SAG Ensemble Award Considered Best Picture Equivalent

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine.

Although the Screen Actors Guild constantly denies that their annual ensemble award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture is meant to be anything but that, pundits and prognosticators stubbornly label it SAG’s equivalent of a best picture award. Since the SAG membership overlaps with Academy voters, nominees, and winners of SAG Awards, along with other key guild contests orchestrated by the PGA, DGA, and WGA, they are widely considered to be great harbingers of things to come at the Oscars. In the case of the SAG Awards, which have been given annually for the past 18 years, it is certainly true that their individual acting winners often agree with Oscars, at least 75% of the time.

However the stats for the ensemble or cast award, as it is officially known, are much spottier. Indeed, out of the 17 times it has been awarded, only eight films have gone on to match it at the Oscars (Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, Chicago, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Crash, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire,and The King’s Speech).On the bright side, only one past SAG cast award winner, The Birdcage at the third annual awards, failed to go on to get at least a best picture nomination (or even a single acting nom for that matter). The cast award for TV series tends to more closely align with eventual Emmy winners in both comedy and drama categories, but often enough goes its own way there, too.

So why is it an award every Oscar strategist wants to win? Bottom line is the simple fact that actors far outnumber everyone else in the film Academy. They are responsible for one-sixth of the entire membership and can definitely have a strong impact on the vote. And they are virtually all members of SAG, so it would seem to be a strong indicator of Academy sentiment, or so the thinking goes.

“It certainly helps with your campaign to get the ensemble award because people think it is SAG’s closest thing to a best picture, whether it actually is or not. But is it actually going to decide who is the best picture? No,” says one prominent studio awards consultant.

It can give momentum to a struggling campaign just as Oscar ballots are in the mail. Last year, The Help was all but written off at the Oscars after being snubbed in directing and writing categories. But, significantly, it did receive a best picture nom as well as acting nominations for lead actress Viola Davis and supporting actresses Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain, just as it did at the SAG awards. When it cleaned up at SAG in a surprise, winning three including the cast award, a record-tying accomplishment, suddenly there were big hopes at DreamWorks that perhaps it could pull off the impossible and pull off a best picture upset. It wasn’t to be, and The Artist, the film it beat for the cast award at SAG, prevailed in the end. Only SAG supporting winner Octavia Spencer repeated at Oscar time. The SAG awards were prescient, though, in giving Artist star Jean Dujardin the best actor prize over favored George Clooney (The Descendants) and Brad Pitt (Moneyball), a feat he repeated at the Oscars a month later. Certainly that SAG win provided momentum for him just as it has done for others in the past.

The cast award is different in the respect that not every best picture Oscar winner or nominee is going to have a big ensemble or cast that would necessarily qualify for consideration in this category. But it can be a slippery slope for those films in the perception arena if they are winning big everywhere else on the road to Oscar but suddenly get blindsided at SAG and the pundits take note of it, no matter how unfair that might be. Momentum in an Oscar race is everything, and peaking at the right time is key. This notably happened in 2006 when Brokeback Mountain lost the cast award at SAG to upstart Crash. This sent shockwaves into the race, but it was by design on the part of Crash distributor, Lionsgate. Brokeback had been triumphing in all the key precursor races up to that point and was expected to just sweep through all the guild awards. It had already won at DGA and PGA (and later WGA) when it “crashed” so to speak at SAG, losing in every one of the four categories in which it was nominated. But it was the cast award loss to Crash that stung the most.

At the time then-Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg told me, “it was our strategy to simply stop Brokeback at one of the guild awards, with SAG being most likely because of our strong ensemble cast.” The company blanketed the guild members with DVD screeners, which certainly helped, and the strategy obviously worked. The SAG win was considered a bit of a shocker at the time but might have been responsible for building the momentum needed to do the impossible and overtake Brokeback for best picture. That’s, of course, exactly what happened when stunned presenter Jack Nicholson opened up the envelope and announced Crash as the surprise winner of the Oscar for best picture. Some thought the exact same thing was going to happen a year later when Little Miss Sunshine pulled out a victory winning the SAG cast award over Warner Bros.’ The Departed,but the latter managed to prevail and nab the Oscar anyway.

Is the SAG cast award gaining its own momentum as a precursor of Oscar glory? If the past five years are any indication, it could be, as three of the last five winners have gone on to win best picture, but the uneven correlation between the two groups will probably continue. Time will only tell.

Few Clear Frontrunners Make Predicting Lead Actress Tough

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine.

Although not offering nearly the same level of intense competition as the lead actor race this year, the race for best lead actress is shaping up as one of the more intriguing matchups in recent years, with a wide divide in age, experience, and roles. Although 17-time nominee Meryl Streep finally won her third Oscar last year for The Iron Lady (her first win in 29 years), it is not likely she will four-peat, despite widespread praise for her role as a wife looking to put sexual pizazz back into her longrunning marriage in Hope Springs. She isn’t even letting the studio campaign the performance, which should at least let somebody else out there have a shot, considering Streep is bound to be back in serious contention next year with the much-awaited August: Osage County. So this year there is a large group of Oscar virgins from ages 8 to 85 competing for one of those five coveted slots, but Streep aside, they will have to face an imposing trio of British Dames and past winners Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, not to mention Oscar’s French crush Marion Cotillard, and an overdue Australian dynamo named Naomi Watts, among others. Here’s the lineup from the top 10 to those looking for a way into the mix.

Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

As a young woman coming out of her own personal hell and trying to live life again, 22-year-old Lawrence proves her first best actress Oscar nom two years ago for Winter’s Bone was no fluke. Her scenes opposite costar Bradley Cooper are priceless, and she navigates the tricky waters from flat-out comedy to heart-wrenching drama effortlessly. It probably doesn’t hurt that she also starred in one of the year’s biggest hits, The Hunger Games, to cement her frontrunner status here.

Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone

The great French star, a winner recently for her earth-shattering turn as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose is back and equally fine as an orca whale trainer who loses both her legs in a tragic accident and finds new purpose and love she never knew. Her La Vie en Rose win probably makes a second Oscar so soon after
less likely, and the film might not be as widely seen as other contenders, but she’s a knockout in the role.

Helen Mirren plays the Master of Suspense’s wife in Hitchcock.

