Martin Grove’s Hollywood Report 06-18-12

On the set of “To Rome with Love”

On the set of “To Rome with Love”

Behind the scenes look at “The Avengers”

Behind the scenes look at “The Avengers”

“The Dark Knight Rises” – In Theaters July 20th

“The Dark Knight Rises” – In Theaters July 20th

Oscar outlook: If we had a dollar for every film that opened during the first half of the year and wound up being Oscar nominated, we wouldn’t have much money.

Last year, for instance, of nine best picture nominees only two hit theatres before late June – Woody Allen’s romantic comedy “Midnight in Paris” and Terence Malick’s drama “The Tree of Life.&rdquo

“The Artist,” which also got its start at Cannes 2011, was a Palme d’Or nominee and its star, Jean Dujardin, won Best Actor. “Artist” ended up taking home five Oscars, including best picture, director and actor.

Unlike “Midnight” and “Life,” which opened domestically right after Cannes and ran out of steam long before the Oscar voting, “Artist” didn’t hit megaplexes until Nov. 25. Its awards campaign was masterfully orchestrated by Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of The Weinstein Company, who acquired the silent, black & white comedy after it resonated so well at Cannes. Clearly, Harvey knew what he was doing by holding back “Artist’s” U.S. release until late November when the Oscar race was heating up.

Oscar’s six other best picture noms all went to films that were fresh in mind from opening in the second half of 2011 – “The Descendants” (Nov. 16), “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” (Dec. 25), “The Help” (Aug. 10), “Hugo” (Nov. 23), “Moneyball” (Sept. 23) and “War Horse” (Dec. 25).

Distributors typically hold films they envision as awards contenders until the Oscar race is well underway and Academy members are starting to think about nominations. For years Oscar marketers have worked on the assumption that Oscar voters best remember what they see just before voting.

With that strategy in mind, don’t expect to find many titles opening in the first half of this year with strong prospects of going the distance with Oscar. Nonetheless, there are always a few possibilities to ponder, so with that in mind let’s look back from now to the start of this year.

Given Woody Allen’s great success with “Midnight” last year, it’s reasonable to speculate that he could have another shot at Oscar attention this year with his new comedy “To Rome with Love,” which he wrote and directed, as usual, and also stars in.

In “Rome,” Woody’s looking at people in Italy — Americans, Italians, residents, visitors — and telling the interwoven stories of their romances, adventures and predicaments. Also starring are: Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig and Ellen Page.

“Rome” opens June 22 in New York and Los Angeles via Sony Pictures Classics and will expand to other top markets in the coming weeks. It’s essentially the same release pattern SPC used so successfully with “Midnight,” which did nearly $57 million domestically, making it Woody’s biggest boxoffice hit ever.

Sight unseen as I’m writing this (and looking forward to an upcoming screening), it’s hard to say if “Rome’s” going to be as well received as “Midnight” was. Woody didn’t show “Rome” at Cannes, so we can’t compare how it played there versus “Midnight.” However, as a longtime Woody Allen fan I always have my fingers crossed and my hopes high when he’s got a new movie surfacing. Of course, with so many intertwined stories we don’t know yet which of the actors might attract Academy consideration.

On the other hand, Woody almost always gets original screenplay recognition. He won last year for “Midnight,” but as usual didn’t attend the Oscars — so presenter Angelina Jolie accepted on his behalf. “Midnight” also scored nods for best picture, directing and art direction and these are also categories in which “Rome” could, potentially, be nominated.

Looking back over the months, it’s hard to sit here and point to anything that’s already opened that seems destined to land a best picture nod. There are, however, a few animated titles that could end up competing for best animated feature film.

Last year, “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which opened May 26, and “Rango,” which opened Mar. 4, made it all the way into the animated feature race – which “Rango” won.

At this point, 2012’s already seen 3D animated hits like DreamWorks Animation and Paramount’s “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,” which has grossed over $120 million, and Universal and Illumination Entertainment’s “Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax,” which has done about $212.5 million.

Perhaps, because only a handful of big animated features compete each year for Oscar consideration, it’s easier for voters to remember who they are. It also helps that many Academy members actually go to see animated films in theatres when they open with their kids or grandchildren — rather than watch them on DVD at home when they’re voting and very short on time.

Back in the best picture race, one key question is whether Academy voters will nominate any of this year’s mainstream boxoffice hits. A few years ago when the Academy doubled its best picture nominations from five to 10 – last year it switched to a more complicated arrangement where the number of best picture nods can be anywhere between 5 and 10, but isn’t a set number – the buzz was that this would enable hits like Warner Bros.’ 2008 action crime drama “The Dark Knight” to be nominated despite the fact that they aren’t critics groups’ winners or film festival favorites.

Although “Knight” received eight Oscar nods, it didn’t get into the best picture, directing or original screenplay races. Its two Oscar wins were for sound editing (Richard King) and supporting actor (Heath Ledger, awarded posthumously).

Why would the Academy want to make room in its best picture race for people pleasing popcorn movies? Well, since the Academy’s finances depend mostly on revenues for licensing the Oscar telecast to TV, the show’s ratings are a big concern. Unfortunately, the kind of small, indie critic-driven art house style tragedies that have dominated the best picture race for years don’t attract wide audiences.

Oscar ratings have fallen off as the disconnect has deepened between what the public likes and will root for and what critics and Academy members consider to be artistic enough to merit best picture consideration.

This year, for instance, moviegoers spent over $586 million on tickets to Disney and Marvel Entertainment’s “The Avengers.” Will the film’s tremendous commercial success work in its favor or against it when it comes to a best picture nod?

Moreover, will Academy members recognize “Avengers” when we know July’s going to bring another highly anticipated film that’s also likely to achieve great commercial success – Warner Bros.’ action drama “The Dark Knight Rises,” the concluding episode in Christopher Nolan’s franchise trilogy.

So the question becomes whether Academy voters will be willing to give best picture nods to two ultra-successful mainstream hits? The only answer right now is that we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

Another mainstream film that could possibly have a shot with the Academy crowd is 20th Century Fox’s “Prometheus,” from A List director Ridley Scott, whose credits include the sci-fi classics “Alien” (1979) and “Blade Runner” (1982).

Scott’s a three-time Oscar nominee for directing “Thelma & Louise” (1991), “Gladiator” (2000) and “Black Hawk Down” (2001). With “Prometheus,” he’s got a mainstream hit that’s doing well – over $88 million to date – but isn’t in the rarefied boxoffice stratosphere that “Avengers” has reached. On the other hand, it doesn’t help that at the end of the day “Prometheus” is a sci-fi horror thriller, a genre Oscar voters typically don’t gravitate to.

Bottom line: It’s way too early to make any conclusions about what’s likely to happen in terms of best picture noms. Much depends on what potential contenders open between now and late December and how they’re received by critics and moviegoers. Looking ahead, there’s no shortage of pictures arriving in the second half of this year that could resonate with critics groups, other awards givers and Academy voters. I’ll be focusing on them in an upcoming column.