Martin Grove’s Hollywood Report 10-10-11

Alexander Payne – Director of “The Descendants”

Alexander Payne – Director of “The Descendants”

Scene from “The Descendants” featuring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley

Scene from “The Descendants” featuring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley

Kate Winslet on the set of “Carnage”

Kate Winslet on the set of “Carnage”

Stars of “Carnage” – Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz

Stars of “Carnage” – Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz

Finding frontrunners: By early October we’ve usually found a few Oscar frontrunners, but that’s not the case this year.

What typically happens is that a handful of films emerge from their premieres at fall film festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto with a buzz that gives them some early traction in the Oscar race. It’s challenging for frontrunners to hold on to their lead, but with the right awards marketing they can and do.

That was the case last year when “The King’s Speech” won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and immediately became an Oscar frontrunner. It faced stiff competition all season from “The Social Network,” but managed to go the distance.

“Speech” won a fistful of awards, including best picture in the Oscars, Golden Globes and British Academy BAFTAs. In 2008 the big Toronto winner was “Slumdog Millionaire,” which also won tons of awards, including the best picture Oscar, Globe and BAFTA.

But this time around Toronto’s top honors in mid-September went to “Where Do We Go Now?”, a low profile bittersweet comedy set in Lebanon from Lebanese-Canadian director Nadine Labaki. Its story is revolves around women in a local village trying to keep their men from starting a religious war.

After winning in Toronto, “Now” won Best European Film at Spain’s 59th annual San Sebastian Film Festival, which ended Sept. 24. It was acquired Sept. 28 for U.S. distribution by Sony Pictures Classics on the strength of its festival wins. “Now“ is Lebanon’s official entry in Oscar’s best foreign language film race and is certainly starting off on the right foot.

“Now’s” Toronto win was a big surprise to insiders who were anticipating a victory for one of TIFF’s high profile premieres like Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt, or Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” starring George Clooney.

Despite its Toronto success, “Now” hasn’t turned into an Oscar best picture frontrunner. Since then Columbia’s opened “Moneyball,” which has done very well with the critics — 95 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes — and is a boxoffice hit with nearly $50 million in domestic grosses after just three weeks. With critics and moviegoers behind it, “Moneyball’s” being talked about as a likely awards contender.

Fox Searchlight Pictures doesn’t launch “Descendants” until Nov. 18, but it”s got another shot at sparking a festival driven early Oscar buzz. “Descendants” is the closing night selection at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s prestigious New York Film Festival. The 49th annual NYFF began Sept. 30 and ends Oct. 16.

NYFF’s opening night selection, Roman Polanski’s “Carnage,” is another film that could see an Oscar boost thanks to its festival exposure. A biting comedy starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly, it’s based on Yasmina Reza’s stage play “God of Carnage,” which won the 2009 Tony Award for Best Play.

“Carnage” doesn’t open until Dec. 16 ’ in New York and L.A. via Sony Pictures Classics — but the right post-NYFF buzz could steer it into Oscar waters.

“Carnage” played earlier this fall at the Venice Film Festival, where it received the Leonchino Prize given by local school students. That award, sometimes called the Little Golden Lion, is considered a bellwether for the festival’s big prize, the Golden Lion. But this year’s Golden Lion went not as anticipated to “Carnage,” but to Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov’s lower profile German-language drama “Faust.”

Meanwhile, after beginning this year’s screenings NYFF made a surprise announcement that it would show a “work in progress from a master filmmaker” at 7:00 p.m. Monday, Oct. 9. As I’m writing this, it’s not yet known what that film will be, but there’s speculation it could be Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” or Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” or Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” or David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” to name just a few possibilities.

Whichever movie it turns out to be, if it connects really well with the New York critics and gets the right kind of audience buzz going it could emerge as this year’s missing awards frontrunner.

All of these awards contenders are, of course, on the boxoffice horizon and in some cases won’t open until mid or late December. For now, moviegoers can choose from some other more immediate ways to have a good time at multiplexes this weekend.

There’s Paramount and MTV Films’ PG-13 dramedy “Footloose,” starring Kenny Wormald, which is tracking strongly with under-25 females. It’s a remake of the hit 1984 Paramount romantic drama starring Kevin Bacon and Lori Singer.

Universal and Morgan Creek Productions’ R rated sci-fi horror thriller “The Thing” stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead and is a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic. It’s tracking best with over-25 males and nearly as well with under-25 males.

20th Century Fox and DreamWorks’ PG comedy “The Big Year,” starring Jack Black and Owen Wilson, is tracking best with over-25 males and over-25 females.

Bottom line: It’s not easy to be an Oscar frontrunner, but it’s a very good problem to have.