Helen Mirren, Hitchcock

Mirren won in 2006 for playing Queen Elizabeth, and now she is back in contention for another real-life role, the lesser-known Alma Hitchcock, wife and partner of Alfred who was the brains and the force behind the genius. The film is more of a love story between the pair during the making of Psycho, and Mirren once again shows great dignity and has the money scene where she gets to tell off her husband and elicit the audience’s sympathy.

Naomi Watts, The Impossible

As an extreme accident victim whose family is separated during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Watts has her most physical and, perhaps, most demanding role. Speaking mostly through her eyes, Watts is extraordinary and could land her second best actress nom after first making the grade with 21 Grams.

Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

This great actress, now 85 years old, first came to fame more than 50 years ago in the classic Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), but now, at a point when most actors are long retired or forgotten, she has perhaps her greatest role as a stroke victim whose rapidly declining health takes a great toll on her husband (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Much like Watts, Riva says so much by saying so little, and it’s heartbreaking—and difficult—to watch. If nominated she would be the oldest ever in this category.

Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

As the pint-sized powerhouse named Hushpuppy, first-time actress Wallis won praise and stole hearts in this magical festival sensation, the story of a 6-year-old dealing with a fading father and challenging weather conditions threatening her life on the bayou. Wallis is Riva’s opposite: she would be the youngest ever nominated, and the thin ranks of true contenders means she has a real shot to make it happen. An Indie Spirit nomination, and possible win, is assured.

Keira Knightley stars as the doomed title character in director Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina.

Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina

Tackling one of the great roles in all of literature, Knightley brings just the right amount of moral ambiguity and suffering to Tolstoy’s heroine. Performing in the shadow of Greta Garbo’s unique and unforgettable portrayal, but helped by director Joe Wright’s  imaginative and fluid staging, Knightley matches her Oscar-nominated turn in Wright’s Pride & Prejudice, looks sensational, and makes the role her own. Mixed reaction to the overall film could hurt her chances in the end.

Maggie Smith, Quartet

Two-time winner Maggie Smith shines in a sterling ensemble of veteran actors who bring Dustin
Hoffman’s directorial debut to shimmering life. Playing an aging opera diva who moves into a home for retired stars, Smith still knows how to deliver a brittle, caustic line with the best of them and still make us care. She stands a good chance of getting back into the Oscar game after bagging her second Downton Abbey Emmy in September.

Judi Dench stars in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Not to be outdone by her Marigold costar Maggie Smith, Dench dominates a true ensemble and who’s who of British senior stars as a lonely widow finding renewed life on a trip to India that turns into a challenge for all when they check into the rundown Marigold Hotel. Add to that her strongest turn yet in the Bond film, Skyfall, and Dench is having a very good year. She should, at the very least, merit a Golden Globe comedy nom for this.

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty

Although a late-breaking entry in this year’s race—and the most secretive movie of the lot—Chastain appears to have a very good chance to repeat her career roll and nab a second consecutive Oscar nomination (after her supporting nom for The Help last year) for her role as a tough CIA operative. Chastain calls her part awesome, but will Academy members agree?

Also in the Mix…

Elle Fanning, Ginger & Rosa

Sporting a British accent and attitude, the teen star got top reviews on the fest circuit but has an uphill climb for Oscar recognition—although she is one to watch in the future.

Meryl Streep, Hope Springs

As usual Streep knocks it out of the park, but even she says enough is enough. Still, she’s Streep, so never say never.

Leslie Mann, This Is 40

Mann is simply terrific in this semi-autobiographical movie from her husband, Judd Apatow. Could be a sleeper contender if the movie catches on. This is her best work yet.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Smashed

It never hurts to play an alcoholic, and Winstead delivers a major performance with surprising subtlety as a teacher with a constant hangover and troubled relationship. The film might be too small and forgotten by the time ballots are filled out.

Laura Linney, Hyde Park on Hudson

Bill Murray’s spot-on portrayal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is what seems to be drawing the attention to this movie, although Linney was entirely fine and wonderfully subtle as the distant cousin who has a most unusual relationship with the president. She’s likely to get overlooked for a performance that does not get that one ballbreaking scene that makes voters take notice.

Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea

Many found Terence Davies’ adaptation of the Terence Rattigan story pretentious, but all agree it was a raw and riveting turn by Weisz that made it worth watching. It would require a big campaign just to remind people this spring release came out this year.

Amy Adams, Trouble With the Curve

Eastwood was Eastwood and might have hurt himself with that chair, but Adams was the heart and soul of this estranged father-daughter relationship set in the world of baseball scouting. Her best chance this year lies with The Master in supporting since Curve didn’t quite hit a home run in its September release.

Q&A: Dwight Henry From Beasts of the Southern Wild

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor.

A 20-minute phone interview with Dwight Henry—better known to his New Orleans neighbors as “Mr. Henry”—seems wrong, somehow. A conversation with Henry should be long and slow and surrounded by the luscious comfort-food smells at his restaurant, The Buttermilk Drop Bakery Café. You need a strong cup of coffee and maybe a couple of the house specialty doughnut nuggets. What’s your hurry, Hollywood?

Mr. Henry, 45, is telling the story of how a baker with no acting experience landed a leading role in a surprise-hit independent movie called Beasts of the Southern Wild, the story of little girl Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her father Wink (Henry), struggling to preserve their life and their bayou land in a Katrina-strength hurricane. That little film is certainly gaining the attention of some Oscar voters, and this Southern gentleman is going to let the tale unfold at his own pace, in his own way.

Dwight Henry waves to the crowds at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

AWARDSLINE: So you had no acting experience before this?

DWIGHT HENRY: None before. It’s just some sort of natural ability. The guys from Core 13 [Ed. note: the New Orleans-based production company behind the movie], they seen some sort of natural, magical, mystical abilities in me.

AWARDSLINE: How did they discover you?

HENRY: I own a bakery. When I first actually met them, I owned a bakery called Henry’s Bakery, right across from the actual studio where they used to do the auditions at. And a lot of the guys in the company used to come over to the bakery and get breakfast and buy doughnuts. And then one day, (producer) Michael Gottwald came in there and said, “Mr. Henry, can I put these flyers in your bakery?” And I said: “Yeah, that’s cool.” And the flyers read: “If anybody wants to audition for this upcoming feature film, just pull a number and give us a call.”

I used to stare at the flyer every day, being in the bakery, and I’d watch people pull a number, and jokingly I said, “One day, Mike, I’m going to come over there and audition for you. “ But time went by; I never had time.

