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The movie poster from the movie "Lincoln" features actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

, Dreamworks

Big boys come out to play for Oscars

  • Article by: MICHAEL CIEPLY
  • New York Times
  • December 7, 2012 - 2:40 PM

At the Governors Awards banquet of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles last Saturday, three weathered honorees -- stuntman Hal Needham, documentarian D.A. Pennebaker and film advocate George Stevens Jr. -- held the spotlight through most of the night.

But the real action was in the room, where you ran a gantlet of studio operatives and their Oscar contenders just to get near those tiny crab cakes.

Steven Spielberg, director of "Lincoln," hopped tables. Alexandre Desplat, with music credits on five prize candidates, including "Argo," pumped hands at the door. Jason Clarke, star of "Zero Dark Thirty," worked the crowd, while Robert Zemeckis of "Flight" and Tom Hooper of "Les Miserables" got lost in the scrum.

Which raises a question: Are the big guys about to take back the Oscars?

After watching indie films like "The Hurt Locker" and "Slumdog Millionaire" claim Hollywood's top honors for the past five years, the major studios are campaigning with a ferocity that could make one of them a winner on Feb. 24, Academy Awards night.

An unusually early Oscar nominating vote will begin Dec. 17, with results to be announced Jan. 10. And as the balloting approaches, every major studio has at least one film with a credible shot at the best picture award, which the past two years went to "The Artist" and "The King's Speech," both from an independent distributor, the Weinstein Co.

Universal Pictures -- which has not had a best picture nominee since it split "Inglourious Basterds" with Weinstein in 2010 -- recently introduced its star-laden musical "Les Miserables" (Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway all sing) with about a dozen Friday and Saturday screenings in Los Angeles and New York. In both cities, award voters were greeted by Hooper, who won an Oscar in 2011 for directing "The King's Speech."

As that was happening, Sony Pictures began a series of nearly 100 award-oriented screenings in London and across the United States of "Zero Dark Thirty," another late-season entry that arrives with credentials that make it an instant contender. The film, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, is directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, who won Oscars in 2010 as director and writer of "The Hurt Locker."

At the same time, 20th Century Fox is in contention with "Life of Pi" from director Ang Lee, another past Oscar winner (for directing "Brokeback Mountain"). DreamWorks and Walt Disney have "Lincoln," from Spielberg. Paramount Pictures is in the hunt with Zemeckis and "Flight."

And Warner Bros. has kept the heat under its early season entry, "Argo," even as "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" arrives from Peter Jackson, whose "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" swept 11 Academy Awards in 2004, including best picture. "The Dark Knight Rises" also continues to be a prospect for Warner. (Its director, Christopher Nolan, showed up last Saturday, joining the slugger's row of studio filmmakers.)

Warner was the last major studio to release a best picture winner; that was "The Departed," from Martin Scorsese, which won the top Oscar and three others in 2007. Two years earlier Warner had a winner with "Million Dollar Baby"; "A Beautiful Mind," released in the United States by Universal, took the prize in 2002. That followed a decade in which studio films like "Titanic," from Fox and Paramount; "Forrest Gump" and "Braveheart," from Paramount; and "Unforgiven," from Warner, all came up winners.

Formidable indies

This year the studios' apparently strong position is partly a matter of focus. As the number of sophisticated films from the majors has dwindled, most studios have tended to concentrate their resources on one or two prestige pictures a year. While the studios are zeroing in, some formidable competitors from the independent world are spreading their energy among several pictures, none of which yet show any sign of dominating the race, as did, for instance, "Slumdog Millionaire," from Fox Searchlight. (That indie darling won eight Oscars, including that for best picture, in 2009.)

Fox Searchlight, a specialty film division of Fox Film, is now backing "The Sessions," with Helen Hunt as a sex therapist treating a polio survivor played by John Hawkes; "Beasts of the Southern Wild," with its fable of life in a watery delta; and "Hitchcock," in which Anthony Hopkins portrays Alfred Hitchcock.

Focus Features, a similar, smaller-film unit at Universal, had a movie from earlier in the year, Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom," that picked up five Independent Spirit award nominations last week, including best feature, even as the company was continuing to campaign for later, prize-season releases like "Anna Karenina" and "Hyde Park on Hudson."

After dominating the Oscars in the past two cycles, the Weinstein Co. and its master Oscar strategist, Harvey Weinstein, appear to be angling for advantage from, of all things, their underdog status. Inside the Weinstein camp last week "Silver Linings Playbook," the studio's off-center romance starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence and directed by David O. Russell, was being called "the little engine that could."

Weinstein has yet to release "Django Unchained," a Christmas Day film from Quentin Tarantino (a past Oscar winner, for writing "Pulp Fiction"), though award screenings are promised shortly. And "The Master," from Paul Thomas Anderson (with five past nominations), could still shake the race if award voters tend to agree more with the critics, who loved it, than with the audience, which has largely stayed away since the film's release in September.

But Weinstein and his small company are still in the thick of the fight. Both Cooper, of "Silver Linings Playbook," and Amy Adams, of "The Master," made a show for the cameras, and Oscar voters, last Saturday night.

Tarantino, meanwhile, got face time by delivering a tribute to Needham, an 81-year-old sharecropper's son who described having broken more than 50 bones in the making of movies like "Smokey and the Bandit" and "Little Big Man."

But it was left to Stevens, founder of the American Film Institute, to express what those glad-handing studio filmmakers hope is true. "I have seen a couple of pictures this fall," he said, "that I am confident will stand the test of time."

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