Martin Grove’s Hollywood Report 02-04-13

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook”

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in “Silver Linings Playbook”

“Lincoln” L-001131R Daniel Day Lewis stars as President Abraham Lincoln in this scene from director Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” from DreamWorks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox. Ph: David James, SMPSP ©DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

“Lincoln” L-001131R Daniel Day Lewis stars as President Abraham Lincoln in this scene from director Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” from DreamWorks Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox. Ph: David James, SMPSP ©DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Tony Mendez, Ben Affleck and Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor at “Argo’s” Washington, D.C. premiere

Tony Mendez, Ben Affleck and Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor at “Argo’s” Washington, D.C. premiere

Guild gold: The road to winning an Oscar is paved with gold – guild awards gold.

Because this year’s best picture Oscar race involves some unusually controversial issues, the awards by Hollywood’s top guilds could have even more impact than usual. The lucky winners – mostly Ben Affleck and “Argo” — of producers, directors and actors guild awards should benefit big-time from Academy members absorbing media coverage of those wins while deciding how to cast their Oscar ballots.

Final voting for the Oscars doesn’t start until Friday (Feb. 8) so right now everyone’s still in the who-am-I-going-to-vote-for phase. The polls close Feb. 19 at 5:00 p.m., Pacific Time. Some Academy members will vote as they always have by mail or by carrying in their ballots. Others will vote online, using or trying to use the Academy’s fledgling Internet voting system that was much criticized by members during nominations balloting. Many members reported having had problems logging in with their passwords to the heavily encrypted voting system and no one really knows what effect, if any, that had on who got nominated. The winners will be announced Feb. 24 at the 85th annual Academy Awards.

Much of the controversy and confusion about this year’s best picture race stems from the Academy’s directors branch snubbing “Argo” director Ben Affleck, “Zero Dark Thirty” director Kathryn Bigelow, “Django Unchained” director Quentin Tarantino and “Les Miserables” director Tom Hooper.

Hollywood insiders think Affleck’s snub reflects the directors branch disapproval of an actor who’s taken to directing and isn’t a member of their old boys directors’ club. Moviegoers could care less about this and through last weekend have spent over $120 million to see Affleck’s movie in domestic theatres.

What apparently hurt Bigelow is the controversy over whether “Zero” endorses the use of torture by showing it helped the CIA track down Osama Bin-Laden. Bigelow denies endorsing torture, but several U.S. senators stirred up a damaging controversy by claiming she did. They also insisted that torture wasn’t actually what led the CIA to Bin-Laden. That controversy hasn’t hurt “Zero” at the boxoffice, where it’s already grossed nearly $78 million.

Tarantino’s controversial depiction of Civil War era slavery and his extensive use of the “N” word in “Django” sparked public criticism by fellow filmmaker Spike Lee. “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. It was a Holocaust,” Lee told Twitter followers. “Django’s” over-the-top violence may also have been a problem with aging directors branch members. Controversy or not, “Django” is a solid boxoffice hit with grosses of nearly $151 million.

Hooper’s snub was more about style than controversy, involving his heavy use of close ups rather than wide shots while filming the songs in “Les Mis” and his decision to have the actors sing their songs live on the set rather than lip synch them afterwards in the studio. Audiences, however, weren’t put off by Hooper’s directing style. They’ve spent over $141 million on tickets to “Les Mis.”

Those snubs turned four best picture nominees into “orphans” without corresponding directors’ noms. Typically, being an orphan sharply reduces a film’s likelihood of winning Oscar’s top prize.

But this year is unusual because four top contenders – including the front runner, Warner Bros. and GK Films’ “Argo” – are all saddled with the orphan problem. Their big chance to emerge from that pack with an advantage came Saturday when the DGA handed out its awards.

Ben Affleck’s DGA victory should be a great boost to “Argo’s” best picture prospects. DGA members may have felt they weren’t just applauding Affleck and “Argo,” but also were voicing disapproval of the Academy’s directors branch for snubbing Affleck.

There are big differences between the DGA and directors branch memberships. To begin with, there are about 15,000 DGA members compared to around 360 directing branch members. The DGA group includes not only directors, but also directing team members like assistant directors and unit production managers. Moreover, the DGA is a diverse group that includes directors who work in areas like television, news, sports and commercials as well as in feature films. Overall, the DGA membership is younger and more contemporary in its taste in movies than are the Academy’s older directing branch members.

With Affleck’s Oscar snub in mind, it makes sense that the DGA voted for Affleck rather than for “Lincoln” director Steven Spielberg. For much of the Oscar race Spielberg was seen as the presumptive DGA winner given his exalted high profile. His biographical drama from DreamWorks, Fox, Reliance Pictures, Participant Media and Disney is the kind of “important” movie that Academy members tend to feel good about honoring as best picture.