Then me and Michael Gottwald, we were sitting in the bakery, and I said, “Michael, I’ve got some time, I’m going to come over.” He said, “All right!” So I went over there; he had a script for me. We sat down, and he interviewed me on camera. I talked about my whole life—how I stayed back after Katrina, and talked about family. I didn’t expect to get the part; I was just going over there, being friendly like I am. So they called me back about two weeks later: “Mr. Henry, Mr. (Benh) Zeitlin, our director, he loved what he seen in the reading, and he wants you to do another read.” I said, “Hey, Michael, that’s a callback—when you get a callback in this industry, it’s serious!”

AWARDSLINE: What happened then?

HENRY: I went in and did another read, (then) I went back to the bakery like nothing happened again. So it was about a month and half, two months—I had moved my business from across the street where the studio was to across town, to a bigger location. The neighbors told me (that) they were asking, “Where’s Mr. Henry?” They wanted to give me the part, but nobody couldn’t find me.

Two days after I opened up my new location, Michael Gottwald walks in through the door and says, “Mr. Henry, we’ve been looking at you for a month now to give you the part.” I was overwhelmed, ecstatic, glad, grateful—but I couldn’t take it, because I had just opened up my business two days ago. I had to turn them down for the part because I had worked so hard to build this business to pass down to my kids, and I just couldn’t see myself sacrificing my children, who I love more than anything in the world, for a possible movie career for myself.

To make a long story short, I turned them down three times, but they believed in me, and eventually I was able to work things out.

AWARDSLINE: It must have been a surprise to get anything, much less a lead role.

HENRY: Never in a million years that I thought that I would get the lead part in a feature film. But Mr. Zeitlin thought I was so perfect for the part. If you brought in someone from Hollywood or New York, (the actor would have) heard about what a storm is, but never been in a storm, never been in a flood, never experienced 130-mile-per-hour winds coming at you, with your roof flying off. It makes us tougher. Some people on the outside, they don’t understand why when a storm’s coming, we’ll throw a party in the middle of a storm. We’ve got a Category 5 storm coming, and people throwing a party.

AWARDSLINE: Your co-star, Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only 6 at the time, also had no acting experience. What was it like working with her?

HENRY: It was great, we developed a bond, and I have a daughter her age. We’ve endured a press tour; we’ve been all over the country together. We do interviews together, she actually called me Daddy, and I really look at her like she’s my daughter now. [Ed. note: Henry’s real family includes a 10-year-old daughter; three sons aged 3, 5, and 17, and wife Carmell Anderson Henry, a lab technician].

AWARDSLINE: Do you plan to continue acting?

HENRY: Yes, I’m back at the bakery, but I do plan to continue acting, yes. I did Beasts, and after that I did Twelve Years a Slave (directed by) Steve McQueen. That’s it for right now. I’ve been going to places that I never dreamed I’d be going. But the one thing about New Orleans, compared to every major city in the world, the one thing I appreciate when I come home is the food.

AWARDSLINE: What does your success mean to you?

HENRY: Hollywood is the glamour life, everything is peachy, but if you go on the other side of that water from Hollywood, across the ocean, they have people who don’t even know what running water is. We take a bottle of water, take one sip of it, and just throw it away. I’ve always hoped if I ever hit the lottery and win $100 million dollars, I am going to be a philanthropist and give it all away. I would get more joy from that.

Watch: Exclusive Clip From Spike Lee’s Michael Jackson doc, Bad 25

Two years after Michael Jackson’s death, the King of Pop is still getting lauded via film and TV. The latest look into the artist’s legacy is from director Spike Lee, whose Bad 25 is eligible in the documentary feature category for the 2013 Oscar race. Lee, a two-time Academy Award nominee for 1989’s Do The Right Thing and 1997’s Four Little Girls doc, includes well-known voices like Mariah Carey and Justin Beiber discussing their views on Jackson’s seminal Bad album. The documentary branch of the Academy will vote on the short list of eligible documentary features on Nov. 26.

Behind The Scenes On Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of AwardsLine.

It’s not that independent filmmaker Benh Zeitlin, 30, and his team at Court 13 Productions had nothing to lose when they set out to produce Beasts of the Southern Wild, Zeitlin’s first feature film. But with a miniscule budget somewhere between $1.5 million and $1.8 million, they could afford to take a few more risks than a Hollywood producer hoping to turn a profit on a $200 million action film.

On the risky side: Casting two Louisiana locals with zero acting experience in the lead roles—one a 6-year-old—and dressing up a crew of little pot-bellied pigs to represent a herd of giant prehistoric Aurochs. These boar-like beasts bedevil the imagination of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), an independent little girl in white rubber boots who defies nature to try to save her ailing father (portrayed by Dwight Henry, a baker and restaurateur in real life) and her bayou home during a raging Katrina-like storm. (“They are about the cutest thing in the world when you see them live,” Zeitlin says of the little porkers).

And as Oscar season approaches, the odds makers are already betting that the modestly-budgeted film—which has earned just over $11 million since its theatrical release in June—could gain voters’ attention. However, the decision to cast nonunion actors has proved problematic for one stop on the awards trail: It has been ruled ineligible for the Screen Actors Guild Awards because is does not adhere to the terms of SAG-AFTRA’s Low Budget Feature Agreement, which requires the use of professional actors. Nevertheless, the buzz still seems to be with Beasts.

Inspired by Zeitlin’s short Glory of the Sea and based on Lucy Alibar’s play Juicy and Delicious, the film premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize. At Sundance, Fox Searchlight Pictures snapped up the film for distribution. One of the film’s executive producers, Michael Raisler, would not name names when asked who competed for the distribution rights (Harvey Weinstein, anyone?). But he confirmed that “pretty much everybody at some point” tried to make a deal at Sundance to distribute Beasts.

Beasts also made a well-received international debut at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it took the Camera d’Or award, and has won stellar reviews nationwide. All this is heady stuff for Zeitlin, who has a hard time thinking about his career from a commercial perspective. “Making films has always been like a burst of energy. It’s never been something that is kind of calculated,” he says. “I never sat down to think, ‘Well, (here’s what I should do) to make it in the directing game.’ It’s just a story that takes hold of you at a certain time, and you follow that impulse.”

