erik lundegaard

Movies - The Oscars posts

Monday February 02, 2009

Pedigree of a Slumdog: PGA, SAG, DGA...

With the Directors Guild of America Award going to Danny Boyle of “Slumdog Millionaire,” it looks increasingly unlikely that any other movie will win best picture. In fact it'll be unprecedented. Winning the DGA alone is usually a lock. You win the DGA, you tend to win the Oscar for best director. You win the Oscar for best director, your picture tends to win best picture. Only nine times since 1957 has best pic gone to something other than the DGA winner’s pic. That’s 82 percent.

Then factor in the Producers Guild of America, which began giving awards in 1989. How many times has a movie won the DGA and the PGA and not won best picture? Three times: In 1995 when the guilds chose “Apollo 13” and the Academy chose “Braveheart”; in 1998 when the guilds chose “Saving Private Ryan” and the Academy chose “Shakespeare in Love”: and in 2005 when the guilds chose “Brokeback Mountain” and the Academy chose “Crash.” That’s 84 percent.

(BTW: Isn’t it amazing how the guilds had the better choice each disagreeable year?)

Then factor in the Screen Actors Guild, which began giving awards in 1996. This is the fifth year all three guilds agreed. They agreed in 1999 (“American Beauty”), 2002 (“Chicago”), 2003 (“Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”) and last year (“No Country for Old Men”). Of course each of those pictures won the Oscar. Now we’re talking 100 percent.

In other words, if you choose anything other than “Slumdog” in your Oscar pool, you’re rolling with some pretty loaded dice.
Posted at 07:56 AM on Feb 02, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Saturday January 31, 2009

Mood Fight

I’m a little worried about David Carr

First there was that odd, Joker-mask video he did for his Carpetbagger blog. Then last week he clapped the Academy on the back for choosing quality (meaning: “The Reader”) over popularity (meaning: “The Dark Knight”).

But yesterday? He launched into one of my least-favorite journalistic devices: How the popularity of this or that film reflects the nation’s mood.

The Times is infamous for doing this. Just last year, on May 15th, Michael Cieply implied that the upcoming summer movies, including “The Dark Knight,” “Tropic Thunder” and “Pineapple Express,” were just too dark. “The mix,” he wrote, “may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive…”

Turns out “The Dark Knight” was just the refuge people were looking for. So Brooks Barnes took over, and on July 28th, wrote the following: “The brooding film, directed by Christopher Nolan, also fits the nation’s mood, Warner Brothers executives said.”

Problem solved. We weren’t repelled from the movie because it reflected our mood; we were drawn to it. Once it became clear we were drawn to it.

See what fun you can have with the nation’s mood?

Carr, whom I love, and who’s a better writer than both Cieply and Barnes, has actually done something worse. He begins his article, “Riveting Tales for Dark Days,” by once again lauding the Oscar nominees. They are, he says, an upbeat lot, particularly compared with the gloom of last year’s “No Country” and “There Will Be Blood.” They reflect our nation’s can-do spirit in troubled times. In one graph he dismisses what he’s doing and then keeps doing it:
Using the Oscars as a prism on national consciousness is a hoary, time-worn activity perpetrated by those of us who must find meaning in sometimes marginal work. But it does seem worth at least a mention this time around that both the Academy and audiences are showering love on such upbeat movies at a rough time in history.
Why is this worse? Let’s let “X” stand for “What people would do or are doing because of the nation’s mood.”

Cieply’s X wasn’t verifiable but predictive. It was two months down the road when only idiots like me would remember that he, or someone he had quoted, had made such a prediction.

Barnes’ X was verifiable and correct. People were in fact going to see “The Dark Knight.”

Carr’s X? Verifiable and incorrect. And not just incorrect in a small way. Incorrect in a way that refutes his entire premise.

He mixes two unstable elements. He writes that January box-office receipts are up by 10 percent (true) and that the Oscar nominees are more upbeat than last year (true-ish, though there’s nothing as purely pleasant as “Juno” in the mix). So he concludes people are drawn to these upbeat best picture nominees.