Also, with 12 Oscar noms – the most for any nominee this year — “Lincoln” started out with the most Academy branches behind it. In the past, that’s often translated into a best picture victory.

Of course, with Spielberg an Oscar nominee for best directing and with Affleck not in that race, Academy members can split their vote by giving directing to Spielberg and picture to “Argo.”

Instead of hurting “Argo’s” best picture prospects, the Academy’s snubbing of Affleck appears to have helped attract support to his thriller based on declassified CIA files and set during the dark days of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. That support began surfacing in January when the powerful producers and actors guilds gave top honors to “Argo.”

The Producers Guild of America best picture award and the Screen Actors Guild’s best ensemble cast award to “Argo” have helped give the film a boxoffice shot in the arm. Although last weekend was “Argo’s” 17th in release, it’s still playing in 935 theatres.

That’s 300 more than the previous week. “Argo” grossed about $2.1 million last weekend, up 16 percent from the prior weekend, bringing its cume to over $120 million.

The PGA’s been a solid bellwether for the best picture Oscar race since the guild started giving awards in 1990. Of 22 previous PGA best picture winners, 16 went on to win best picture Oscars. Over the past five years, all five PGA winners also won best picture Oscars.

SAG is also a good predictor of Oscar gold, although not quite as impressive as the PGA. SAG’s ensemble cast award and Oscar’s best picture winner have matched up eight times in 17 years. Last year, however, wasn’t one of those years. SAG members voted for “The Help,” but Oscar went for “The Artist.”

“Argo’s” PGA win catapulted it to front-runner status in the best picture Oscar race. Picking up SAG’s best ensemble cast award the very next day was truly the icing on “Argo’s” cake. SAG’s endorsement of “Argo” is important because actors make up the largest of the Academy’s 15 branches – with about 1,300 (22 percent) of the Academy’s roughly 5,800 members. With SAG having honored “Argo” it’s logical to anticipate similar support from the Academy’s actors branch.

It’s also interesting to read the SAG tea leaves to see how Oscar voters might balance the “Argo” vs. “Lincoln” scales. SAG honored “Lincoln’s” Daniel Day-Lewis with its best male actor award and Tommy Lee Jones with its best supporting male actor award. Academy members could echo those votes. Day-Lewis is widely considered a lock in Oscar’s best actor race. Jones appears to be Oscar’s leading supporting actor contender, but he faces strong competition from Robert De Niro for The Weinstein Company and Mirage Enterprises’ romantic comedy drama “Silver Linings Playbook” and from Christoph Waltz for The Weinstein Company and Columbia Pictures’ drama “Django Unchained.”

In Oscar’s best supporting actress race, Anne Hathaway is the presumptive winner for Universal and Working Title Films’ musical drama “Les Miserables.” With Hathaway’s Golden Globes and SAG wins she’s considered a lock. That’s not good news for “Lincoln’s” Sally Field, who also was up against Hathaway in both the Globes and SAG supporting actress races.

Of all this year’s Oscar races, the best actress category is the most difficult to predict. With Jennifer Lawrence’s Golden Globe win for best actress – comedy or musical and her SAG victory, she’s the likely front runner right now, but she’s got stiff competition in Jessica Chastain, who stars in Columbia and Annapurna Pictures’ “Zero Dark Thirty.” Chastain lost to Lawrence in the SAG vote, but won the Golden Globe for best actress – drama. Lawrence won the Globe for best actress – comedy or musical.

Chastain, who’s been well regarded for years, is older than Lawrence and stars in a much more serious film. Oscar voters tend to prefer serious to comedy or comedy-drama, which could help Chastain. She also could benefit if Academy members want to give some recognition to the controversial “Zero” without voting it best picture or original screenplay (for which Mark Boal is nominated). With Bigelow having been snubbed by the directors’ branch, they can’t vote for her for directing.

Academy members could avoid having to choose between Chastain and Lawrence by voting instead for Emmanuelle Riva, the much admired 85 year old star of “Amour,” Michael Haneke’s drama about an aging married couple’s difficult relationship. A very serious drama released by Sony Pictures Classics, “Amour” is also a best picture nominee and Haneke has a best directing nom.

While “Amour” isn’t seen as the top contender in either of those categories, the Academy could honor it by voting Riva best actress. However, they also have the option to vote for “Amour” as best foreign language film since it’s the official entry of Austria. If they do that, Academy members might feel they’ve given enough to “Amour” and are, therefore, free to vote for Chastain or Lawrence for best actress.

Bottom line: With about three weeks of Oscar campaigning remaining, anything’s still possible despite “Argo’s” strong lead. And it’s worth remembering that with Oscar, surprises are always possible.