In this case, the impulse came from his longtime friend Alibar, whose Juicy and Delicious tells the story of a 10-year-old Southern boy with a dying father, who believes his father’s death will coincide with the end of the world. The boy in the play is also pursued by the Aurochs. Alibar, who attended playwright’s camp with Zeitlin at age 13, based the play on her own experience during her own father’s illness, but chose a boy character in order to be able to distance herself from the story while writing it.

Alibar, who cowrote the script with Zeitlin (her first screenwriting effort), was a struggling young adult, not a kid, when her father developed heart problems, but her reaction was not unlike that of an angry child. “I was in New York, working two bartending jobs and a waitressing job,” says Florida-panhandle native Alibar, adding that her father has since recovered. “I’m from the Southern Baptist tradition, and you’re not supposed to feel anger when you lose somebody. When somebody dies, you are supposed to rejoice that they are going to God. I wasn’t feeling any of that. I was feeling these really angry, ugly feelings. So I wrote Hushpuppy as a boy so I could really write about what I was feeling without it being so confessional.”

During the audition process, Zeitlin and Alibar were looking to cast a girl, but remained open to the possibility that the right Hushpuppy might be of any race, either sex, and older or younger than the Hushpuppy of the play. “I guess it’s like having a baby, you don’t get to choose,” Alibar jokes. But it was Wallis, age 5 at the time of the audition, who won their hearts, despite their reservations about relying on someone so young to carry the movie.

Alibar’s story was thrown into the blender with Zeitlin’s concept for Glory of the Sea, shot in Louisiana from 2006-08. A trailer for the short film describes it as “eleven strangers who set sail to find their loved ones at the bottom of the sea” in an atmosphere very much like the Bathtub, the name for the fictional bayou area depicted in Beasts. “The idea was to make a film in which holdouts and survivors were the heroes,” Zeitlin says. “To make a film that celebrates the kind of resilient characters that were refusing to be pushed off their land.” Along with writing and directing, Zeitlin also cowrote the music with Dan Romer.

Producing the short film led Zeitlin to move to New Orleans permanently and make the city the home of Court 13. “It was never my intention that I was going to stay, but at that moment in 2008 that it was dawning on me that I was going to stay, the early idea for Beasts began to coalesce,” Zeitlin explains. Like Alibar, an unfortunate life experience further refined his focus.
“In the year that this was getting written, I had been in a car accident, and I had gone back to New York to recover (wondering whether) I was going to walk again and stuff,” he says. “And I remember I was home when (hurricanes) Gustav and Ike hit.

“I was watching the coverage and seeing this whole way in which people were being portrayed for staying, for riding out those storms,” Zeitlin continues. “This came out of wanting to tell a story from the perspective of the people that were staying, rather than how they were perceived. It wasn’t about Katrina as much as it was about the area, imagining what it’s going to be like to live under this constant threat of storms every couple of years.”

Zeitlin recovered from the accident and set about working to create Beasts. Gathering the financing required going to a lot of different sources, resulting in an extremely long list of producers. The film is a Cinereach and Court 13 Production in association with Journey Pictures. Cinereach, a young nonprofit foundation that provides filmmaking grants as well as producing and financing films, provided the bulk of the funding, supported by grants from Sundance and the San Francisco Film Institute, as well as various in-kind donations.

Zeitlin hopes Academy recognition for Beasts of the Southern Wild will lead to more films with low budgets and high aspirations. “There’s really no place for this type of film in the world right now,” he says. “Hopefully, it will have a ripple effect where it will allow regional films to get made, and also give us the leverage we need to continue doing this kind of work.”

Concludes Zeitlin, “If you make a film for $150 million, it can’t fail, so it has to be safe. E.T. was made for $10 million. When you look back at even Hollywood movies that were really risky, the films that are true classics and stand the test of time, almost all of them are made for a fraction of these behemoth blockbusters, and they are more daring in their storytelling.”

Behind The Scenes on Moonrise Kingdom

Cari Lynn is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of AwardsLine.

A tale of first love had been knocking around in Wes Anderson’s brain for nearly a decade. But before it became the quirky, cherubic Moonrise Kingdom—which earned Oscar talk after being granted the coveted opening-night slot at the Cannes Film Festival and has gone on to become a crossover boxoffice hit—Anderson struggled with getting the story down on paper. For the better part of a year, all he had was a hodgepodge of ideas: a 12-year-old boy and girl in 1965, a New England island, the feel of François Truffaut’s 1976 film Small Change, and a record playing Leonard Bernstein’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”—but no script.

“When we would chat, I would ask Wes how that island film was coming,” says Roman Coppola, who cowrote The Darjeeling Limited with Anderson and Jason Schwartzman. “A chunk of time would pass, and we’d meet up again, and again I’d ask. It was clear the world, the feeling, the vibe of it was there, but the details were vague. Often when you’re working on a creative thing you have a sense that it exists, but you’re trying to find its form.”

So Coppola stepped in, holing himself up in a hotel room in Italy to tease out the script with Anderson. They each harkened back to memories of puppy love: for Anderson it was vivid recollections of being 11 and wanting something bigger to happen in his young life; for Coppola it was Annie Winkelstein who passed him a note that said, “I think you’re cute, call me.” After a month of talking it through, scene by scene, Anderson says the movie “revealed itself”—a tale of a disgruntled boy scout and a brooding schoolgirl who spark a pen-pal romance and run away together.

Quick to support the completed script were what’s become known as Anderson’s usual suspects. Early aboard was billionaire Steven Rales of Indian Paintbrush, who produced the Oscar-nominated Fantastic Mr. Fox and Darjeeling Limited; and the ubiquitous Scott Rudin, who’s produced every Wes Anderson film since 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums—both of whom Anderson calls his “key advisers” for their input into everything from the script to casting and, pertinently with Rudin, the marketing of the film. Also on board was Anderson’s right-hand man and producer on the ground, Jeremy Dawson, who produced Anderson’s prior two films and was visual effects supervisor on The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

Via Indian Paintbrush, Focus Features signed on to distribute before filming even began. Despite what seems like a relatively breezy path enjoyed only by elite filmmakers of both critical and boxoffice successes, Dawson still describes the process as “a weird miracle.”

The cast fell into place with Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, and, from Anderson’s posse, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. But, says Anderson, “the biggest thing with this movie, once there was a script was, who are these actors for these two kids? Because if we can’t find them, we don’t have a movie. So we set aside a lot of time to search.”

