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Notes On The Season: Fox Searchlight Chiefs On Playing ‘Favourites’ And Rejecting Oscar Politics; Viggo Mortensen’s Rousing ‘Green Book’ Defense

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit

Alfonso Cuaraon

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For some, this weekend is the craziest of awards season, as the travel crunch is on from events in L.A. to NYC to London, as nominees have to figure out where to be from the ASC and USC awards to the Grammys to the BAFTAs. The latter two are on Sunday, so at least one nominee up for major awards at both had to make a Solomon-like decision. That would be Lady Gaga, whose A Star Is Born music is expected to score big for her at the Grammys and where she will be performing. Nominated for Lead Actress and Original Music at the BAFTAs, she could be a winner there as well (at least in the music category), but she won’t be in London to accept.

That will have to go to co-music nominees Lukas Nelson and Bradley Cooper, who has a near-record five nominations at BAFTA just for himself (Picture, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Music and, yes, Director! Take that Oscar!) I say near record because in this wild year there is actually another nominee who beats it. Roma director Alfonso Cuarón is up for six — count ’em, six — BAFTAs: Picture, Film Not in the English Language, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography and Editing. Who could ever top that? Like Gaga, Cuarón also has a big conflict this weekend, as he is the first director nominated for shooting his own film from the ASC Cinematographers Awards on Saturday night. Demonstrating the logistical travel nightmare of the season, Cuarón is in London tonight doing a Q&A for the Roma soundtrack release with Billie Eilish. However, he is flying back to L.A. right afterward, where he will be doing a Q&A on Friday at the Landmark in West L.A. with T Bone Burnett and James Lavelle (UNKLE), also in conjunction with that soundtrack debut. Later, he will attend ASCs in the Hollywood & Highland Grand Ballroom, and then hop a plane right about the time the sun is rising in London in order to barely make the BAFTA show that evening. Whew! And you thought being nominated in every category was easy.

SEARCHLIGHT SEARCHING FOR ‘FAVOUR’

Among those already heading to jolly ol’ England are the Fox Searchlight contingent, including Chairmen Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula, who are heading into the BAFTAs with a bit of a hometown advantage with the very British period piece The Favourite, which towers over the field with a leading 12 nominations. It also shares the lead at the Oscars with Roma, both earning 10 nominations (and it led Critics’ Choice with 14, too, but lost to Roma in the end). It is expected to break out at BAFTA, after scoring last week at both the ACE Eddies and Art Directors Guild shows, thereby building momentum when it is needed most. Final Oscar balloting begins Tuesday, and positive headlines out of London would come just at the right moment.

The company has 15 nominations overall, including three for Can You Ever Forgive Me? and two for Isle of Dogs. For Searchlight, this is getting to be old hat, since picking up Best Picture Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire, Birdman, 12 Years a Slave and last year’s The Shape of Water has given the company an enviable track record. This year, it is hoping to keep that going, and has a unique ability to come up with just the right campaign in the post-nomination period (known in the biz as Phase 2) to bring winners in.

It is something Searchlight is doing with The Favourite, which could sneak in despite other movies like Roma and Green Book dominating pundits’ Best Picture talk at the moment. They launched right after noms with a new tag line: “All In Favour…” and ran vividly striking four-page ads in the trades this week as part of their push.

I got on the phone with Utley and Gilula yesterday to talk Oscars and strategy. Utley explained the approach. “It’s important to, first of all, freshen-up a campaign that’s been running for a while, and also to hone in the narrative on why this film, why this film at this time, and give voters your argument in favor of why it deserves to be considered,” she said. “So it’s always kind of fun and challenging to try to figure out what those are as we come down to the home stretch, and I think for The Favourite this line, “all in favour,” kind of emphasizes the breadth of the nominations and the inclusivity, especially the women in the cast, and the international nature of all the people that made the movie, so it seems fitting to us.”