Problem? For whatever reason (and I blame the studios as much as anyone), we’re not drawn to these upbeat nominees. We’re drawn to “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” which has made, as of today, $69.3 million. The nominees, save for “Button,” have all made less. Some a lot less: “Slumdog” ($59.5M), “Milk” ($21.9M), “Frost/Nixon” ($12.9M) and “The Reader” ($10.2M). In fact, as I mentioned yesterday, Brandon Gray, over at, has written that these nominees are, at the time of the noms, the least-attended ever. (I’m still interested in his math on this, by the way.)

In Carr’s defense, and despite the “showering love” line above, he does say that the upbeat nominees “reflect an appetite on the part of the Academy, and by proxy, the public, for a nice, big chunk of uplift.”

That’s a nice one. Using the Academy as a stand-in for the public when the two have never been further apart.

So I’m a little worried about David Carr. He’s better than this.
Posted at 10:23 AM on Jan 31, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars, Movies - Box Office, Media
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Friday January 30, 2009

Who Sees the Oscar Nominees Anyway?

I didn’t see this until yesterday but Brandon Gray of has a good piece on one of my favorite topics — box office and Oscar — and comes to the conclusion that this is not only a weak year in terms of attendance, it’s the worst year ever. I assume he’s parsing this the French way — asses in the seats, not inflationary dollars in the pockets — but that’s an astounding stat. Not surprising, though. It’s a week after the noms and where are our nominees in terms of 2008 box-office rankings? At 20 (“Button”), 53 (“Slumdog”), 109 “(“Milk”), 131 (“F/N”) and 143 (“The Reader”). Obviously this will change, and for the better, but, by way of comparison, only two films nominated for best picture since 1980 haven’t landed among the top 100 box-office films of the year: “Letters from Iwo Jima” in 2006 (138th) and “Secrets and Lies” in 1996 (108th). “The Dresser” in 1983 came close (100th).

Gray comes to this conclusion about Oscar and box office:
Slumdog Millionaire was a snowballing success prior to the Oscar nominations and Gran Torino, which received zero nominations for instance, was a hit, and neither picture's status fundamentally changed after the nominations were announced.
He also mentions in passing the b.o. difficulties of “Frost/Nixon” but no one seems to be taking Universal to task for this. When the movie had buzz in December, Universal kept it limited (205 theaters). After the noms, they opened it wider (1,000+ theaters), but by then it had been overshadowed by both “Button” and “Slumdog,” and word-of-mouth wasn’t great, and people stayed away. Maybe they would’ve anyway. Who knows? But Universal pushed it for the Oscars, and then relied on the Oscars to push it to the public. Didn’t work.

In better news, Focus Features, a Universal subsidiary on life-support, finally opened “Milk,” one of the best films of the year, wider. It plays in 882 theaters today. About effin’ time. Yet it's still the only best pic nominee not to play in at least 1,000 theaters.
Posted at 07:44 AM on Jan 30, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars, Movies - Box Office
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Wednesday January 28, 2009

Milk Left Out

My father once said, about an article that didn’t get the response he thought it would, “It was like pitching a penny down a deep well," and once I began publishing I knew exactly what he meant. That was pre-Internet. Occasionally I long for that silence. These days, publishing (or posting) is like pitching a penny down a shallow well full of bees. You expect to get swarmed; you hope not to get stung.

But — that said — what a great group over at filmexperience! Nathaniel R. was nice enough to post the MSNBC quiz and dozens of his readers posted their results. I should immediately apologize for the Frank Langella question. Some actors in some roles make an early impression that never goes away, and, for me, Langella will always be Zorro. That’s how I first saw him. At age 11. Later when he became a star on Broadway as Dracula, I’d think, “Hey, it’s Zorro.” When he played the villainous chief of staff in “Dave” I went: “Dude: Zorro!” On and on. Nixon, too. Still, I should’ve made the answer easier. Because how can you not imagine him as Jack the Ripper?

No apologies to anyone who got no. 14 wrong. That was a gimme.

