ZAMM.COM: Festival Films

By Martin Grove, ZAMM.com



Festival films: Timing is everything for films hoping to get into the Oscar race.

For some awards marketer,  that means trying to emerge as a front runner from playing at early fall festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto. For others, however, the difficulty of sustaining front runner status until December's Golden Globe, BAFTA and Oscar nominations offsets the potential gains from generating an early Oscar buzz. They'd rather have the movie that voters see and love just before marking their ballots.

But waiting too long to get into the game also poses risks because by then earlier contenders may have gotten a lock on some nominations. And in a highly competitive year like this one with many awards worthy films, that's something to worry about.

A solution that appeals to some marketers is to avoid the early festivals and, instead, get into the game in mid-fall by playing at the prestigious New York Film Festival, which is exactly what a number of high profile awards hopefuls have done this year.

The 51st annual NYFF, which ends Oct. 13, got underway Sept. 27 with Tom Hanks' new film, the biographical action drama Captain Phillips, as its Opening Night Gala Selection.

Directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks, Catherine Keener and Barkhad Abdi, Phillips opens wide Oct. 11. Its screenplay is based on Phillips and Talty's book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, a title that would certainly have been difficult to fit on multiplex marquees.

Phillips tells the true story of Captain Richard Phillips (Hanks) and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the first U.S. cargo ship to be seized in 200 years. The film's tracking best with 25-plus males and next best with women over 25.

Any film starring Hanks typically winds up on awards season radar screens. Hanks, who's one of Hollywood's best liked stars, won back-to-back best actor Oscars in 1994 for Philadelphia and in 1995 for Forrest Gump.

Phillips has a high Oscar pedigree in addition to Hanks. Paul Greengrass was a Best Directing Oscar nominee in 2007 for United 93. And Catherine Keener is a two-time Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee--in 2000 for Being John Malkovich and in 2006 for Capote.

Phillips' producing team includes Scott Rudin, who has his own very high awards profile. Rudin was an Oscar winner in 2008 as a producer of No Country For Old Men. He was Oscar nominated in 2003 for producing The Hours, in 2011 for producing both The Social Network and True Grit and in 2012 for producing Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.

Besides Phillips, a number of other high profile potential awards contenders opted to wait to play at the relatively small NYFF, which is showing 35 movies, rather than at Toronto's sprawling festival, where some 300 pictures were screened. Here's a look at three major titles hoping to springboard off successful screenings in New York.

All is Lost, opening in limited release Oct. 18, is written and directed by J.C. Chandor. It stars Robert Redford, who's expected to land Best Actor nominations for what's already being called a tour-de-force performance. Redford, who's the only actor seen in the PG-13 drama, is 76 and has never won a best actor Oscar. In fact, his last nomination for best actor was in 1974 for The Sting, so he's arguably due for an Oscar win.

Redford did, of course, win a Best Directing Oscar in 1981 for his feature directorial debut Ordinary People. But his real identity for most of his career, stretching back to 1960, has been as an actor rather than as the producer-director he evolved into (and for which he was Oscar nominated in 1995 for Quiz Show).

Academy members, many of whom are Redford's contemporaries, may also be thinking that at his age he's not likely to star in too many more films. To begin with, how many great starring roles are there these days for 76 year old guys? Therefore, the time to honor Redford is now when he's delivered an acclaimed performance.

The Academy would certainly prefer not having critics ask at some future point how it could possibly be that Redford never won a best actor Oscar. That is, of course, the embarrassing question that's asked from time to time about Cary Grant. Although Grant was nominated twice for best actor -- for Penny Serenade in 1942 and None But the Lonely Heart in 1945 -- he never won.

Nor did Peter O'Toole ever win an Oscar, although he was nominated for best actor eight times, including in 1963 for Lawrence of Arabia and in 1965 for Becket.

And the same is true of Richard Burton, who was Oscar nominated seven times (six as Best Actor and once as Best Supporting Actor), including in 1967 for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but never won. It's a trivia game with many more names that can be brought up, but not one that Academy members are likely to enjoy playing. And that should work to Redford's benefit, at least in terms of getting nominated for Lost.

In Lost, Redford plays a man on a solo yacht voyage in the Indian Ocean who collides with a floating shipping container that knocks out his navigation and communications capabilities. After sailing into a violent storm, he finds himself confronting his own mortality.

