Martin Grove’s Hollywood Report 02-20-12

The cast of “The Help” at the 2012 SAG Awards

The cast of “The Help” at the 2012 SAG Awards

“The Help’s” Octavia Spencer accepting SAG’s “Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role” Award

“The Help’s” Octavia Spencer accepting SAG’s “Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role” Award

Jean Dujardin, winner of the “Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role” Award

Jean Dujardin, winner of the “Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role” Award

Oscar Outlook: It’s more likely that you know who will win the best picture Oscar than that you’ve actually seen the movie.

The critically acclaimed French silent, black & white comedy drama “The Artist” has already won most of this season’s major awards, so you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to predict what’s likely to happen Oscar night. Of course, surprises are always possible, but don’t hold your breath expecting one.

Indeed, “The Artist,” released domestically by The Weinstein Company, has already taken home such top honors as the British Academy’s best picture BAFTA, the Screen Actors Guild’s ensemble cast award, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s best picture - comedy or musical Golden Globe, the Broadcast Film Critics Association’s Critics Choice best picture award, the New York Film Critics Circle’s best picture award, the Directors Guild of America’s best directing award and the Producers Guild of America’s best picture award.

Frankly, I liked it a lot myself and will be perfectly happy if it’s Oscar’s big winner. With 10 Academy nominations and all those pre-Oscar victories, it’s also the frontrunner in prime categories like best directing (Michel Hazanavicius) and best actor (Jean Dujardin). nearly $42 million. “Safe House,” which tracked best with adult males, was a strong number two with about $39 million.

In fact, the only major race where “The Artist” hasn’t knocked 'em dead is the boxoffice race. Through last Sunday it’s grossed nearly $28 million in domestic theatres. With an average national ticket price of $7.83, that works out to about 3.5 million people having seen the film. But that’s not bad for a movie that’s more an art house film than a mass market Hollywood release.

The problem is that the top rated Oscar telecasts reflect viewers across the country having a rooting interest in the best picture contenders’ success because they've seen and enjoyed them. In fact, only one of this year’s nominees, DreamWorks and Disney’s “The Help,” managed to crack the $100 million mark.

Mostly, people haven’t seen “The Artist” and as good as it is they’re probably just not going to run to see a silent movie. Now, I’d tell you to go see it because I liked it a lot and I think you’ll surprise yourself by having a great time!

There are, of course, eight other best picture nominees, but only someone who loves to play long shots at the racetrack is going to risk betting on them in the office Oscar pool. Here’s a quick look at what Hollywood handicappers are saying about their prospects.

As nothing in this world is absolutely certain — including the Oscars — there’s always the possibility that Academy members take a contrarian position and declare something other than “The Artist” to be their best picture. If so, three nominees loom as being the most likely alternate choice.

Fox Searchlight’s drama “The Descendants” opened last Nov. 16 in limited release and quickly became the early awards season frontrunner, winning best picture in votes by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and other lower profile critics groups. It won the Golden Globe for best picture - drama while “The Artist” won the Globe for best picture - comedy or musical. From there on, however, “The Descendants’” awards profile descended and “The Artist,” which opened last Nov. 25 in platform release, began to shine, particularly in key guild votes by actors, directors and producers.

For a time, “The Descendants” looked like the frontrunner for both best actor (George Clooney) and best director (Alexander Payne), but with “The Artist” star Jean Dujardin winning SAG’s best actor race and director Michel Hazanavicius winning the DGA’s best directing award, the odds now favor “The Artist” prevailing in those categories Oscar night.

It helps that “The Descendants’” five Oscar noms include directing and film editing. Films that don’t have Academy nods in these categories typically don’t win best picture. In fact, since 1981 every best picture Oscar winner has had a film editing nom. Since 1948 there have only been six times when the DGA winner didn’t win the best directing Oscar and only 13 times when the DGA winner’s film didn’t win the best picture Oscar.

Another plus for “The Descendants” is that it’s a drama and that’s the genre Academy voters tend to prefer when they think best picture. They tend to look down their noses at comedies, possibly because comedies don’t seem to have as much importance or revolve around as weighty subjects as dramas.

With about $75 million in domestic theatrical grosses through last Sunday, “The Descendants” has done well for a specialty film, but not well enough to kick up interest in the Oscars.

DreamWorks and Disney’s drama “The Help,” which opened very wide last Aug. 10, is by far the most successful of this year’s best picture nominees with a domestic theatrical gross of about $170 million.

While it generated a lot of early Oscar buzz, “The Help” didn’t resonate in the critics groups’ best picture votes nor did its low profile director, Tate Taylor, get into the best directing races. Its best Oscar shots appear to be for actress (Viola Davis) and supporting actress (Octavia Spencer).

Davis won the Broadcast Film Critics’ Critics Choice best actress award and Spencer won that group’s supporting actress award. Spencer also won best supporting actress in the Golden Globes and BAFTA races, making her the Oscar frontrunner in that category.

Davis, however, faces very strong competition from Meryl Streep for her performance as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in The Weinstein Company’s biographical drama “The Iron Lady.” Streep’s key wins in this category include the Golden Globe for best actress - drama and the BAFTA for best leading actress.