One reader, meanwhile, suggested no. 8 didn’t have much to do with the Oscars. For those who haven’t taken the quiz (and c’mon already), here it is:
At the time of the nominations (Thursday, Jan. 22), how many of the best picture nominees had been seen in more than 1,000 theaters in the U.S.?    
    A. All five    
    B. Four    
    C. Three    
    D. Two    
    E. One    
    F. None   

The answer is One, “Benjamin Button,” and for a second I agreed with the reader. A second later I thought: Actually this is the most relevant question in the quiz. It’s not some factoid only the most insane person would know (see: no. 2); it’s about how isolated our supposed best pictures have become. Again: read this.

I found it particularly instructive that many of Nathaniel’s readers thought “Milk” was one of the most-distributed nominees when, as of today, it’s the least. Its theater-high was 356. Hell, every best-picture candidate expanded the weekend after the Oscars except for “Milk,” which remains in its truncated state of 250. I’m no insider or businessman but... Does that make sense? Is there a plan here? Who’s running Focus Features anyway?

Only a handful of best-picture nominees this decade haven’t been distributed into at least 1,000 theaters: “Gosford Park” (918), “Lost in Translation” (882), “The Pianist” (842), and, the winner of the least-distributed best-pic nominee of the decade, “Letters from Iwo Jima” (781). If “Milk” doesn’t expand, it will more than halve that mark.

So what is Focus Features saying? That it can sell “Brokeback” but not this? That Americans are more willing to understand the people who bombed Pearl Harbor, speaking in Japanese, than the people who opposed Prop. 8, speaking in English?

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, and I’ll keep saying it until someone gives me a response I understand: How good can the studios be if they can’t sell quality?

Posted at 09:13 AM on Jan 28, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars, Movies - Box Office
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Monday January 26, 2009

The Quiz...and How Nathaniel R. Nudged Me Off the Fence

As promised, the Oscar quiz is up on Here.

I was going to add what's below to yesterday's post but decided not to spoil it for those brave few:

  • Everyone’s trumpeting Meryl Streep’s 15th nomination. Most add that she’s got two wins without specifying those wins. Here’s a reminder: She’s got a supporting (“Kramer vs. Kramer”) and a lead (“Sophie’s Choice”). Which means Hilary Swank, among others, has won more best actress Oscars than Meryl Streep. Hell, the last time Streep won, fellow nominee Anne Hathaway was six months old.
  • Not only has Stephen Daldry, director of “The Reader,” been nominated more times (3) than any of the other directing nominees, including Ron Howard and Gus Van Sant, but, astonishingly, he’s only made three feature-length films. Which means he’s been nominated for every film he’s ever made.  For the record, his three films are: “Billy Elliott,” “The Hours” and “The Reader.” I know, me neither.

Interestingly, I was on this morning, and one of the links on their daily “Hit List” was entitled: “Notes on the Oscar Nominations” from I clicked, not exactly holding my breath. Most mainstream stuff is dull reportage that ignores fascinating but easy-to-find details (like Daltry, above), and most blogs are noisy little affairs that make me want to run away, take a shower, and not have an opinion for the rest of my life. This was neither. It was fun, charming, smart. As soon as I saw this graphic I knew I was in the right place:

Some of the stuff I knew nothing about (costume design?), some I knew all too well (“Harvey Weinstein is Back. God Help Us All.”), but all of it was fun to read.

Even better was host Nathaniel R's live-blogging of the SAG noms, and his disappointment that “Milk” didn't win the cast award. I wrote about the SAGs this morning, but dispassionately, as Oscar indicators. Nathaniel helped push me off my fence. Because he's right. Both “Milk” and “Slumdog” are very good movies, and I'll be fine if “Slumdog” wins best picture, but if we're talking about ensemble cast acting, “Milk,” with Penn, Franco, Hirsch, et al., has it all over “Slumdog,” which is a director's movie. Freida Pinto is stunning, lovely to look at, and her part works, but... It ain't the same league.

Anyway, if you haven't, take the quiz already. And remember the thing about Daltry.

Posted at 07:13 PM on Jan 26, 2009 in category Movies - The Oscars
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