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Can 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' contend for Best Picture at Oscars?

By Tom Brueggemann
By Tom Brueggemann
Jan 08 2012 11:00 am
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Now that "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" has reaped the most bids on the BAFTA long list (16), can it become the film that came in from the cold at the Oscars?

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If it does, it will follow many other BAFTA-honored films to a Best Picture nomination and more, including "Atonement," "An Education" and "The Reader." Usually, at least one British film makes the Oscar list, possibly because there's a notable overlap between the two voting groups. About 500 of the academy's 6,000 members belong to BAFTA. That's 8% of AMPAS – a significant number since a film needs 5% of the first-placed votes in order to make the Oscar list.

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" benefits from possibly being the most acclaimed British-produced film of the year. On the BAFTA long list, it seems to have replaced the final "Harry Potter" entry as the British film of 2011. While "My Week with Marilyn" also scored 16 BAFTA mentions, "TTSS" had higher placement as indicated by the initial listing of top five choices. "Potter," shockingly, failed to make the list of 15 best films.

Meantime, "TTSS" so far has grossed more than $20 million in the U.K. Comparing populations, that’s the equal to $100 million in the U.S., so it has popular support to add to its case.

Its strong reviews (85 at Metacritic) and socko art-house grosses over Christmas should have already made this a prominent Oscar film. However, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" has failed to do well in most U.S. award races so far. Despite that, executives at Focus believe they are still in the hunt.  

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Focus (formerly USA Films) has had nine Best Picture nominations over the past 11 years. Most of these were also movies released in December, so they were positioned on the calendar to be Oscar contenders.

After a limited release last month, "TTSS" expanded to over 800 theaters in the U.S./Canada on Friday, with lots of accompanying advertising. The timing is significant, since it comes when Academy members are casting their votes for nominees.  

"Having a strong presence in the market when Academy members have their ballots in hand -- it couldn't be a better date," says David Brooks, Focus' president of worldwide marketing. And they did it before. Four years ago, Focus chose the same post-New Year's weekend to go wider with "Atonement," which ended up a Best Picture nominee.  

At every step of its release over the last few weeks, "TTSS" has outgrossed "The Artist" when playing at the same theaters, often by a large margin. This has not gotten as much attention as it should. As it expanded this weekend, it grossed $5.8 million, with the  second best per-screen-average among the top 10. Its performance is similar to "The Descendants" in its initial expansion last month.  

Focus reports the film’s core audience is similar to the Academy: 62% was age 40 or older, 46% were 50 or older, with a high level of education.  

After its Venice premiere, "TTSS" didn’t show at major North American film festivals because star Gary Oldman was working on "The Dark Knight Rises." He is now back home in Los Angeles and making appearances, including at the Arclight Theater where he participated in 6-film retrospective of his career. Focus is spreading the message across Hollywood, just as it did in the U.K., that Oldman has never been nominated for an Oscar. This year there are three slots firmed up in the Best Actor race (George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Jean Dujardin), but two nominations still open.  

And with a masterful cast including veterans and rising stars (four of whom apart from Oldman were BAFTA listed) the film might also have extra appeal to the strong acting branch in the Academy. It doesn’t hurt to have recent winner Colin Firth stand out in an excellent ensemble .

The lack of a Producers’ Guild nomination is a negative, but "Atonement" and Focus' "A Serious Man" also got snubbed by the guild before showing up on the Oscar list. Sometimes the Academy just reacts differently. "Letters from Iwo Jima," "Crash," "Chocolat" and "Seabiscuit" are also films that lacked some significant support ahead of the nominations yet scored very well with the Academy. None of those examples had as little precursor support as "TTSS," but they all competed in years with only five Best Picture slots. "Blind Side" -- the first year with more than five nominees -- received its one and only best film nomination from the Academy.  

"We're optimistic that Academy members, who are the best of the best in their respective crafts, will appreciate the very high level of creative achievement in this film," Brooks says. "Also, because of their later nomination deadline, Academy members have a longer period of time to consider films and see them in multiple places and, in some cases, multiple times."

 
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