Sure as the day after Thanksgiving marks the start of Christmas shopping for major retailers, the holiday season contains an alternate marketing blitz in the film world.
Hollywood has a two-pronged goal during the next seven weeks. As usual, it wants to put bodies in theater seats. But on a more ambitious level, it’s preparing to unveil some of the year’s finest, most prestige-oriented features.
While this system is not without flaws, it’s better than making customers line up in the snow for Black Friday shoving matches over discounted TVs.
With the Academy Awards approaching March 4, movie moguls are working full speed to win voters’ attention, hearts and minds. More than ticket sales, idiosyncratic Oscar winners such as “The Hurt Locker,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “No Country for Old Men” offer a long-after-release lifespan while upholding the lofty ambitions of the art form.
The question now facing the academy and film fans alike is: Who should define which films, or performances, or concepts, will be included in awards season?
Last year, following two consecutive years of #OscarsSoWhite protests, the 6,000-member Motion Picture Academy invited an influx of 683 new participants — significantly younger and more diverse — to better represent filmmakers of color and other emerging talents.
These new voters could yield some thought-provoking contenders. Here are three watchwords that may govern how the season unfolds.
1. Diversity can boost success
When “Get Out” premiered in February, its filmmakers had only modest expectations for what seemed to be a small horror story from a first-time filmmaker. But its unconventional plot, twisting the interracial romance theme of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” with dashes of hypnosis, body horror and upper-class racism, plugged into a national debate about multicultural America. It became a cultural phenomenon and surprise hit, catapulting writer/director Jordan Peele to film industry stardom, and raising the film’s status as a genuine Oscar contender.
On a smaller scale, the funny/serious culture-clash romance “The Big Sick,” starring and co-written by Pakistan-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani, has won multiple top prizes at U.S. and international film festivals. It could pick up larger trophies to go with its unexpected box office success.
There should be special amounts of awards attention paid to several excellent, inclusive holiday releases as well.
• In “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” opening Nov. 22, Denzel Washington plays an idealistic Los Angeles civil rights attorney drawn into a crime that threatens his life; Carmen Ejogo co-stars as his morally centered romantic interest.
• Pixar’s animated “Coco” (also Nov. 22) honors Latin-American culture and folklore in its look, sound and abundant spoken Spanish without subtitles. The vocal cast stars newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt.
• Laurence Fishburne, who launched his film career at age 14 as a young Navy patrol boat crewman in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” recalls the jungle of Vietnam in Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying,” a retired servicemen’s buddy comedy co-starring Bryan Cranston and Steve Carell that opens Friday.
• And Mexican director Guillermo del Toro combines music, science fiction, romance and prejudice in “The Shape of Water” (Dec. 8), which features a standout role for Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.
2. Personal behavior affects publicity
With a growing list of powerful men in the film industry accused of sexual harassment (and worse), screen talent has been seriously tainted by off-screen scandal.
Last year the slave-revolt drama “The Birth of a Nation,” a much hyped prize winner at the Sundance Film Festival, was considered a challenger for a best picture Oscar until director/star Nate Parker was revealed to have faced a rape charge 17 years earlier. His film received no Oscar attention and performed far beneath expectations at the box office, and Parker has had no film work since. Mel Gibson, accused in 2010 of assaulting his girlfriend, returned to directing with last year’s Oscar-nominated “Hacksaw Ridge,” but his acting work has been reduced to supporting roles in films such as “Daddy’s Home 2.”
That narrative is even more relevant, with accusations against producer Harvey Weinstein, actors Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman, directors Brett Ratner and James Toback, comedian Louis C.K. and more. The impact on Spacey’s career has been immense. Netflix quickly suspended his starring role on “House of Cards.” Ridley Scott’s drama “All the Money in the World” was to have featured a transformative performance by the two-time Oscar winner as financier J. Paul Getty, but in an unprecedented last-minute move, Spacey’s performance is being cut from the film and reshot with Christopher Plummer. It is still scheduled for a Dec. 22 release.
3. Disability carries no stigma
Playing a disabled character has long generated Academy Awards, with examples too numerous to mention, from Colin Firth’s stammering King George VI in “The King’s Speech” to Hoffman’s autistic genius in “Rain Man.” It’s hard to believe this year will be any different.
Still, it’s rare for an Oscar to go to actresses playing a mute character, with Patty Duke’s performance as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker,” Marlee Matlin (to date the only deaf performer to have won the award) in “Children of a Lesser God” and Holly Hunter in “The Piano” being the only winners to date.
That will probably change this year. After earning a supporting nomination for “Blue Jasmine” in 2013, British actress Sally Hawkins has earned major awards buzz for her leading role as a mute cleaning lady who falls in love with an extraordinary beau in “The Shape of Water.” It’s the kind of technically polished and socially sensitive work that filmmakers appreciate and want to share with holiday audiences — a sensitive slice of feel-good entertainment in a season that is about nurturing the goodness of your heart.
612-673-7186 • @colincovert