STUDIO CIRCUIT: Focus Features Has a Good ‘Theory’ on Their Hands

focus-features-logoWe hear it all the time on the message boards/comment section…”Harvey has it” or “the studio isn’t good at campaigning.”  Film lovers often say these things without really even deciphering or understanding what that means.  While we can’t just credit the studios with pushing certain films and performers across the finish line, the awards consultants or PR firms are just as genius as any strategic planning for a contender.  For the next two weeks, as the New York Film Festival kicks off and launches (hopefully) the next wave of Oscar contenders, we will be assessing the lineups of the studios.

Which film is the studio’s MVP at the moment?  What film will come through at the last minute?  Do they have any surprises up their sleeves?

Today, we start with the pre-teen known as Focus Features but the studio is anything but a teenager when it comes to awards heat.  Just look at the big winners they’ve had over the years; Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, Gus Van Sant’s Milk, and most recently Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club.  Many of those with multiple Oscar wins including Best Director (2x).  I’d argue that at least two of them were within a hair of winning the top prize for Best Picture.  I think the studio, currently run by CEO Peter Schlessel, is finally looking for the big day on the Dolby Theatre stage.  With a very public restructuring in 2013, now leaner and meaner than ever, Focus seems to have some solid bets on their plates for awards recognition.

Last year Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club walked away with three Academy Awards including Best Actor for Matthew McConaughey and Best Supporting Actor for Jared Leto.  When nomination day came through, the film performed much better than anyone could have anticipated.  Plowing through nearly every guild including Producers and Writers Guild of America, the film scored six nominations with key mentions for Original Screenplay and Film Editing.  With a powerful awards strategy team behind them, I think its safe to say that the film may have been close to third in line to win the big one behind winner 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.

Let’s take a look at what the art house distributor has up their sleeves this year.  The “Studio Pitch” is listed along with their “Most Likely Mentions In Awards Season.”  That pertains to the entire season, NOT just the Oscars:

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wishiwashere_imageWish I Was Here
Director: Zach Braff

After debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, and becoming a near prime example of how to utilize Kickstarter, the July release was a highly anticipated return for writer/director Zach Braff who blazed onto the scene with his masterful Garden State ten years prior.  Though Wish I Was Here received mixed praise from critics upon release, the film will indeed get a push most likely for Best Original Screenplay.  It was only ten years ago that Braff made a decent run for Oscar after scoring mentions by the Independent Spirit Awards (Best First Feature), National Board of Review (Breakthrough Director), and the Writers Guild of America.

The film grossed a very modest $5 million dollars during its run, I’m unsure that this will make a dent but listed on their awards site, I’m sure that Focus is hoping for the younger demographic in the Academy, also in other awards bodies, to gravitate towards this type of film.

MOST LIKELY MENTIONS IN AWARDS SEASON:
Best Original Screenplay
Best Soundtrack or Best Music from a Film

STUDIO PITCH:

Director Zach Braff tells a story of what it means to be at a major crossroads as a parent, spouse, and child – all at once. The original screenplay is by Adam Braff & Zach Braff. Wish I Was Here is produced by Stacey Sher, Michael Shamberg, Zach Braff and Adam Braff. The cast includes Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon, Donald Faison, Ashley Greene, Jim Parsons, and Michael Weston.

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kill-the-messenger-jeremy-renner-sliceKill the Messenger
Director: Michael Cuesta

The excitement surrounding this Michael Cuesta thriller has been building for sometime.  Based on two novels, “Dark Alliance” by Gary Webb and “Kill the Messenger” by Nick Schou, Peter Landesman, writer of Parkland, pens the script. Assessing its star power, everyone must be excited to see Academy Award nominee Jeremy Renner taking on something of this nature again.  Scoring two nominations for The Hurt Locker and The Town, Renner seems to be building towards a narrative in the near future in which he could win his very own Oscar.  Whether or not its this year, remains to be seen.  He’s also credited as a Producer.

A stellar cast is also assembled that includes Ray Liotta, Barry Pepper, Michael Sheen, Andy Garcia, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Rosemarie DeWitt.  Based on the early word, the film definitely sounds like its a solid effort for all that are involved, perhaps even a crossover effort from blockbuster to awards contender.  The film will have its World Premiere in New York a few days prior to its limited release and will begin screening at the end of September for critics.  A good CIA thriller may do the trick in a weak Adapted Screenplay race or even some damage in acting categories.  Could even surprise in a Cinematography lineup one year after Sean Bobbit missed out for 12 Years a Slave.

