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.

Awards Season At A Studio-By-Studio Glance

With the awards season is dissected and examined these days, it might appear as though creating a successful campaign is simply a matter of shrewd marketing and a key release date. But even the most cynical strategist will admit that luck is still as much a part of earning an Oscar nomination as anything else. When asked about the plan for a particular film in the awards race, a veteran campaigner said simply, “Light candles, pray.”

Whether they’re already on pundits’ lists or just looking for a little good juju, here’s a look at the films that are in the conversation, not including animation, documentaries, or foreign-language (with a few notable exceptions):

The Majors:

Disney/DreamWorks

Last year, Disney’s partnership with DreamWorks yielded two best picture nominees, War Horse and The Help, the latter of which also earned supporting actor Octavia Spencer her first statuette. This year, Steven Spielberg’s followup to War Horse, Lincoln, is considered an all-category heavyweight, from director to Tony Kushner’s adapted screenplay to costumes to production design. And Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as the 16th president of the United States already has prognosticators declaring best actor in advance of its Nov. 9 theatrical release. Disney also has this summer’s hit from Marvel, The Avengers, which earned $1.5 billion at the worldwide boxoffice and is likely to factor into the below-the-line race.

Paramount

It’s going to be hard to top last year’s success with Martin Scorsese’s 3-D love letter to film, Hugo, which ultimately earned five Oscars. But having a Denzel Washington-Robert Zemeckis project nestled in prime awards territory certainly won’t hurt. Flight, which marks Zemeckis’ first live-action effort in more than a decade, stars Oscar winner Washington as a commercial pilot with a substance-abuse problem. The film could be considered a dark horse for best picture, and is getting buzz for screenplay and supporting actor John Goodman. Paramount Vantage also has David Chase’s first post-Sopranos film, Not Fade Away, which follows a group of friends who start a band and features a supporting role from Tony himself, James Gandolfini.

Sony Pictures

Sony’s big awards-season hopeful is a film with an enviable pedigree: Zero Dark Thirty, which details the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, is the followup effort of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, both of whom won Oscars for their work on The Hurt Locker in 2010. The film is likely to factor into all major categories including lead actress Jessica Chastain, supporting players Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle, as well as below-the-line slots. Among Sony’s other films are the new Bond film Skyfall, which has a cast including Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, and Javier Bardem—none of whom are strangers to Oscar—plus an original song from Adele; Rian Johnson’s Looper, which has drummed up small but ardent Internet support; and the August release, Hope Springs, which features Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.

Twentieth Century Fox

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which drew early raves when it opened the New York Film Festival, is a visually stunning story about a young man (Suraj Sharma) who’s adrift on the ocean, sharing his vessel with a tiger. Having an unknown in the lead will make it tough to break into the acting category, but it has all the other indicators of a serious all-category contender. Two other potential candidates from Fox’s slate are Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which could get recognized below the line, and Won’t Back Down, which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis.

Universal

All eyes will be on Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables when it starts screening in November, ahead of its Christmas release. Not only are voters eager to see the big-screen adaptation of the musical—which stars Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman and has a supporting performance from Anne Hathaway—but its unveiling will bring further clarity to the race. It’s likely to factor into all categories (except original score, of course), including for the song “Suddenly,” which was written specifically for Jackman. The studio also has hopes for Judd Apatow’s followup to Knocked Up, This Is 40, which will qualify as an adapted screenplay because it picks up some of the same characters; Snow White and the Huntsman for below the line and original song; and Oscar host Seth MacFarlane’s summer hit Ted, in the visual-effects category; and Oliver Stone’s Savages.

Warner Bros.

Even with Gangster Squad and The Great Gatsby moving off of Warner’s 2012 slate this summer, the studio boasts a formidable group of films. Leading the pack is Ben Affleck’s Argo, which has been garnering plenty of Oscar talk since its debut at the Toronto Film Festival. Based on a true story, the film will factor into all the major categories, as well as editing, production design, costumes, and music. Not only will The Dark Knight Rises get an all-category push to mark the end of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, but Oscar winner Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit will be in all of those same categories and hail the start of a new three-film franchise. Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski’s time-bending Cloud Atlas is also being considered an all-category film, with an emphasis on the Wachowski Starship’s adapted screenplay and the crafts categories. Plus, it helps to have a cast of previous Oscar winners: Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in lead, Jim Broadbent in supporting. Trouble With the Curve will get support for Clint Eastwood’s lead role and Amy Adams’ supporting. And finally, for the ladies, Matthew McConaughey will get a boost for his supporting role in Magic Mike.

The Indies:

A24

Shortly before this year’s Toronto Film Fest got underway, former Oscilloscope Laboratories cofounder and president David Fenkel announced his new distribution company, A24. Barely off the ground, the fledgling company is pushing to get into the awards game with Ginger & Rosa, starring Elle Fanning as a teenager in 1960s London dealing with family issues amidst the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s one of the few films this season directed by a woman, Sally Potter.

Focus Features

Focus’ 2011 awards push earned Gary Oldman his first best actor Oscar nomination for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, plus two others for adapted screenplay and score. And this year, Focus has four films that are a part of the conversation, including Wes Anderson’s Gotham Award-nominated Moonrise Kingdom, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and is a likely original screenplay contender. In addition, Joe Wright’s lush, highly stylized adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic, Anna Karenina, which is an all-category contender, hits theaters Nov. 16. Keira Knightley is getting attention for her role as the doomed Anna, and the film’s costumes and production design have craftspeople swooning. Focus earned some festival-circuit attention for also Hyde Park on Hudson, which features Bill Murray as President Franklin D. Roosevelt who strikes up an affair with his distant cousin Margaret, played by Laura Linney; as well as Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, a relatively late addition to the Oscar schedule that stars Matt Damon and John Krasinski, both of whom also cowrote the original screenplay.

