Martin Grove’s Hollywood Report 12-05-11

Prince Charles and Martin Scorsese

Prince Charles and Martin Scorsese

“Hugo” – In theaters September 23rd

“Hugo” – In theaters September 23rd

Scene from “The Descendants” featuring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley – In theaters September 23rd

Scene from “The Descendants” featuring George Clooney and Shailene Woodley – In theaters September 23rd

Happy “Hugo;” These are happy days at Paramount with Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” emerging as a boxoffice success and a strong best picture Oscar contender.

A month ago, the pundits who blog about films heading for Oscar nominations didn’t even have “Hugo” on their radar. Now, with the National Board of Review having just named it the year’s best film and honored Scorsese as best director, “Hugo” is right smack in the middle of the awards spotlight and is being talked about as a likely best picture Oscar nominee.

The PG rated family adventure directed by Scorsese and distributed by Paramount was made by GK Films and produced by Graham King, Scorsese, Johnny Depp and Tim Headington.

Scorsese and King were an Oscar winning team in 2007 for “The Departed” with Scorsese receiving best director and best picture going to producers King, Brad Grey and Brad Pitt.

“Hugo’s” also benefiting on the Oscar front from being a critically acclaimed hit with a 94 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Paramount’s decision to launch it over Thanksgiving in a limited release at 1,277 carefully selected theatres paid off handsomely with $15.4 million in ticket sales for the five day holiday weekend.

Last weekend, its second in theatres, “Hugo” added 563 more theatres and helped by great word of mouth and a strong marketing push by Paramount finished third. It was off only about 33 percent from the previous weekend and its cume rose to just over $25 million. “Hugo” is well positioned now to play through the holiday season, Hollywood’s second biggest grossing season after the summer.

While the NBR’s best picture award doesn’t necessarily match up with how Academy members vote — last year the NBR went for “The Social Network,” but the Oscar went to “The King’s Speech” — the value to “Hugo” of winning is that the NBR helps define the Oscar race. Winning the NBR automatically makes “Hugo” a film that Academy members must seriously consider.

“Must seriously consider” is really Hollywood code for “must take the time to see.” The real problem movies face in their quest for Oscar gold is getting Academy members to actually make time to watch them. While the Academy talks about how it’s better for its members to see films in theatres as they’re “meant to be seen,” the truth is it’s not easy to even get the Academy’s approximately 6,000 members to watch the DVD screeners that studios send them.

The problem is that Academy members don’t tend to see a lot of movies throughout the year. The usual explanation is that they’re too busy making films, themselves, to have time to see them. As a result, at year’s end when it’s time to mark their Oscar nominating ballots, the voters have a lot of movies to catch up with in a great hurry.

Why the hurry? To begin with, many of the prime awards hopefuls don’t open until late in the year so it isn’t possible to see them until mid or even late December. That timing conflicts with the holiday season vacation trips that many Academy members take with their families to places like Aspen, Hawaii or the Caribbean.

In other words, if you’re busy packing to get out of town while your kids are off from school for Christmas and New Year’s, who has time to go to screenings?

Worse yet, those Oscar ballots have to be in by Jan. 13, 2012. If you get back from vacation after New Year’s and have to catch up on everything that happened at work while you were away and get your kids ready for school again, the last thing you want to do is spend every night running to screenings.

That’s where the DVDs come in. But Academy members wind up with a stack of 50 or more screeners to watch — and who has time for that? The best one can hope for is that a handful of films that have emerged from other awards givers as must-see movies will get Academy members’ time and attention. The best way for that to happen is for a film to get one of the big early awards season wins like best picture from the NBR.

That’s why “Hugo’s” going to get looked at by most Academy voters. It merits serious consideration now that it’s been catapulted into the race by the NBR. That doesn’t have anything to do with whether it’s going to win. At this point, without knowing who all the nominees will be it’s impossible to project winners. But clearly with the NBR’s spotlight on “Hugo,” there’s cause for Paramount to be optimistic and spend money campaigning.

The same is true, by the way, of The Weinstein Company’s black & white silent movie “The Artist,” which just won the New York Film Critics Circle’s best picture award. The NYFCC also honored the film’s director, Michel Hazanavicius, as best director. The picture’s got a 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has been doing great boxoffice business in its initial platform release, averaging about $34,000 per theatre last weekend on six screens.

Like the NBR, the NYFCC really isn’t a bellwether for the Oscars. Last year it gave best picture to “The Social Network” and best director to David Fincher, its director. Academy members voted for “The King’s Speech” and its director, Tom Hooper.

Nonetheless, like the NBR, the NYFCC helps define the Oscar race by establishing contenders. In the case of “The Artist,” there’s no question that The Weinstein Company will make the most of the opportunity. Harvey Weinstein, who co-chairs TWC with his brother Bob, is an acknowledged master of the art of winning Oscars, which he perfected over many years running Miramax Films.

At a recent screening of “The Artist” that I attended at the Academy’s theatre in its Beverly Hills headquarters, Harvey introduced the film with two of Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughters on hand to say how much they thought their grandfather would have enjoyed this brand new b&w silent film that takes place in Los Angeles from 1927-29.

Harvey got a big laugh, by the way, when he told the assembled crowd that he’d heard from Bob after spending “millions” to acquire “The Artist” at the Cannes Film Festival last May, where it won the Palme d’Or. Harvey said Bob told him that considering that the film is silent, black & white and a costly acquisition it was something they should take to TWC’s board of directors. To which Harvey said, “I told him I didn’t know we had a board.”

All kidding aside, “The Artist” is exactly the kind of movie that Harvey knows how to market. Hollywood handicappers are certainly expecting to see it in the best picture race along with “Hugo” and a handful of other movies that have also been emerging as likely nominees. Among these are Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” and “The Adventures of Tintin,” Alexander Payne's “The Descendants” and David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

As other critics groups start announcing their own awards and nominations, these films’ Oscar prospects will rise or fall. When they arrive in theatres, they’ll also be helped or hurt on the Oscar front by how well they’re reviewed and by their boxoffice performance.

Other titles that also are generating varying degrees of early awards season buzz include: Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” which became his biggest boxoffice hit after opening last May; Tate Taylor’s boxoffice success “The Help,” which became the subject of Oscar talk immediately after opening last August; and Bennett Miller’s boxoffice hit “Moneyball,” which also sparked Oscar attention when it opened last September.

That’s nine titles already and there also are a number of other films whose Oscar marketers would argue they belong on the list. For the past two years Academy voters have been able to nominate 10 titles for best picture, but the rules have changed this year. There will be between five and 10 best picture nominees, but no one knows exactly how many because that total will depend on how many films get enough votes to qualify.

Without dwelling too much on the Academy’s confusing voting rules and regulations, to get into the best picture race a film needs to receive at least 5 percent of the first place votes. That translates into around 300 votes and probably sounds easier to achieve than it actually is. Typically, only a handful of films generate enough passion among the voters to become nominees.

Meanwhile, there’s also stiff competition in many Oscar categories beyond best picture and director. For instance, in the best actor and actress races, early awards also play a significant role. The NYFCC’s best actor award to Brad Pitt for “Moneyball” as well as “The Tree of Life” and its best actress award to Meryl Streep for “The Iron Lady” will help advance their Oscar prospects. So will the NBR’s best actor award to George Clooney for “The Descendants” and its best actress award to Tilda Swinton for “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”

Bottom line: If you want to know who’s likely to wind up with Oscar nominations, keep an eye on other major awards races — like the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes noms on Th., Dec. 15. The HFPA nominates five films for best drama and five films for best musical or comedy and most of them, particularly the dramas, typically wind up in the Oscar race.