MOST LIKELY MENTIONS IN AWARDS SEASON:
Best Actor – Jeremy Renner
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Cast Ensemble

STUDIO PITCH:

Jeremy Renner leads a cast in a thriller based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb. Webb stumbles onto a story which leads to the shady origins of the men who started the crack epidemic on the nation’s streets…and further alleges that the CIA was aware of major dealers who were smuggling cocaine into the U.S., and using the profits to arm rebels fighting in Nicaragua. Despite warnings from drug kingpins and CIA operatives to stop his investigation, Webb keeps digging. His journey takes him from the prisons of California to the villages of Nicaragua to the highest corridors of power in Washington, D.C. – and draws the kind of attention that threatens not just his career, but his family and his life.

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boxtrolls_imageThe Boxtrolls
Directors: Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi

Films like ParaNorman had their admirers within their respective years, even managed a nomination for Best Animated Feature.  Other efforts like 9 (the non-musical) was a bit too weird for people to latch on to.  Teaming up with Laika, the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival on August 31, receiving very positive notices.  Already screening for critics, the film is gaining lots of admirers along the way.

Voice talents like Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Toni Collette, and Simon Pegg are all involved, and the film is picking up some steam.  With other animated films a long distant memory in the first half of the year, or the very beginning of summer, The Boxtrolls may be just what the doctor ordered especially with Pixar out of the conversation this year.  The score by Academy Award winner Dario Marianelli was also praised and could be a dark horse for a nomination.

The Boxtrolls also has a song in contention titled “The Boxtrolls Song” which could wreak some serious havoc on the awards beat.  Sure to be a potential money maker for the studio, audiences can rally behind this one all season long if embraced.

MOST LIKELY MENTIONS IN AWARDS SEASON:
Best Animated Feature
Best Original Score
Best Original Song

STUDIO PITCH:

A movie that introduces audiences to a new breed of family – The Boxtrolls, a community of quirky, mischievous creatures who have lovingly raised a human boy named Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright) in the amazing cavernous home they’ve built beneath the streets of Cheesebridge. When the town’s villain, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), comes up with a plot to get rid of the Boxtrolls, Eggs decides to venture above ground, “into the light,” where he meets and teams up with feisty Winnie (Elle Fanning). Together, they devise a plan to save Eggs’ family.

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Theory-of-Everything-bannerThe Theory of Everything
Director: James Marsh

Sure to receive the lion’s share of the studio’s bottom line, James Marsh’s love story/biopic emerged a serious contender out of the Toronto Film Festival.   Stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones had their performances lauded as one of the year’s finest (you can read my positive take on the film HERE).  After directing the Oscar-winning Documentary Feature Man on Wire, Marsh hits a near home run and if campaigned and executed strongly, could even be a potential winner.   Films like this have the power to take over the critical circuit, popping up in conversations along the way.  When the awards start being handed out, the film stands tall as not only a beautiful love story but a technical marvel.

The question surrounding the film will be where they place Oscar hopeful Felicity Jones.  From my heart of heart, she is most definitely a Lead Actress candidate.  From not only a narrative stand point, she even helms probably more dialogue and screen time than her co-star.  They don’t need to convince me, they need to convince an 8,000 strong Academy and over three dozen critic’s guilds.  In either category, she’s a threat to win.  According to the team behind the awards campaign, they will not make a final decision regarding her category placement until at earliest next week, following the end of TIFF.

Other sure fire contenders will be in Adapted Screenplay where scribe Anthony McCarten pens a multi-layered story with some richly defined characters.  Production Design, Costume Design, and Makeup & Hairstyling will all be on the table in a big way.  The hues of yellow are gorgeous in creating a dream-like feel.  That should land Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme in the awards conversation as should the editing of Jinx Godfrey, if they love it enough.

One of the definite and frontrunning efforts of the film is the impeccable and beautiful score by Jóhann Jóhannsson.  One year after missing out for Prisoners, the score of his career is on display and could edge out some heavy weights like Thomas Newman and Alexandre Desplat.  If there’s one thing it needs to be noticed for in the techs, it’s the music.  Think of films like The King’s Speech that reaped the awards and blew past its competition at the last minute.  This could be something very similar.

MOST LIKELY MENTIONS IN AWARDS SEASON
Best Motion Picture
Best Director – James Marsh
Best Actor – Eddie Redmayne
Best Actress/Supporting Actress – Felicity Jones 
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Production Design
Best Cinematography
Best Costume Design
Best Film Editing
Best Original Score

STUDIO PITCH:

Starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, this is the story of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who falls deeply in love with fellow Cambridge student Jane Wilde. Once a healthy, active young man, Hawking received an earth-shattering diagnosis at 21 years of age. With Jane fighting tirelessly by his side, Stephen embarks on his most ambitious scientific work, studying the very thing he now has precious little of – time. Together, they defy odds, breaking new ground in medicine and science, and achieving more than they could ever have dreamed. The film is based on the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, by Jane Hawking, and is directed by James Marsh.

What do you think of Focus Features slate this year?
(Check back for more studio assessments this week and make sure to check out the OSCAR PREDICTIONS pages for more in-depth commentary)