Redford's the only actor seen in Lost, which trumps the fact that there are only two actors (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) in Gravity, which kicked off last weekend to a record setting (for an October opening) $55.6 million and is a likely awards contender. Gravity got its Oscar buzz going after opening the Venice Film Festival in late August and then playing very well at Toronto in early September.

Another film that also skipped Toronto (but played very well at the small movie fan-driven Telluride Film Festival in Colorado in early September) and that's making a big splash now in New York is Nebraska.

It's directed by Alexander Payne, who in 2005 won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for co-writing Sideways and in 2012 won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for co-writing The Descendants. Payne, who's also been honored with four other Oscar nominations since 2000, is generally seen as a safe bet to land an Oscar nod for any new film he makes.

Another factor Nebraska has going for it is that it's also got a 76 year old star in Bruce Dern, who's a likely best actor nominee and has never won an Oscar. In fact, Dern's only been Oscar nominated once--way back in 1979 for supporting actor for Coming Home. Quite conceivably, this year's Oscar race could see two 76 year old veteran actors, neither of whom has ever taken home a best actor Oscar, competing in that category.

Nebraska, which got its Oscar buzz going at Telluride, opens in limited release Nov. 22. The R-rated father-son drama stars Bruce Dern, Bob Odenkirk, Stacy Keach, Will Forte and Devin Ratray.

Dern plays an aging alcoholic who enlists his estranged son to drive him from Montana to Nebraska to redeem a winning sweepstakes ticket for $1 million. The son goes along reluctantly, insisting his father's winning ticket is just a personalized form letter millions of people got through a marketing campaign.

Also very much in the New York spotlight is Inside Llewyn Davis. It's written and directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, who've won four Oscars--in 1997 for co-writing, directing (Joel received sole directing credit) and editing Fargo and in 2008 for directing, writing and being producers of No Country For Old Men.

Moreover, the Coens have been showered with nine other Oscar noms since 1997 and like Nebraska's Payne are now likely Oscar nominees for any new film they make.

But unlike Nebraska, which arrives in theaters Nov. 15, Davis won't go into limited release until Dec. 6. That will put it fresh in Academy voters' minds when they start thinking about nominations.

The R-rated drama stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, F. Murray Abraham and Stark Sands. Isaac plays Davis, a young singer on the 1961 folk music scene in New York's Greenwich Village.

Although Isaac's performance is already generating its own Oscar buzz, he faces stiff competition from some long established stars for one of the five best actor nomination slots. The awards blogosphere is buzzing about a long list of higher profile best actor contenders, including (alphabetically): Christian Bale for American Hustle, Bruce Dern for Nebraska, Leonardo DiCaprio for The Great Gatsby, Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years a Slave, Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips and/or Saving Mr. Banks, Hugh Jackman for Prisoners, Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club, Robert Redford for All Is Lost and Forest Whitaker for Lee Daniel's The Butler.

Two other high profile films at NYFF that don't open until December but are worth keeping an eye on are: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the festival's Centerpiece Gala Selection last weekend, and Her, the Closing Night Gala Selection.

Mitty, opening wide Dec. 25, is a comedy drama adventure directed by Ben Stiller, who also stars in it opposite Kristen Wiig and Adam Scott. It's a re-imagination of the 1947 film (based on James Thurber's classic short story) that starred Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo and Boris Karloff.

Her, opening exclusive engagements Dec. 18, is directed by Spike Jonze, an Oscar nominee in 2000 for directing Being John Malkovich. Starring are Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson.

An indication of awards hopes for Her is that although it didn't show the romantic comedy drama at the ultra-crowded Toronto festival, it did preview some footage there with Jonze on hand to talk at a special event. That helped spark interest in Her, which will wind up the less frenetic NYFF Oct. 13.

Bottom line: Of course, there's always one more stop on the awards season railroad. So now it's on to the American Film Institute's AFI Fest in Los Angeles. That starts Nov. 7 with Hollywood handicappers' first look at Saving Mr. Banks, another much anticipated awards contender. It's the story of Walt Disney's difficult and frustrating efforts over a two week period in 1961 to secure the movie rights from P. L. Travers to her classic novel Mary Poppins.

Directed by John Lee Hancock, the biographical comedy drama opens via Disney in limited release Dec. 13 and goes wide Dec. 20. Starring are Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks (as Disney) and Colin Farrell.

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