Ben Affleck and Hugh Jackman are giving major Hollywood studios the chance to win the best-picture Oscar and end a five-year run for art-house films like “The King’s Speech.”
Affleck’s Iranian rescue drama “Argo,” opening today from Warner Bros., and Universal Pictures’ “Les Miserables,” with Jackman, are near the top of Oscar lists published by websites and critics. Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” from News Corp.’s Twentieth Century Fox, is also getting buzz.
While the studios buy and distribute some of the smaller pictures that have dominated the Oscars in recent years, their own larger productions are routinely shut out. This year may be different, thanks to Oscar rule changes and a handful of releases that are generating critical notices.
“The major studios are very much in the Oscar race this year,” said Phil Contrino, editor of the Boxoffice.com website. He includes Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” in the mix. The film, produced by the director’s DreamWorks Studios with backing from Fox, will be distributed by Walt Disney Co.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences tried to tip the scale toward Hollywood’s so-called tentpole films for the 2010 Oscars, doubling the number of best-picture nominations to 10 after Warner Bros.’ Batman film “The Dark Knight” was snubbed by members.
“It’s a little early to crown anything as the favorite,” Contrino said. “‘Lincoln’ and ‘Les Miserables’ are still waiting in the wings and either one could become the favorite very quickly.”
The $90 million Martin Scorsese film “The Departed,” from Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros., was the last big studio production to win best picture, grabbing the honor in 2007.
Since then, the Oscar has gone to small films: “No Country for Old Men,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist.” Four of those cost an estimated $15 million each, while “No Country” checked in at $25 million, according to the Internet Movie Database. The academy announces its nominations on Jan. 10, with the awards ceremony set for Feb. 24.
“Lincoln” cost an estimated $50 million to make, according to IMDB.com. The picture, about the 16th president’s crusade to end slavery, generated best-picture mention from several critics after a sneak preview of an uncompleted print on Oct. 8 at the New York Film Festival. It comes out Nov. 16.
“‘Lincoln’ appears to be Oscar bait incarnate,” Scott Feinberg, an awards analyst for the Hollywood Reporter, wrote afterward.
Affleck directed and stars in “Argo,” based on the true story of U.S. Central Intelligence Agency operatives who create a fake movie production company as a ruse to rescue U.S. diplomats stranded in Iran during the 1979 revolution.
Affleck plays agent Tony Mendez, who with the help of the Canadian ambassador convinces the new Iranian government that the diplomats were Canadian location scouts for a science-fiction film called “Argo.” John Goodman plays John Chambers, the real-life, Oscar-winning makeup artist who helped set up the fake production company, known as Studio Six.
Details of the “Canadian Caper” were classified until 1997, according to the CIA website. “Argo” has a 96 percent approval rating on Rottentomatoes.com, meaning that 25 of the 26 reviews compiled by the site were positive. Warner Bros. spent $50 million to $60 million to make the movie, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The awards talk is troubling, said Grant Heslov, a producer of the film, along with George Clooney and Affleck.
“It makes me nervous,” said Heslov, whose credits include “The Ides of March” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” “The truth is that, really all I care about is that a lot of people go out and see the movie. All the rest is just gravy and dessert.”
Warner Bros. studio chief Jeff Robinov gave the script to Affleck, who contacted Heslov and Clooney, Heslov said.
“It had humor and it had intrigue and it seemed to be relevant,” Heslov said. “It’s more relevant now than ever before.”
“Les Miserables,” a big-screen adaptation of the play based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, is among the highly regarded studio contenders. The film, which cost about $60 million according to Indiewire, stars Jackman as the escaped convict Jean Valjean, Anne Hathaway as Fantine and Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert. Universal, part of Comcast Corp., releases the film on Dec. 25.
Glowing reviews for big studio fare may not be enough to sway Oscar voters, said Tom O’Neil, who tracks forecasts on the website GoldDerby.com.
“We are all optimistic about the potential success of big films, but recent history seems to show that Oscar voters want to show what snobs they are,” O’Neil said.
Oscar-watchers also are touting well-regarded independent films, including “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” acquired by Fox Searchlight, and Weinstein Co.’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
“Beasts of the Southern Wild” won four Cannes Film Festival awards and the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury prize. The sometimes fantastical tale, made for an estimated $1.8 million, follows the trials of a young girl in a small bayou community.
In “Silver Linings Playbook,” Cooper plays a teacher who is trying to rebuild his life after being released from a mental institution. He becomes involved with an equally troubled woman played by Lawrence.
Under $25 Million
A best-picture win can add box-office sales for films that still are in theaters and DVD sales for those that aren’t. The prestige also helps studios attract talent to future projects.
Last year, the academy adjusted the rules again, giving members the option of nominating a minimum of five films and as many as 10 for best picture. They nominated nine.
Regardless of whether the studio films win, the Oscar-related excitement about them is good for business, said Tom Sherak, who ushered in the changes as academy president.
“What’s nice is that the anticipation is there,” said Sherak, also a former Fox executive. “I think when you start early and get that talk started, it’s a good thing.”