Looking at a studio’s Oscar history is nothing new, and has often been done when looking at smaller films that can be made or broken by the studio behind them. Think of how a movie like say, the upcoming Blue is the Warmest Color, might be considered a stronger contender if it had an Oscar-savvy studio behind it like Sony Classics, instead of IFC/Sundance Selects, which is largely unproven.
However, analyzing the major studios and their Oscar success, while done sometimes, usually isn’t done very in-depth. This probably has to do with how the major studios have in recent years left most prestige movies to their independent film divisions, and any critically acclaimed movies that they do release are usually considered money-making machines first, awards fodder second. But in the example that made me write this article, I decided to take a look at the recent Oscar history of Sony Pictures, and was surprised to find something that isn’t discussed very often: they do not have a strong recent track record with Oscar.
To clarify, that’s RECENT history. In the ’90s they were pretty smart, getting box office hit crowd-pleasers into contention (As Good As It Gets, Jerry Maguire), and in 1996 and 1997 they got 17 nominations each year! But then things got bumpy after 1997. From 1998 to 2008 they didn’t receive a single Best Picture nomination, and only nine different films received major nominations (the Directing/Acting/Writing categories). And their failure wasn’t for lack of trying. In this time period they released plenty of failed Oscar bait including The Missing, Mona Lisa Smile, Spanglish, Memoirs of a Geisha, All the King’s Men and Marie Antoinette. And they still had critically acclaimed films that could’ve made it with stronger campaigns including The End of the Affair, Ali, Black Hawk Down, Adaptation, Big Fish and Closer. All received a certain amount of critical acclaim and precursor support, and some probably even came close to a nomination (Black Hawk Down and Adaptation would almost certainly be nominees in an expanded field). But ultimately, it wasn’t a great time for the studio.
When the Academy expanded their Best Picture line-up in 2009, the studio finally found some greater success once again. District 9, the low-budget sci-fi thriller released by TriStar, received four nominations, including Picture and Adapted Screenplay. Though the film didn’t win anything, and might’ve been able to receive even more nominations (the film received an amazing seven nominations from BAFTA, where it also made Directing, Cinematography, Production Design and Sound), but for an R-rated sci-fi film littered with exploding bodies, it should probably be considered a success.
2010 managed to bring Sony even more success, but it’s here where their weaknesses begin to become apparent. The studio found itself in possession of the most critically acclaimed Hollywood drama in eons, The Social Network. Upon release it was immediately declared the Best Picture frontrunner, a position it holds onto all the way into January, sweeping many of the Critics groups and even winning four Golden Globe awards. However, despite this amazing head start, and all the pros in its corner (Amazing reviews! Zeitgeist-y subject! Box office hit! A director that could be considered due!) the film could maintain its buzz. It ended up losing the PGA, DGA and SAG Ensemble awards all to Weinstein’s The King’s Speech; a film that became a runaway box office hit itself, eventually outgrossing The Social Network by $40 million. The Social Network also missed a Supporting Actor nomination for Andrew Garfield, a nomination that should’ve been locked. Though it still won three Oscars, the movie just couldn’t overcome the heart-warming nature of The King’s Speech.
The following year, Sony found itself with two major Picture contenders –The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Moneyball. Early on, it seemed like Dragon Tattoo could do well, since Fincher’s last two films received Picture/Directing nominations, and the film was likely to be a box office hit in a year sorely lacking in contenders that the public enjoyed. However, they ended up holding off on screening the movie as long as humanly possible (they even caused the New York Film Critics Circle to push back their awards ceremony so they could see the film), making its eventual good-not-great reaction sting a little more than it should. Despite this, the movie actually did very well with the guilds, hitting PGA, WGA, and DGA much to everyone’s surprise (especially since it missed SAG and the Golden Globes, save Actress/Score nomination at the latter). This ended up meaning nothing though as the movie misses out on Screenplay, Directing and Picture. Mara showed up in Actress in a minor surprise, but she was ultimately an also-ran in the race.
The other movie, Moneyball, was probably Sony’s biggest awards over-performer in recent memory, but even then the film represents some missed opportunities for the studio. The film was the best-reviewed major studio release of 2011 with an 87 score on Metacritic, and a solid box office success (at the time of the nominations, it was the second highest grossing Picture nominee, behind only The Help; eventually it was #4 behind The Descendants and War Horse). Come critics awards season, Pitt managed Best Actor wins at NYFCC and National Society of Film Critics (both were also credited for his Tree of Life performances). Pitt was (and still is) one of the most recognizable movie stars in the world, and one of the only actors that can effortlessly go between major studio films and more prestigious fare. He also still doesn’t have an Oscar. With those kinds of wins, and that kind of narrative, Pitt could’ve easily become the Best Actor frontrunner that year and even win. However, he lost the BFCA and Golden Globe to George Clooney (a previous Oscar winner), and the SAG, BAFTA and eventually the Oscar to Jean Dujardin. Yes, Dujardin was in the Best Picture winner, but he was also an unknown French comedic actor. He should’ve been easy enough to overcome, but Sony dropped the ball.
If you’re becoming increasingly skeptical about Sony’s Oscar abilities, 2012 won’t help matters. Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to her landmark, six-time Oscar winning film The Hurt Locker, received the best reviews Hollywood drama since The Social Network two years prior. It managed to win Best Picture and Directing at the first two awards groups to announce (NYFCC and NBR), and looked likely to repeat the success of Bigelow’s previous film, only swapping out Actor for Actress. Unfortunately, controversy struck right as voting began, regarding the legitimacy of the film’s events, which the studio didn’t do the best job of rebuking. There remains some debate over how much the controversy affected AMPAS’ view of the film, but there is no debate that it definitely underperformed in the nominations, missing Sound Mixing, Cinematography, Score, and worst of all, Directing for Bigelow. The film went from potential frontrunner to also-ran almost immediately, and its eventual Sound Effects Editing win was considered a surprise (though humorously enough it tied with fellow Sony film Skyfall).
Looking over all of this recent turbulent history, I’m left questioning what this means for this year’s films that Sony has in the race. At this time, they appear to have three potentially strong contenders:
The Monuments Men – On paper this looked like a slam-dunk, with George Clooney writing/directing, an all-star cast and a World War II setting. However, the recent trailer made the film look pretty trivial, especially with Sony’s other two films, including…
Captain Phillips – This fact-based thriller, starring two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks and directed by previous nominee Paul Greengrass, opened the New York Film Festival to nearly universal raves and positive notices, especially for Greengrass’s direction and Hanks’ performance. Could this be another Moneyball, an early fall critical/commercial success that sneaks its way into multiple above-the-line categories? How Sony decides to handle this film will probably end up depending on the reception of their final big awards film…
American Hustle – Probably the big question mark here, and one of the biggest question marks left in the race, period. The Academy has truly embraced its director David O. Russell in the last few years, but I am worried about this going the route of a Dragon Tattoo – a mystery film that takes too long getting unveiled, that doesn’t ignite buzz until it’s too late. Sony doesn’t seem to work well with that. And this is all assuming the movie is great! So this could be more questionable than many people are thinking.
All three come from well-respected, Oscar-nominated directors, have awards-friendly, fact-based stories, and almost everyone with predictions right now would consider all three serious across-the-board contenders if they’re good enough. However, looking at the ultimate Oscar fates of The Social Network, Moneyball and Zero Dark Thirty, will being a great movie be enough for any of those three to overcome Sony’s issues?
[author image=”https://scontent-a.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ash4/1000826_905133195637_1150756764_n.jpg” ]Jonathan Boehle is a contributor to AwardWatch and a moderator of the AW forums.[/author]