And the winner is … “Midnight in Paris.”
This early frontrunner — overshadowed in the last few weeks with the opening of late- year contenders — could be poised for a comeback at the Oscars due to factors that will dominate the rest of this race.
-INSERTS:30- The new rules for Best Picture balloting and the lack of a real frontrunner combined with the sense of real affection for the Woody Allen hit could combine to make “Midnight in Paris” the winner. Under somewhat similar circumstances, another Woody Allen film, “Annie Hall,” came out early (April) but still defeated several highly touted late-year releases back in 1977.
This year, seven films have a shot at winning Best Picture: “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” “War Horse,” “Hugo,” “The Help,” “Moneyball,” and “Midnight in Paris.” The race has resembled the Republican primary with a new favorite appearing every few weeks. As a case can be made against each of them winning, this keeps the wider group in play.
In 2009, the Academy doubled the Best Picture field to 10 nominees and changed the system for determining who wins by asking voters to rank the nominees. The nominee with the fewest #1 votes has its second choices counted and so on until there are only two films left when the one ranked highest on all ballots wins. It is thought that in each year of this new system two films – “The Hurt Locker” & “Avatar” (2009) and “The King’s Speech” & “The Social Network” (2010) — dominated the voting.
This year, there are many more serious contenders. If no film has those initial #1 votes to surge ahead early, “Midnight in Paris” might be the biggest beneficiary. In an evenly divided field, the winner is most likely the film that gets the most #2 and #3 votes. “Midnight in Paris” has strong support and perhaps the fewest detractors.
Each of the four frontrunners — “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” “Hugo” and “War Horse” — has disappointed on some level, be it awards recognition, reviews, grosses or reports from Academy screenings. While each has a certain depth of strong support, the breadth of approval among voters remains unknown.
That’s where “Midnight in Paris” could have a real advantage. Since its release in late spring, it has drawn a sizeable audience of older moviegoers that is similar to the Academy membership demographic. An early Academy screening got a more enthusiastic response than did any of the later contenders.
More than seven months after its debut, and even after its DVD release, “Midnight in Paris” is still playing in some theaters. Many Academy members may regard the film as a real contender and mark it high on their ballots, irrespective if their first choice.
In many of those years when there was no obvious Best Picture champ, the winner has been a film that opened early in the year. That was what happened in 1977 when “Annie Hall” prevailed. The summer blockbuster “Star Wars” and two late-year entries, “Julia” and “The Turning Point,” all seemed like possible winners at this point. “Close Encounters” was thought to be a major contender but was snubbed. “Annie Hall” won with both the New York and National Society critics, but then lost the Golden Globe to “The Goodbye Girl,” leaving the race a muddle.
Four more recent examples are:
1991: Four late-year releases — “Bugsy,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “JFK” and “The Prince of Tides” — seemed to be strong contenders, with no one surging ahead. But early release “Silence of the Lambs” won.
1995: “Apollo 13” and “Sense and Sensibility” seemed like the most likely winners until neither got a director’s nomination. May release “Braveheart” prevailed.
2000: “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” and “Traffic” were acclaimed late-year candidates, but the Academy reached back to early May release “Gladiator” which didn’t appear as a likely winner until fairly late in the game.
2004: “Brokeback Mountain” was expected to battle “Munich” as the contest developed after both films were released. Then May release “Crash,” which started with a base of passionate support, prevailed.
In those last three cases, the winning film at the Directors’ Guild was different from the Best Picture choice.
None of these films was the obvious winner when they were released. Each had to withstand competition from highly touted late-year entries to prevail under the old “most votes wins” system. Under this method of counting, “Midnight in Paris,” “Hugo” and “The Artist” might split the votes. Each is a period piece centered on creative types in the 1920s and 30s; these somewhat stylized yet smart entertainments appeal to older members. However, under preferential voting, the chances of one of these three winning increases with the one most likely to prevail having the most top-of-the-list support and fewest detractors — i.e., “Midnight in Paris.”
Early films can be overlooked, particularly if they don’t stand out in critics’ groups or have had more modest, if still very successful, box office performance. As a relatively small-budget film made in Europe with quality but not necessarily obvious craft elements as some of the other contenders, and with an ensemble cast designed to share the acting attention, “Midnight in Paris” will certainly reap fewer bids than other Best Picture nominees.
How does SPC overcome these problems? They have been a solid presence in Oscar-related advertising. Films currently in release clearly get more attention, as newspaper and TV ads are meant to draw moviegoers as much or more than attract members’ eyes. But “Midnight in Paris” has had significant internet advertising and been prominent in newspaper supplements like “The Envelope” in the Los Angeles Times and more traditional channels such as Variety.
Members received their screeners just before Thanksgiving, with the hope that in many cases second viewings reinforced favorable feelings. And with its Best Picture bid and other major nominations seeming likely, that money is being spent appropriately without the excess that sometimes seems to convey lack of confidence in a film. Once nominated, the campaign then can shift to another phase. Perhaps one attempted in the past by others – basically saying, vote for the film you like best – can come into play during final voting.
Any hope of winning will be increased by winning a major precursor prize. At the Golden Globes, it faces off against “The Artist” while competition for SAG ensemble includes “The Help. It may do best with the Producers’ Guild which also has preferential voting. Allen has a solid shot at winning with the Writers’ Guild.
One factor that works against “Midnight in Paris” is Woody Allen’s reluctance to actively participate in any campaign. However, he has actively worked to generate publicity for the film, from its premiere at Cannes to numerous newspaper interviews during its theatrical run, and the PBS “American Masters” documentary that was shown just as the screeners arrived.
Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker emphasizes that the filmmaker is not remotely hostile to the Oscars. “Woody Allen is very happy when his films get awards, and particularly when his colleagues on those films are noticed. He doesn’t think though it the role of an artist to campaign for awards,” he told me in a recent interview.
SPC brilliantly conveyed just how successful “Midnight in Paris” was, touting it as the biggest grossing of Allen’s career. That decades after his biggest hits he was back with such a popular film is a credit to all involved. It may well plant the seed with Academy members that — as with Meryl Streep’s quest for a third Oscar — Allen is due for more recognition 34 years after his only Best Picture win.