Another year, another lackluster awards-season showing for Hollywood studios. And while their art-house affiliates more than picked up the slack, could 2009 be the year the majors finally reclaim the Oscars for themselves?
Chatter has surfaced in recent years — specifically, since festival pickup Crash overtook Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture in 2005 — that the studios no longer wield the alacrity to bump off leaner, smaller awards hopefuls among an evolving Academy membership. It's not quite that simple, of course; Warner Bros. nabbed two wins in three years with Million Dollar Baby and The Departed, and was on the bubble this year with The Dark Knight and Gran Torino. Paramount led the nomination count and box-office tally with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Universal pushed Frost/Nixon into the Best Picture running at the expense of mini-major entries including Doubt and Revolutionary Road.
But it's not an honor just to be nominated (or simply considered) for those studios' respective bosses Alan Horn, Brad Grey and Ron Meyer. And while Fox's Tom Rothman surely appreciated Searchlight's Slumdog sweep and maybe Space Chimps' appearance in the animation montage, some consideration for his $120 million epic Australia would have been nice. However, being in the Oscar business requires a fresher approach than greenlighting today for awards season two years away. The short view is the new long view, meaning that for a handful of 2009 films, the future might be now:
· The Informant and The Human Factor: Warner's close calls last year did little to conceal the embarrassment of closing its boutique Warner Independent Pictures and selling off Slumdog Millionaire to Fox Searchlight. But at least Horn and Jeff Robinov were honest: They don't have a clue how to handle small films, and this year — with Steven Soderbergh's whistleblower intrigue The Informant and Clint Eastwood's working-titled Nelson Mandela biopic — they won't have to. The latter film in particular, reuniting Eastwood with Morgan Freeman, is prime-cut Oscar bait. Worst-case scenario, they overblow the hype (see: Changeling) and foot-soldier Soderbergh moves in. Either way, at least one studio is covered for — and invested in — the '09 derby.
· Public Enemies: Focus Features has done well by its parent Universal, finding awards love for Milk and In Bruges while exceeding box-office expectations this month with Coraline. But the studio had higher hopes for Changeling and all but conceded Picture, Actor and Director categories to Frost/Nixon's front-running competitors. They could go either way with this year's awards crop, perhaps led by Michael Mann and Johnny Depp's '30s-era crime drama Public Enemies. Test screenings are mostly positive, and the principals are perennial Oscar darlings. But the midsummer release date will either defuse its chances or, in a fairly fresh studio strategy, get out way ahead of the late-year glut — kind of like Dark Knight without the billion-dollar fluke factor.
· The Green Zone: Another Uni hopeful, reteaming Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass for a story about life inside Baghdad's occupation stronghold. Everybody knows audiences are allergic to Iraq films, but the Bourne overlap is enticing, and it doesn't need to make a fortune for the Academy to buy in. It may be an even surer thing than Public Enemies. In any case, it's cheaper — not mini-major cheaper, but definitely leaner, with more approachable talent, and perhaps that much more competitive.
· Up: Disney/Pixar will always face resistance from Academy purists, happy with the animated ghetto that contained WALL-E while bitterly maligned films like The Reader snuck into the Best Picture running. It can't last forever, though, and even if Up — another summer release with a potentially long shadow — can't amass its predecessor's plaudits, it'll bend the resistance a few degrees closer to breaking. Expect Pixar to follow its own WALL-E lead, launching this year's first "For Your Consideration" salvo by mid-fall.
· Avatar: December will welcome James Cameron's first film in 12 years, during which time the filmmaker designed Avatar's 3-D motion-capture technique essentially from scratch. It's got at least a visual effects Oscar in the trophy case, but why stop there? If The Dark Knight can cut an awards-season trail, what's a $40 million campaign on top of the couple hundred million onscreen? That is, unless it's abrogated its awards legend to Searchlight, getting out of the Australia business in favor of the Marley and Me trade. It wouldn't be the worst strategy. And if we haven't gotten over it already, we will.