Dispatching casting directors worldwide, Anderson reviewed potentials on Quicktime, watching what he calls dozens of “postage-stamp auditions” every day. He landed on two first-timers: from New Jersey, Jared Gilman as Sam, and from the Boston area, Kara Hayward as Suzy. “For Jared, what immediately made me laugh was the way he looked and his voice,” Anderson describes. “His audition was good, but the interview between him and our casting director was charming and winning, and I liked him immediately. With Kara, on the other hand, it was as simple as having seen 900 different girls read the same scene, a scene I began long before and soon despised. (Kara) seemed to make up the words spontaneously, right there on the spot. No one else had read like this for me, and I thought she had to be it.”

The next challenge was determining where to shoot, which meant finding a suitable island. “We called it Google scouting,” says production designer Adam Stockhausen, describing how the team searched the Internet, emailing each other photos of islands around the world. When a bright-red lighthouse in Rhode Island encapsulated Anderson’s vision of the fictitious island of New Penzance, the location was set.

While Anderson’s films have their broody and fantastical hallmarks, so does his filmmaking style, and immersion is his goal. Cast and crew descended onto Rhode Island for the entire shoot, and local and/or authentic relics were sourced almost exclusively—from antique landscape paintings to osprey nests to a ping-pong table that was spotted in the historic Clingstone mansion that sits atop the rocks of Narragansett Bay.

No detail was too small, down to the decoration on Sam’s Khaki Scout tent. “We knew we wanted symbols on Sam’s tent, and we wanted it to have a handmade feeling that was very personal, very unique,” says Stockhausen about what he calls his favorite element in the movie. “We stumbled on a notebook of 19th-century
ink drawings, that, I think, were Cherokee, of beautiful figurines of animals, and we re-created them.”

Another Anderson filmmaking trait is to shun the ordinary and create a unique environment. For the Rhode Island production office, they set up in a decommissioned 1960s elementary school that not only had the necessary space but fit with the vibe of the film and served as rehearsal space for Jared, Kara, and the Khaki Scouts.

“It’s where kids that age would have been,” Dawson says. “We don’t like to have, oh, this is a place where people come to make movies. No, this is a place where you get your head into this movie. We try and reinvent a lot of the rules of filmmaking, and sometimes that’s to add more efficiency or to save movie, but sometimes it’s just literally to do things differently so that it’s memorable for everyone who works on it. Also, Wes feels it filters into the film—maybe it’s not fully tangible, but the actors, for instance, they’re in a different mindset if you create a nice, communal atmosphere. It’s more like a theater troupe.”

To this point, actors didn’t have trailers, everyone ate meals together—and effort was made to always have great food—and many of the cast and crew lived together in a large rented house that also contained the editing room. To prep the young leads, Anderson had Hayward and Gilman get into character by writing to each other as Sam and Suzy—not by email, but on stationery, with ink, the way starry-eyed kids would have in 1965.

Once filming was complete, editing was moved to New York: a rented apartment that had been the home of Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg.

Also, in a nontraditional move, the team embarked on numerous featurettes, including a short with Jason Schwartzman and a partially-animated story hour with Bob Balaban.

“Focus was great in helping us with all these extra materials we wanted to do and saying, ‘Let’s do them!’ ” Dawson explains. “Wes works harder than anybody I know. Because a film is so intense and focused, we, and especially Wes, always want them to be an adventure to make as well as to watch. For artists in general, it’s nice to work with a director who cares about everything, every piece. That helps us get good people into our world.”

Hitchcock Experiences A Revival On The Big and Small Screens

Craig Modderno is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of AwardsLine.

Director Alfred Hitchcock is experiencing something of a revival—32 years after the master of suspense left this mortal coil. Fox Searchlight’s Hitchcock, which stars Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren, will open the AFI Fest in early November; Universal just released an elaborate box set, Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, which showcases 13 of his films on Blu-ray; and HBO recently aired The Girl, starring Toby Jones and Sienna Miller, which examines the tempestuous relationship between Hitch and Tippi Hedren.

Hedren, a former model who made her feature-film debut in 1963’s The Birds, was an object of obsession for the director, something she’s only recently begun discussing in detail. Hedren served as an adviser on the HBO movie and recently attended a screening of a redigitalized version of The Birds at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

“When we made The Birds, it was a different time in film history. If there was any tension from the set or people were having affairs, the press agents covered it up,” Hedren explains. “But when Hitch attacked me the first time in the limo right before we arrived on the set, the crew knew what had happened. Then the torture began. He started using real instead of mechanical birds to attack me, and several scenes were in the final cut. It was scary, brutal, and, at times, unsafe.”

Nevertheless, Hedren still has admiration for the man who kept her under his thumb.

“He wouldn’t let me work for any other director while he had me under my 7-year contract,” she says. “(French director) François Truffaut wanted me for the female lead in Fahrenheit 451, and I never found that out until I read it somewhere. Hitchcock was just a lousy, disagreeable man. But if he was here right, now we’d find one thing to agree on: the studio should have rereleased or made The Birds in 3D. It’s the perfect film for that process.”

Bond Songs Don’t Often Get Oscar Love

Craig Modderno is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of AwardsLine.

After 50 years on screen, British agent James Bond is once again trying to use a woman to get what he wants from a stranger: Grammy Award-winning Adele sings and cowrote the title song for the latest big-screen Bond adventure, Skyfall. And judging from the international response to the track, this time around Bond might stand a chance in getting some long-deserved Oscar attention for the tune.

But Bond songs—let alone the franchise itself—don’t often earn Academy Award nominations. At an October Academy event, The Music of Bond: The First 50 Years, author and event host Jon Burlingame explained why Bond theme songs have only earned three Oscar nominations over a half-century.

“The problem in composing a song for a Bond film is often the producers require the title of the song to be the title of the film,” Burlingame explains. “But how do you come up with a song entitled ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’?”

It’s certainly not related to a lack of vocal talent. The various Bond songs have been performed by artists as diverse as Madonna, Louis Armstrong, Carly Simon, and the only repeat artist, Shirley Bassey.

But with some of the best reviews of a Bond film in years, perhaps Skyfall will be the film to break the Oscar nomination curse.

Britannia Awards Honor American And British Talent

Craig Modderno is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of AwardsLine.

In what looks to be the start of another lively awards season, the first volley has been fired by the Brits. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts Los Angeles, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, will honor both American and British talent at its annual Britannia Awards ceremony, taking place Nov. 7 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills.

