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.

Wes Anderson: “My Style is Like My Handwriting”

Wes Anderson

You can spot his motifs from a mile away: the funky retro-1960s soundtrack laced with a harpsichord score, the deadpan characters, the hysterical absurdist zingers and those adorable dollhouse set pieces.

However, Moonrise Kingdom director  Wes Anderson isn’t trying to be cute or obvious when it comes to his unique style on screen.

“When I make a movie, the thing that makes movies like my other movies — all those different things, whatever they are, where someone says, ‘Oh I think I know who did this one’ — those elements are more like my handwriting to me,” explains Anderson, “I’m always directing a movie where I wrote the script with some collaborator and it feels natural for me to do it in my own handwriting.”

In many ways, Anderson’s offbeat cinematic comical rhythm is reminiscent of those 1950s works by absurdist playwrights Eugene Ionesco and Harold Pinter, plays which accentuate immature adults inability to communicate in a domestic setting.  Given Anderson’s penchant for dysfunctional family hijinks, particularly in Moonrise Kingdom which finds two star-crossed tweens fleeing their humdrum summery New England days for a life together in the wilderness.

“I certainly have often thought of Pinter, he’s a writer that has always inspired me. (Samuel) Beckett maybe in a more distant way, but I would say Beckett through Pinter is one. The spareness and abstractness of Pinter has always been a real inspiration for me,” points out Anderson.

“If I was doing an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett, I might be working in ways that are less recognizable as my style; I’m not positive about that, but it’s the sort of situation where I don’t force myself to make a movie that’s unlike my other ones. I want to force myself to make the movie as entertaining and as moving as possible,” adds the director.

After receiving rave reviews out of Cannes this year, Focus Features is hoping to keep the party going for Moonrise Kingdom throughout awards season, particularly with hopes of a helming nod for Anderson.  Adding fuel to Moonrise Kingdom‘s fire is the fact that the film was a cross-over hit at the summer box office, consistently cracking the domestic top 10 and becoming the director’s second highest-grossing film of all-time at $64.5 million worldwide behind Royal Tenenbaums‘ $71.4 million. While Anderson’s previous films haven’t taken the Academy by storm with multiple noms in a given season, he’s no stranger to the org having notched a 2001 original screenplay nom for Royal Tenenbaums (shared with Owen Wilson) and a 2010 animation nom for Fantastic Mr. Fox.

At the moment, Anderson is busying himself with pre-production on his Grand Budapest Hotel which is set to go into production in Europe right during the heart of Oscar post-nom season in January. While the plot is under wraps, Ralph Fiennes, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson are already attached.


Arbitrage’s Richard Gere Dedicates Hollywood Award to Limato

Richard Gere

One of the great aspects about the Hollywood Awards that goes largely unrecognized is that it’s arguably the only show that doesn’t put a time cap on acceptance speeches and hook its recipients off stage. As such, both presenters and winners are not only more heartfelt, but candid. And that’s a wonderful rarity during a season when show producers are anxiously tapping their watches anytime a trophy gets handed out.

When the final award of Monday’s ceremony was handed to Hollywood Career Achievement recipient Richard Gere, it became clear why sometimes it’s better to let an honoree speak without a time clock. Following a riveting clip package of Gere’s best moments, the 63-year-old actor delivered a moving six-minute acceptance speech, remembering his late agent, Ed Limato of WME, who passed away on July 3, 2010. Limato was a living legend who shepherded the careers of such acting icons as Denzel Washington, Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Mel Gibson.

“These awards go to everyone I ever worked with, but there’s one person who deserves this more than anyone else,” Gere exclaimed. “There was an award I was given at the Museum of the Moving Image six or seven years ago. I mentioned this person there, and I kicked myself that I never spoke more about him, and it’s my dear friend, agent Ed Limato.”

Gere first met Limato when he moved to New York City after working in repertory theater for several years. He was referred to a female agent in the city, however, she was moving out to London to rep the great Italian director Franco Zeffirelli. However, she had an assistant.

“My hair was down to here, and I was wearing a motorcycle jacket and had a huge chip on my shoulder,” Gere recounted. “And that’s when I walked into Ed Limato’s office, and he became my dear friend and agent for over 40 years from that moment. There was not a decision I made without talking to him as a friend, a really dear friend. There was no silliness involved. He would cry with me over my making a decision. Ed died two years ago, and he was a chain smoker: three packs a day, the coffee, the cigarettes, and the telephone. He came from Mount Vernon, New York. I never visited his hometown, but we converged upon it for his funeral. As we were driving around the funeral home, all the mailboxes said ‘Limato’ on them — he was a second generation, Neapolitan Italian and they had taken over this whole section of Mount Vernon.”