Atsushi Nishijima

Utley says they are trying to let the film speak for itself, so they aren’t emphasizing the many critical blurbs they have, but are instead showcasing the exuberance, color, and “boisterousness” of the movie. “I think one of the things The Favourite has going for it is irreverence and wit and style, and so these really beautifully made photographs let those things shine through,” she adds. Utley, who is also on the Board of Governors and an Academy officer, is excited about the nature of the wide open race AMPAS has this year. “I think it’s exciting for everyone that it doesn’t seem predetermined at this point, because, you know, many years by the time you get to the Oscar telecast, people complain that the answers have been heavily foreshadowed in previous outings and that everybody knows what’s going to happen, so the fact that the audience and everyone in the Dolby is going to get to the very last award with some mystery and intrigue attached to it I think is great.”

For Gilula, who focuses a lot on the distribution as well, the Oscar bounty is very welcome, even as the film still remains strong in the first four theaters in which it played when it opened in November. “We went up to 1,500 runs the last two weeks, which was extraordinary, and it’s because, you know, the uniqueness of the film, the advocacy of the people who see it and love it, you can’t describe it, and even those who’ve seen it, we’re having a fair amount of second and third viewings, because the film is so rich and so dense and it’s so funny and people miss it for the laughter.

“That’s why the film has sustained so long and why we think the campaign really kind of catches the zeitgeist right now, because obviously, our whole legacy of original movies and unique movies, this fits in so well, so the experience we have and how this film fits in the market is very exciting,” he said.

COMBATING DIRTY CAMPAIGNING

Olivia Colman - The Favourite.jpeg

Fox Searchlight

Simplicity is key, which is why a phrase “All in favour…” works, as it has separate meanings. For 12 Years a Slave, the catchphrase went to two words in the second phase: “It’s Time,” which also had multiple meanings for that film. Birdman was “Above All”; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was “Signs of the Times”; and The Shape of Water was simply using the word “embrace.” For Gilula, it’s the right way to go without hitting voters on the head. “We like to distill these down to the essence of what the film is, and it connects with people at the emotional and the visceral level,” he says. Both executives believe this is a positive approach and hate the way negative campaigning has crept back into the race in recent times, finding it “dispiriting” and mentioning last year they had heard companies were paying to plant negative stories about alleged racism in Three Billboards and plagiarism lawsuits against Shape Of Water, and paying to amplify those on social media in order to get into more inboxes than just to people reading the original article.

“We were stunned to hear that. and maybe we’re naive, but we don’t want to play that way. We’ve had a remarkably consistent record. as you know. We’ve had 16 Best Picture nominations in 15 years without doing oppo research or black arts. so I would put forward the notion that you can get nominated and win on your own merits rather than trying to find the chinks in somebody else’s armor,” Utley said. The industry definitely should be ‘all in favour’ to that philosophy of campaigning. Asked if the Academy can do something about it, Utley said it was pretty slippery in trying to directly prove this kind of stuff.

As for the impending Fox merger with Disney and how it will affect their business and Oscar success going forward, the pair intend to look straight ahead. “Well, obviously, it’s an end of an era, kind of, as we know it, and as we know it here on the lot, with all the colleagues we’ve had for so many years and decades. But as far as Searchlight, we’re remaining intact, keeping our heads down, doing the work and hoping to have a great result again next year and beyond,” Utley said. Gilula agrees. “We’re staying here. We’ll continue to do what we do. Disney has been very supportive both publicly and privately that we do something that they don’t do and they like what we do and they want us to continue.”

VIGGO’S RINGING DEFENSE OF ‘GREEN BOOK’

SBIFF

Speaking of some negative campaigning, Universal and Participant Media’s Golden Globe and Producers Guild- winning Green Book seems to be a major victim of it this year, although it is certainly not the only film being attacked for dubious reasons. I had the great pleasure last Saturday of hosting the Santa Barbara International Film Festival tribute to Viggo Mortensen, who was being awarded the American Riviera award in recognition of his career and performance as Tony “The Lip” Vallelonga in Green Book. It almost didn’t happen because torrential rains shut down the Highway 1 leading into Santa Barbara. Mortensen and presenter Ed Harris, travelling there together, got as far in a car as they could, but had to stop in Camarillo, where miraculously they were able to find a small plane and pilot for hire who took them the rest of the way on a white knuckle flight to the historic Arlington Theatre.