The relatively loose, humorous affair, which will air for the first time in primetime on BBC America Nov. 11, is part of BAFTA LA’s efforts to continue to forge strong ties between the Hollywood community and its counterparts in Great Britain. Though the Britannias aren’t always about the pursuit of Oscar, the awards show often represents one of the initial high-profile stops on the November-February circuit. In fact, a couple of this year’s honorees, most notably Django Unchained director and John Schlesinger honoree Quentin Tarantino and Lincoln star and Stanley Kubrick honoree Daniel Day-Lewis, will factor heavily into the season’s conversation, giving the Britannias a bigger slice of the spotlight.

Though the event isn’t as no-holds-barred as some of Hollywood’s better-known nontelevised ceremonies, Donald Haber, executive director and chief operating office of BAFTA LA, says it occupies a special place on the calendar for the filmmaking community.

“Kate Winslet, who previously received the Britannia Award, said it best,” Haber explains. “She said, ‘It’s more enjoyable to go to an awards ceremony when you know you’ve already won!’ ”

Other Britannia-bestowed individuals include Skyfall star Daniel Craig, who is British Artist of the Year; South Park and Book of Mormon creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who will receive the Charlie Chaplin Britannia Award for Excellence in Comedy; and videogame designer Will Wright, who will receive the Albert R. Broccoli Britannia Award for Worldwide Contribution to Entertainment.

“While Mr. Wright may not be a household name, we feel his contribution to videogames, which more studios are regarding as a necessary offshoot of their high-profile films, is worth honoring,” Haber offers. “Wright’s award shows that BAFTA is ahead of the curve in recognizing this emerging art form.”

AwardsLine spoke to several industry professionals who have worked with this year’s honorees. Here’s what they had to say:

On Daniel Craig, British Artist of the Year

“When Daniel got Bond he went immediately into a strict workout schedule. He focused like an athlete on getting his body in shape. I would have dinner with him during the making of Casino Royale, and he turned down wine and dessert in order to finish—after a day of shooting—another complete workout. Very quickly, I realized Daniel was a character actor evolving into a leading man.

“We tested Daniel doing the first scene with the girl in From Russia With Love. Now, we all know Sean Connery was the template for Bond and, in my opinion, that was his best performance. Though it’s hard to compare Bonds, we’ve used that scene in auditions before because it has the qualities of Bond that we’ve always wanted. (But) Daniel actually had to be talked into playing Bond. A major part of him didn’t want to enter a pub knowing that when he exited he would face an endless, aggressive pack of photographers. Daniel insists that all future films we do will be cast with credible actors and credible premises. So you’ll see no more Tanya Roberts or Denise Richards or starlets like that from past Bond pictures. We’re in the era of serious Bond stories now.”

—Michael G. Wilson, producer

“When I directed Daniel in Road to Perdition and later in Skyfall, there were a few noticeable differences. He has a much greater inner confidence now. He has a strong center, is a better actor, and knows how to adjust his inner intensity and anger in a way that works best for him now. Daniel also has a wacky sense of humor that he allows himself to reveal more of now. In Road to Perdition, much like the Bond films, Daniel’s got an incredible controlled spring of intensity, verging on psychotic emotions. He told me about directing a Bond film that nothing could prepare me for it. Daniel trusted me to bring my vision as much as possible to the table. There’s nothing better than having an actor who wanted to be pushed, who wanted me not to be standoffish but critical when necessary. At first, when he was chosen, I didn’t believe Daniel was the perfect Bond choice, but in Casino Royale they made him play a real person and not a cartoon character, and audiences and critics responded to it in an overwhelmingly positive manner.”

—Sam Mendes, director

On Quentin Tarantino, John Schlesinger Award for Excellence in Directing

“There was no difference between the Quentin I worked with on Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained. It’s like watching someone you believe in fulfill their promise through the past 20 years. What people don’t recognize is how romantic Quentin’s films are. The British realized that early. The British actually embraced and discovered Quentin before American audiences did.

“When you’re working with Quentin, everyone brings their A-game to the set. Everyone realizes it’s not just a job, but we’re all having an adventure telling a story. I often feel like a bush-leaguer around him because of his vast film knowledge. When we made Django Unchained, we had a lot of fun watching westerns, some of which I hadn’t seen, like Rio Bravo and Don Siegel’s Flaming Star, which starred a very believable Elvis Presley.”

 —Stacey Sher, producer

On Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Charlie Chaplin Award for Excellence in Comedy

“It was so bizarre how we met. They came to my show Avenue Q because they were working with puppets on a film. They were heroes of mine so I thanked them in the program’s credits, which freaked them out because they had never met me. We went out after the play and discovered we all wanted to do a play about Mormons—who knew! I had my fiancée join us later, and almost immediately Matt offered us his Hawaii home for our honeymoon. Jeff Marx, my cocomposer on Avenue Q, asked me what they were like. I told him, ‘They’re just like us only richer, funnier, and better-looking!’

“For me what made the play work was Matt and Trey’s way of building a song in a well-crafted manner, where the laughs built in the same way as the music. The show hasn’t opened in England, so I have no idea why they’re getting this award from the Brits. I’m sure their first comment upon being told of the honor was to ask if there was a free meal attached. There’s a song called ‘I Believe,’ which the show’s producers wanted us to write and we didn’t want to. I then showed the boys the film clip ‘I Have Confidence in Me’ from The Sound of Music. We believed there’s no such thing as a bad idea when we were doing the project so Matt and Trey started composing their own words to the tune and changed some things musically. The Rodgers and Hammerstein estate loved our song and gave their blessings to it for the play.”

—Robert Lopez, composer-lyricist

On Daniel Day-Lewis, Stanley Kubrick Award for Excellence in Film

“I first saw Daniel in the Stephen Frears’ film My Beautiful Laundrette. The first time he came onscreen, he was amazing and charismatic. He seemed fearless. In that movie, he plays a gay character, so he wasn’t stuck-up about his image.

“He isn’t an actor of multiple takes; he has it instantly. (Since The Boxer), I haven’t found anything that was good for him to do, not that he refused anything, but obviously I would love to find something for him.

“(During In the Name of the Father), when his father was dying, we did an improvised scene where we passed time and he wrapped the tape around his head—that was powerful. Also, the scene where he signs his life away, he had stayed out a few days without sleeping (the night before), and that was very emotional.”

