Between its middling domestic box office and complete overshadowing by more critically and commercial successful Gravity and Captain Phillips, Rush has almost completely disappeared from people’s minds. It’s not like people didn’t like the film. It currently holds a 75 on Metacritic with five perfect scores, an 88% on Rotten Tomatoes (with nearly 200 reviews in), and on IMDB it holds an incredibly high 8.3 average user rating, enough to put it in the site’s famous Top 250, one of only two 2013 films to make the list (the other being Gravity). With stronger box office and a weaker year, this would be enough to solidify its place in the Oscar race, but it’s so weak that Daniel Brühl, once considered a Supporting Actor lock, is now hanging in that category by a thread.
Is there any hope left for the film at the Oscars? Possibly, and that rests heavily on the strength of its studio: Universal Pictures, one of the remaining major studios that knows how to run a good Oscar campaign.
Oddly enough, Universal used to not be a particularly strong studio when it came to Oscar. While most of the major studios showed up with relative consistency in the Best Picture category, Universal almost never had films nominated. In fact, from 1937 until 1962 their only Best Picture nominations came from British imports Great Expectations (1947) and Best Picture winner Hamlet (1948). With the exception of Hamlet (which it only distributed), up until the ‘70s, the only Best Picture winner Universal ever produced was 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front. It wasn’t until the 1970s that films like Airport, American Graffiti and Best Picture winner The Sting were too financially big for the Academy to ignore, and they became a more consistent Oscar presence.
But as my previous piece on Sony Pictures showed, overall Oscar history isn’t that relevant to determining how a studio can handle a potential Oscar contender. The case of Universal Pictures in the last 15 years is an odd one though. In the late 1990s into the mid-2000s, studio collaborations on projects became increasingly popular, something not as popular nowadays (except for defunct distributors like DreamWorks and MGM that need another studio to distribute through). Universal was at least partially responsible for three of the four Best Picture winners between 1998 and 2001, handling international distribution on Shakespeare in Love (handled by Miramax domestically) and Gladiator (handled by DreamWorks domestically), and releasing A Beautiful Mind domestically (DreamWorks released it internationally). So while Universal wasn’t always doing the dirty work on Oscar campaigning (the Shakespeare in Love Oscar is all the doing of Golden Age Miramax), they knew their projects.
It was also around that time that Universal’s art house films division, Focus Features, was born out of the ashes of USA Films, Universal Focus, Gramercy Pictures and October Films (all studios with individual Oscar successes from the last decade). But while Focus would become a successful Oscar studio itself, Universal didn’t take that as an excuse to start slacking in releasing Oscar contenders. They managed three Best Picture nominations in a row from 2003 to 2005, with Seabiscuit, Ray and Munich, and another nomination in 2008 for Frost/Nixon.
That may not sound like too much, but that’s more Picture nominations than 20th Century Fox, Paramount and Sony combined. And none of those films were exactly runaway critical smashes, with all but Frost/Nixon having lower Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes scores than Rush.
Granted, since the Best Picture expansion in 2009, Universal hasn’t had much luck with Oscars, but that’s less a case of failed Oscar bait and more a case of no Oscar bait at all. Between 2009 and 2010 they received all of one nomination (and win!) for The Wolfman in Makeup, but nothing they released in those two years was ever much of a contender anyway, save maybe Michael Mann’s Public Enemies and Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone, both movies too mediocre to be remembered. 2011 was similarly lacking in typical Oscar bait, but they did score two major nominations for Bridesmaids, a film whose PGA, WGA and SAG Ensemble nominations all indicate it might’ve also been closer to a Picture nomination than anyone ever would’ve expected of a Judd Apatow film. Last year Universal finally reentered the Best Picture race, with Les Miserables earning eight nominations and three wins, including Supporting Actress. Though the film was almost predestined for awards success, it still had to overcome some nasty reviews, in a field where the other eight nominated films were critical darlings.
So what does this all mean for Rush? What helps it is that it is the only films Universal is releasing this year that resembles an Oscar contender, and unlike Public Enemies or Green Zone, the reviews are actually pretty strong. But opening right before the onslaught of three surefire Best Picture nominees proved to be a very poor move on Universal’s part. Universal hasn’t handled a contender this on-the-fence in a while, and the absence of the film from Universal’s awards site might mean that they’re still not sure how to go forward with it. But if they think they can push it back into the game, watch out. – Jonathan Boehle