "Fighter" closing in on $60 million, it's also become a boxoffice success. Its physicality, humor and focus on celebrity, addiction and fall-from-grace is very contemporary and could help drive it with Oscar voters.

The Golden Globes' best picture-drama vote is typically a good indication of where things may be heading Oscar-wise, but it can't be definitive this year since "Grit" isn't a Globes best picture nominee (or, for that matter, a nominee in any Globe category). Nonetheless, if "Social" triumphs at the Globes, it will help Sony keep the momentum going. And, then, if it can just get Academy members to play it again…