Both Davis and Spencer got a huge Oscar race boost from their SAG wins for lead actress and supporting actress. And “The Help” got an Oscar shot in the arm from SAG members giving it their best ensemble award, the guild’s equivalent of best picture.

Nonetheless, without its four Oscar noms including directing or film editing, “The Help” faces an uphill struggle to win best picture.

Paramount and GK Films’ family adventure “Hugo” emerged with 11 Oscar nominations, the most of any film this year and one more than the frontrunner “The Artist” received. Since opening wide last Nov. 23, “Hugo” has grossed about $67 million.

“Hugo” started out the awards season on the right foot, winning best picture and best director (Martin Scorsese) in the National Board of Review’s vote. It didn’t, however, keep up that momentum with the critics groups although Scorsese won the best directing Golden Globe and was a DGA nominee.

“Hugo’s” best picture prospects are helped by the fact that it also has Oscar nods for best director and best film editing. If “The Artist” were to somehow not get the Academy votes it needs to win best picture — possibly because it’s a comedy and the Academy tends to look down its nose at comedies — “Hugo” probably has the next best shot to emerge as the winner.

That leaves five other best picture nominees, whose prospects of winning are not particularly encouraging. Two of these titles, however, have marginally better prospects than the other three.

Woody Allen’s comedy drama “Midnight in Paris,” released through Sony Pictures Classics, is the writer-director’s most successful film ever at the boxoffice. It’s grossed over $56 million in domestic theatres since opening in platform release last May 20.

While it hasn’t generated best picture wins, “Paris” has done well in the best original screenplay category with Allen winning in the Broadcast Film Critics Association’s Critics Choice Awards and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes.

“Paris” has four Oscar noms, including a best directing Oscar nod for Allen, which is good, but not a best film editing nom, which isn’t good. Allen never campaigns for awards and doesn’t attend awards ceremonies, which isn’t good either.

On the other hand, “Paris’s” time travel storyline that explores whether any past era would truly have been a better time in which to live than the present has a seriousness to it that could appeal to the Academy’s largely male membership in their 60s or older. Moreover, they might also feel good about seeing Allen still working and being at the top of his form at age 76 and tip their hats to him with a best picture vote. Of course, they might just wish him well and settle for applauding his original screenplay.

When Columbia and Scott Rudin Productions’ baseball drama “Moneyball” opened wide last Sept. 23 it generated an early Oscar buzz, but when the awards season got underway it was overshadowed by new arrivals. The film’s best Oscar possibilities were thought to be Brad Pitt for best actor and Jonah Hill for best supporting actor, but despite lots of nominations the wins haven’t been there.

Pitt was thought to face his toughest competition from George Clooney for “The Descendants,” but as it’s turned out “The Artist’s” Jean Dujardin is the lead actor to beat. As for supporting actor, Hill isn’t seen as having much chance since Christopher Plummer has consistently dominated that category, winning the Golden Globe, BAFTA, Broadcast Film Critics Association and SAG votes for his performance in the drama “Beginners.”

Although “Moneyball’s” six Oscar noms include a film editing nod, its low profile director Bennett Miller isn’t a best directing contender and wasn’t a DGA nominee.

“Moneyball’s” grossed nearly $76 million in domestic theatres, but that doesn’t translate into enough fans to make much difference in the Oscar ratings.

Rounding out the best picture contenders are three films that are regarded as unlikely winners, but nonetheless reflect the high regard in which Academy members hold their directors.

DreamWorks and Disney’s World War I drama “War Horse” was considered a likely best picture contender before it opened Christmas Day. That’s because any film directed by Steven Spielberg is automatically thought to be a potential Oscar nominee. In this case, however, the movie didn’t resonate with awards groups or turn into a solid boxoffice hit. Its gross through last Sunday is about $79 million.

While it has six Oscar noms — for picture, cinematography, art direction, sound editing, sound mixing and original score — it’s not nominated for directing or film editing. By not nominating Spielberg for best directing, the Academy is seen as saying they don’t regard “War Horse” as his best work. Films with best picture noms but no best directing recognition are referred to as “orphans” and typically face an uphill struggle to win best picture.

So while Academy members put “War Horse” into the best picture race, it’s clearly a dark horse.

Warner Bros., Paramount and Scott Rudin Productions’ 9/11 theme drama “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” is another best picture contender that didn’t resonate with awards givers or moviegoers. It’s grossed about $31 million since opening Christmas Day. It has two Oscar noms — for picture and supporting actor (Max von Sydow) — but isn’t a film editing nominee.

“Close” director, Stephen Daldry, is a three time Oscar nominee (“The Reader,” “The Hours” and “Billy Elliot”) so anything he does gets serious attention from Academy members. But in this case, “Close” didn’t come close to emerging as a major awards contender.

Fox Searchlight’s release of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is another director-driven best picture contender that failed to resonate with awards groups or moviegoers. It’s grossed just over $13 million since opening last May 27. While it has three Oscar noms — for picture, directing and cinematography — it’s not a film editing nominee.

Malick has had two previous Oscar noms for directing and writing “The Thin Red Line.” He’s held in very high regard by Academy members and makes films so infrequently — his last one was the 2005 drama “The New World” — that anything he does is a magnet for Oscar voters’ interest.

Bottom line: You don’t have to wait until they open the sealed envelope Oscar night to find out who’s winning best picture.