Gere continued: “The first four rows of the church were The Sopranos: Big black hair and sunglasses. Then there was an aisle and the next four rows were agents and lawyers in Prada. That was Ed’s life: This combination of Sopranos and Prada.”

Well, Limato must be beaming from above, as there is serious talk once again about Gere in the lead actor’s race this season for his portrayal of a troubled hedge fund manager in Roadside Attractions’ Arbitrage. During Gere’s 40-year career, he’s been overlooked by Oscar voters in terms of acting noms, however, in 2003 he came within breathing distance of a potential one after winning a best actor in a comedy/musical Golden Globe for his portrayal of the tap-dancing criminal lawyer Billy Flynn in Miramax’s Chicago.

“If I had a career of mostly good choices, some lousy choices along the way, but mostly really good films and things I’ m proud of, it’s because of this friendship and trust and this really wonderful man, Ed Limato,” Gere concluded in his speech.

Read Pete Hammond’s coverage of the Hollywood Awards over at Deadline here. Check out Gere’s interview with Charlie Rose about Arbitrage below:

Foxx Unchained: Tarantino Is Another Auteur Breaking the Actor’s Mold

Django Unchained

No matter how satirical a Quentin Tarantino film gets in its ultra-violence, there’s no question that the director expects his cast to approach the material with a grave tone.

As reported at Comic-Con over the summer, Jamie Foxx said that Tarantino told him to “get his slave on” in an effort to break his movie-star image during filming of the Weinstein Co.’s upcoming Christmas day release Django Unchained.

But that’s not the first time Foxx has been scolded by an auteur over his image — nor is it a finger-wagging that the Oscar-winning actor shrugs off.

In a conversation with Awards|Line, Foxx explains, “Oliver Stone once told me during Any Given Sunday, ‘You’re just not good at all.’ That was because I was coming from TV, and everyone says everything loud on TV while movies are more intimate.”

“Then Taylor Hackford told me on Ray, ‘If you ever F this movie up, I’m going to F you up. Now listen, let’s get it going,” quipped Foxx.

“Then I asked Michael Mann during Collateral, ‘How about I do my thang in the cab?’ To which he responded, ‘How about you don’t do your thang? Whenever have you seen a cab driver do his thang?’ ”

“But when Quentin pulled me in that room, it made me nervous, like when you get called to the principal’s office,” Foxx continued. “‘I’m worried that you can’t get into this character because you’re Jamie Foxx,’ Quentin said. That made me reboot my computer and was the biggest help to me. He said that if go out there and be the character, then the pendulum swing will be better. When Django evolves and becomes this guy, it will be like wow — I had this journey.”

Convincing Oscar voters of his sincerity as an actor has never been a problem for Foxx. In addition to winning a 2004 best actor Oscar for Ray, he was nominated that same year in the supporting category for his role as an innocent cab driver chauffeuring around a hitman (Tom Cruise) in Collateral.

“When we win Oscars, get TV shows and No. 1 songs — when we do these things outside of acting, it hurts us because then people identify with our brand. (As an actor), you want to work with tough directors.”

First Awards Season Stop: The Hollywood Film Awards

The Hollywood Film Awards might not boast the same caché as the Academy Awards, but it’s widely regarded as the first of many stops on the way to the Dolby Theater for awards hopefuls. The glitzy gala, which takes place tonight at the Beverly Hilton, has risen in prominence over the last few years, representing the official start of awards season–at least in terms of the flurry of red-carpet opportunities and sit-down dinners that comprise November through February in Los Angeles.

While many of this year’s honorees are likely to hear their names when Oscar nominations are announced Jan. 10, this group is determined not by industry professionals, but by Hollywood Film Awards founder, Carlos de Abreu, and a small committee. Nevertheless, de Abreu has been prescient in his past selections, which last year included Oscar winners Jean Dujardin, Octavia Spencer, and Christopher Plummer.

All of the honorees are announced ahead of time, so there won’t be any moments of shock or surprise, meaning everyone can relax at their crowded tables and enjoy the show. Tonight’s affair will include an ensemble award for the cast of Argo, for which Warner Bros. is in full campaign mode; director David O. Russell, lead actor Bradley Cooper, and supporting actor Robert DeNiro will receive mention for Silver Linings Playbook, another serious contender for The Weinstein Company and Cooper’s first real shot at an acting nom; Rust and Bone star and previous Oscar winner Marion Cotillard will receive an actress award; Quentin Tarantino is getting a screenwriting award for the film he also directed, Django Unchained; and Les Miserables and Anna Karenina producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title Films will receive producer awards. Richard Gere, who’s getting great reviews for his role in Arbitrage, is tapped for career achievement, and Amy Adams will be honored for her supporting role in The Master.