—Jim Sheridan, director

Anthony D’Alessandro contributed to this report.

Academy Makes Sweeping Rule Changes

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This story first appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of AwardsLine.

The times—and rules—they are a-changin’ for this year’s Oscar race. Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences refines the rules in an effort to keep the campaigning fair and maintain the integrity of the industry’s highest honor. But this year will debut some of the most sweeping changes Oscar has seen in decades.

Academy members will be voting electronically for the first time, which will allow a tightened schedule for determining nominations and an earlier nominee announcement. In addition, both the song and documentary feature categories received their own tuneups. The aggressive moves are an effort to make the nominees matter even more.

The earlier schedule means the eagerly anticipated nomination announcement will happen two weeks earlier than usual, on Jan. 10. And the period in which nominating ballots will be available is smack dab in the heart of the holiday season, Dec. 17-Jan. 2. Although the actual process of casting a ballot will be easier for members with laptops or iPads, the real challenge is the truncated time period that members will now have to see all the movies, particularly those released in December.

In fact, on the very day the Academy announced this seismic change, Universal moved the release date of its big Oscar hopeful, Les Miserables, from Dec. 14 to Christmas Day, seemingly giving voters less time to see the film. However, the consultant I spoke with didn’t seem concerned.

“We will begin screening heavily at the end of November,” the consultant says. “There is such want-to-see on this movie within the Academy I don’t believe we will have any problem getting members in on time to consider it. But you have to remember that, first and foremost, the studio is most interested in picking the date that works in the best interest of the film’s boxoffice prospects. And Dec. 25, right in the heart of the holiday (season), seemed a perfect choice.”

Academy President Hawk Koch told me all the major guilds—PGA, DGA, WGA, and SAG—seem to have no problem getting their members to see the movies early and get their nominations out in early January. He points out there are an enormous number of Academy members who are also members of those guilds, and he doesn’t anticipate the earlier dates will be that big of a deal to overcome for most diligent members. Koch also points out that the new dates give more time for voters and audiences to see the actual nominees because the period between nominations and Oscars is now six weeks instead of four.

Beyond the new rules for balloting, the biggest individual change in any of the branches came from the documentary peer group, which has radical new rules governing how a doc qualifies and what it has to do to meet the new requirements. Spearheaded by Academy Governor Michael Moore, the changes would seem to favor more commercially viable and better-known docs (the kind he makes), and put the kibosh on glorified TV docs of the sort HBO specializes in. Instead of relying on four smaller committees of branch members to each view 12 or more docs and assign a score, the entire branch will now use a preferential voting system (the same used to choose best picture) in order to create a shortlist of 15 titles, and later five nominees. All Academy members who have seen all five nominees will choose the winner. In terms of qualifying, a doc must play seven days in a theater in Los Angeles and New York for at least two shows a day between noon and 10 p.m., be clearly advertised in three major newspapers in the area, and even more significantly, it must be reviewed by a legitimate critic in either the Los Angeles Times or New York Times. Previously, films could qualify by sneaking in unadvertised runs that were so stealth critics were never informed the film was playing. One reason some distributors used this method was so they could qualify the doc without upsetting any future distribution plans.

Already the new rules have had the effect of scaring off potential contenders this year. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell was one of the biggest hits at the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals, and it was quickly snapped up by Roadside Attractions. It would seem natural to capitalize on the glowing reviews and positive audience reaction and qualify it for this year’s doc race, the deadline for which was Sept. 24. However, a top Roadside executive told me that with the new rules, a quick, higher-profile Oscar-qualifying run could take all the air out of a regular release, and it was just too risky a strategy for their new acquisition.

Polley will just have to wait until next year, but by then the rules might have completely changed again. Controversy crept into the process when members complained they had too many films to watch (80 were dumped on the committee in October alone, with only a month to see them all) after a record number of entries managed to qualify, some by finding clever ways around the rules. Moore vows to jettison all special rules and just let the doc filmmakers play like the rest of the Academy peer groups, letting the best somehow rise to the top. Or so he hopes.

There was another big change in the song category, although in terms of Oscar history, it really is a change going back to the way it used to be. Once again, five nominees will be chosen instead of the recent practice of a variable number of zero to five nominated songs, which depended on a complicated voting system. Last year, only two nominees were chosen and neither was performed on the Oscar show, leading to an outcry from many members of the music branch. The number of eligible songwriters has also been amended to include the possibility of a fourth tunesmith in “rare and extraordinary circumstances.”

There were some other minor housecleaning changes in several other categories. First, for foreign-language film—which actually is in need of a much bigger overhaul in the way eligible films are submitted and selected—movies can be shown at the Academy in 35mm or DCP, but are no longer required to be exhibited in those formats in their home countries. Second, the makeup category is now known as the makeup and hairstyling award, and during the nominations process all branch members who have seen the seven shortlisted titles will receive ballots to pick their top three finalists. And finally, the five visual-effects nominees will be chosen from 10 contenders selected by the Branch Executive Committee by secret ballot (previously it could be anywhere from seven to 10).

Early-Year Fests Becoming Important Awards Campaign Stops

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This story appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of AwardsLine.

Awards season is turning into a year-’round affair when it comes to the festival circuit. Though film festivals haven’t always had a strong impact on the Oscar race, this year in particular demonstrates that awards positioning is starting much earlier—so early, in fact, that some of the jockeying for the 2013 Academy Awards started even before the red carpet unfurled for the 2012 ceremony.

While the fall-fest triumvirate of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto has long been considered the true start of the six-month season, campaigners have started using fests like January’s Sundance, May’s Cannes, and even June’s frothier Los Angeles Film Festival as places to spotlight a potential awards player. Though studios and distributors still closely concentrate their awards contenders in the fall timeframe, this year saw more early hints at which films have Oscar hopes.

For instance, Robert Redford’s winter gathering, Sundance, produced a robust selection of films that have turned into Oscar fare, including the high-stakes finance drama Arbitrage starring Richard Gere. Gere’s performance as a Bernie Madoff-type wheeler and dealer has some critics predicting the veteran actor could earn a career-first Oscar nomination. Also, Fox Searchlight, a major awards participant, picked up two hot titles at Sundance that have maintained awards season all year: the June release Beasts of the Southern Wild and October’s The Sessions (originally titled The Surrogate), which has highly-touted performances from John Hawkes and Helen Hunt.