Fox Searchlight

With two best picture nominees last year—The Descendants and The Tree of Life—Fox Searchlight is firmly entrenched in the awards game. The specialty division made two key purchases at January’s Sundance Film Festival, both of which have prognosticators buzzing about Searchlight’s prospects for this year. First, Beasts of the Southern Wild, the feature-film debut of director Benh Zeitlin and starring two first-time actors, has earned just over $11 million at the boxoffice since June. Second, The Sessions, is a bittersweet story that stars John Hawkes as a paralyzed man who consults a sex therapist, played by Helen Hunt, which had a solid limited opening in late October. Searchlight’s big hit of the year, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, has grossed $134.4 million worldwide since its May release and features a top-notch cast including Judi Dench and Bill Nighy. And when the November release Hitchcock, directed by Sacha Gervasi, was announced last month as the opening-night film of the AFI Fest, it was instantly clear that the Helen Mirren-Anthony Hopkins picture would be a big part of awards chatter heading into a crucial balloting period.

Indomina Films

This relatively new indie distributor bought LUV, a drama about a boy and his troubled uncle starring Common and Michael Rainey Jr., at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Lionsgate

Earning just over $400 million, The Hunger Games took the summer’s boxoffice by storm. Lionsgate is hoping the Academy will recognize the Jennifer Lawrence-starrer for its crafts achievements.

Millennium

Screeners went out early for Millennium Entertainment’s dark comedy Bernie, which premiered at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival. The film, which stars Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey, is gaining momentum after earning Gotham Award nominations for feature and ensemble. Millennium also has Lee Daniels’ Florida noir The Paperboy, which drew decidedly mixed reviews at Cannes but stars Oscar winner Nicole Kidman.

Magnolia Pictures

The ripped-from-the headlines story in Compliance stars Ann Dowd as a fast-food-store manager who’s manipulated by a caller pretending to be a police officer. Magnolia also has Sarah Polley’s latest directorial effort, Take This Waltz, as well as Denmark’s official foreign-language entry, A Royal Affair, which has an attention-grabbing performance from Mads Mikkelsen.

Open Road

Liam Neeson’s emotional performance in the survival drama The Grey received a lot of attention when the film was released in January, but the actor race is particularly crowded this year, perhaps making it tough for him to break through. Open Road also has the well-received cop drama End of Watch, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, which could get attention for screenplay, crafts, and acting, particularly Michael Pena’s supporting performance.

Relativity

There will be a very targeted effort from Relativity this year for the costumes of Mirror Mirror and Keith Urban’s original song, “For You,” from Act of Valor.

Sony Pictures Classics

It’s rare for a foreign-language film to break into major categories, but Sony Pictures Classics has two that are a topic of conversation. Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning Amour is appealing to older audiences through its emotional lead performers, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, both of whom could earn acting noms. Rust and Bone, a Palme d’Or nominee, stars Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard as a whale trainer who loses her legs, for which the visual effects alone are worth Academy attention. On the English-language side is To Rome With Love, Woody Allen’s followup to last year’s Oscar-winning original screenplay, Midnight in Paris; Celeste & Jesse Forever, starring Rashida Jones—who also cowrote the original screenplay—and Andy Samberg; and Smashed, featuring a performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead that’s getting some attention.

Roadside Attractions

Richard Gere has been well-reviewed in Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, giving many awards watchers reason to start talking about the actor getting a career-first Oscar nomination. The indie label has hopes in all categories, particularly for Jarecki’s original screenplay. Stand Up Guys, which stars Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, is getting an actor push, as well as one for the Jon Bon Jovi original song, “Not Running Anymore.”

Summit

Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible, which stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, tells the real-life story of a family separated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It’s an all-category contender, particularly for screenplay and its detailed re-creation of the devastating wave. Summit also has The Perks of Being a Wallflower, adapted from Stephen Chbosky’s novel and starring Emma Watson.

Sundance Selects/IFC Films

The long-in-the-making adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s seminal On the Road had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, more than 50 years after its publication. The film, starring Garrett Hedlund and Kristin Stewart, could be a dark horse for adapted screenplay and below-the-line categories.

The Weinstein Co.

Master campaigner Harvey Weinstein is following his best picture win for The Artist with an awards-season slate that includes some of the most renowned directors working today. Although the Gotham Award-nominated September release The Master has divided audiences, there’s no argument that the all-category Paul Thomas Anderson film is visually stunning and has great performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, which stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, was a crowd-pleaser at the Toronto Film Festival and recently earned an ensemble Gotham Award nom. Quentin Tarantino’s December release Django Unchained, still yet to be screened, is a third all-category film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Foxx. In addition, multiple Oscar-winner Dustin Hoffman makes his directorial debut with Quartet, about a group of aging musicians in a retirement home that stars Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, and Billy Connolly; and Brad Pitt has a lead role and James Gandolfini supporting in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly. The company also has France’s official foreign-language submission The Intouchables, which is being pushed for best picture.

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.

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.