Then along came Cannes in May, which last year saw the premiere of three eventual best picture Oscar nominees: Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, and The Artist, the film that eventually went on to win the big prize plus an actor statuette for Jean Dujardin, director for Michel Hazanavicius, and two other Oscars. This year, the French fest won’t likely be able to match that record, but Cannes contenders could figure into multiple categories with foreign-language crossovers like Michael Haneke’s touching Amour, which was the Palme d’Or winner, and director Jacques Audiard’s Rust & Bone, which could put previous winner Marion Cotillard back into strong contention for another lead actress Oscar.

Then there is the good luck Opening Night slot, which Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris—an eventual original screenplay Oscar winner—occupied last year and Wes Anderson’s specialty smash Moonrise Kingdom occupied this year. Focus Features hopes Moonrise will also get Oscar attention for Anderson and cowriter Roman Coppola in the original screenplay category, among other contests in which the film could figure.

Other titles out of Cannes that might have a harder time gaining traction in the Oscar race are Walter Salles’ Jack Kerouac beat epic, On the Road, for which IFC plans a big December awards push; Lee Daniels’ (Precious) controversial and steamy The Paperboy, a longshot that features a daring and risky performance from Nicole Kidman; Brad Pitt’s chilling work as a hitman in Killing Them Softly, which Oscar magnet the Weinstein Co. has moved into prime awards season position Nov. 30. Weinstein is also looking at a possible awards run for its feel-good period ’60s musical, The Sapphires, a movie more likely to be a fit for the Golden Globes musical/comedy category.

Awards talk used to take a break following Cannes, but these days even festivals considered relatively minor, like Hollywood’s hometown Los Angeles Film Festival, get examined through the awards-season lens. In fact, the June 2011 LAFF spotlighted Richard Linklater’s Bernie, starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, which found distribution through Millennium Films. The dark comedy has become something of a specialty sleeper hit, earning $9.2 million at the boxoffice, and is also starting to gain traction in the race, if only in a small way, getting a push for its two leads and its screenplay. Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love, his first film since Midnight in Paris, opened LAFF this year, but the film’s far weaker reception at the boxoffice (about $17 million) and mixed critical response has doomed its awards chances. However the closer for LAFF, Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper boxoffice hit from Warner Bros could land costar Matthew McConaughey his first-ever Oscar recognition even though the supporting actor category is especially crowded this year. Still, the film-fest slot gave the movie more of a prestige factor than just its wide early summer opening might have provided, an important plus in the race for the gold.

However, despite the increasing visibility of earlier festivals in terms of Oscars, fall festivals remain the best place for a contender to earn the awards attention needed to get a foothold at the boxoffice. “With the exception of a few big-ticket studio films, it is increasingly important to use at least one or maybe more of these film festivals in the fall to make an impact if you want to get a jumpstart for awards,” says one marketing maven.

No one knows this better than the Weinstein Co., whose consecutive best picture winners, The King’s Speech (2010) and The Artist (2011), made big splashes in back-to-back appearances at Telluride and Toronto before their domestic theatrical runs. This is possible since Telluride doesn’t announce its lineup until the fest actually starts over Labor Day weekend, plus it doesn’t label the films as World or North American Premieres, leaving that distinction to Venice and Toronto.

For this year, Weinstein launched The Master in Venice, skipped Telluride, and then hit Toronto carrying a number of wins from Italy (but not the Golden Lion in a controversial awards ceremony) into Canada. The company then exclusively debuted David O. Russell’s crowd-pleasing Silver Linings Playbook at Toronto to nothing less than ecstatic audience and critical reaction, even winning the People’s Choice Award, which previously went to other best picture winners American Beauty, The King’s Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire. After the Toronto premiere, the Nov. 21 release began to top pundits’ list of contenders. Weinstein also used Toronto to launch Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet, starring Maggie Smith, to enthusiastic standing ovations.

But Toronto is by far the biggest fest for an Oscar campaign sendoff and is almost overwhelming in its size. It is not uncommon to see four major movies competing directly against each other in the same timeslot for eyeballs on that first weekend. “It’s just gotten too big, and it could eventually produce diminishing returns if everybody figures they have to be in Toronto,” said one frustrated festgoer with dreams of awards for his movie. Among others getting the big premiere treatment there were End of Watch, The Sessions, Cloud Atlas, The Impossible, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Anna Karenina. All received major standing ovations and had reason to believe the early strategy—and risk—worked out, even if overall reaction to some like Warners’ Cloud Atlas was at best mixed in terms of awards prognosis.

Telluride, not to be outdone, also turned out to have a big winner from Warner Bros. in Ben Affleck’s extremely well-received true-life thriller, Argo, which generated lots of Oscar buzz from the numerous awards bloggers who have suddenly discovered the Colorado town’s awards cachet. In fact, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself threw a private party at Telluride and invited members in town for the fest, a soiree Affleck also attended. Warners then took the film to Toronto for its “official” World Premiere, and the reception was just as positive, immediately establishing it as a certified contender.

Also in Telluride, Bill Murray made a strong impression for his portrayal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson and made several appearances with the film there as well as Toronto. The film itself was met with a more muted response, although it had some fans.

The New York Film Festival in late September proved far more significant than usual with important Oscar-buzzing entries like opener Life of Pi from Ang Lee and closer Flight from director Robert Zemeckis and starring Denzel Washington, not to mention Sopranos creator David Chase’s feature directorial debut, Not Fade Away. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln even dropped in as a last-minute surprise premiere.

And though it’s last on the circuit, the early-November AFI Fest has its own piece of the Oscar pie with Fox Searchlight’s late entry, Hitchcock, a tailor-made no-brainer choice to open a fest with a rich film history at its core. After its NYFF splash on the East Coast, Lincoln was chosen as closer for AFI to keep momentum up on the West Coast.

However, a fest strategy definitely doesn’t work out for everything. If producers of To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s followup to The Tree of Life, had hopes it would repeat that film’s successful festival awards trajectory, those hopes were dashed by negative critical and crowd feedback in both Venice and Toronto. The film did eventually find a distributor, Magnolia, but its Oscar chances coming off the fest circuit and into theaters are not good. “You can’t bat .1000 every time,” says one top distributor who saw the film. A lesson learned this year on the circuit for Terrence Malick, who didn’t show up to see the reaction.