The show started only an hour late and the packed audience was about as receptive as audiences can get. Mortensen gave a highly entertaining review of his career and work to date. But it was at the end where he offered a rousing defense of Green Book against its naysayers, and even Don Shirley’s (the character Mahershala Ali plays) family. In other words, he set the record straight as he sees it. Here is what he said:

Universal Pictures

“The actual audio recordings (of Vallelonga and Shirley) were really helpful. I am sure some of you are aware there has been some questioning, and it continues, unfortunately, that this story is just a pack of lies. It’s a movie, so if it were a pack of lies, so what? It’s a great story, and if you enjoyed it, so what are you complaining about? It’s disturbing to me, because I like the Vallelonga family, I got to know them. I didn’t just play one of them. I got to appreciate them, and it’s a real insult to them and to their relative whom I portray, and really, it doesn’t do Don Shirley any favors either, to say it’s all bullshit and that there was no friendship, when you can clearly hear Don Shirley talking about the fact that they were friends, or to hear them (the family) say that he fired him right away.

He worked for him for a year and a half and he liked him so much he recommended him to other artists who he drove for. So if you want to see where the pack of lies are, maybe it is somewhere else, but it is not in our movie, and it’s very late that these things have come out. To people involved in the movie, I say, ‘What are you guys waiting for? C’mon. You’ve got the proof. Defend yourself.’ I guess that is sort of the Michelle Obama attitude, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ I guess that’s the idea. Just keep your dignity, as Doc says, Mahershala [Ali’s] character. I guess dignity always wins in the end, in the long run. I seriously think what Pete Farrelly accomplished with this movie, in one fell swoop with one movie that’s exquisitely constructed, he put himself in the same league with one movie with Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder.

It’s that good. It’s that well-constructed. It’s really satisfying and entertaining, and in some cases, drama that is profound, and also classic comedy. He deserves a lot of credit for it. It’s not a documentary. But in some instances, it is word for word, things that were on those tapes and those stories they were talking about. So to say it is based on a true friendship and real events, it really is. And to claim that it is all nonsense, to say the least does not do justice to the filmmakers or to the family, I think one of the best things about Green Book is that it has allowed people to discover Don Shirley the artist, and a little bit of Don Shirley the man, but to his music and enormous talent.”

And by the way, speaking of tag lines for campaigns, Green Book has adopted the phrase, “Dignity Always Prevails.” You can only hope that is still true in these tough times. Thanks, Viggo, for a great afternoon.

WILL HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS BECOME OSCAR WINNERS?

Netflix

Academy members just got their cool set of DVD screeners sent by AMPAS to encourage viewing and voting in the Foreign Language, Animated Feature, Documentary Feature, and Shorts, as well as Live Action and Animated Shorts. The Academy has been doing this for five years and it’s a great idea, really broadening the participation in these categories, which often don’t get the attention they deserve. Although shorts are increasingly getting a higher profile. Fox Searchlight just picked up this year’s Oscar-nominated, Holocaust-themed short, Skin, and on the eve of Oscar nominations last month, Netflix picked up the moving documentary short, Period. End Of Sentence, which counts Netflix awards guru Lisa Taback as one of its producers and her daughter Claire Sliney as one of its six then-high school students who are executive producers of this unique entry into this year’s race.

Netflix today announced the 21-minute docu will begin streaming on the service on Tuesday, which just also happens to be the first day of final Oscar voting. It is well worth catching. Directed by Rayka Zehtabchi, it follows a group of women and girls in rural India who work together to operate a machine installed in their village to make sanitary pads and combat the crushing stigma of menstruation. It all started at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood. and was the bright idea of English teacher Melissa Berton (who would accept the Oscar with Zehtabchi if it wins) and the aforementioned HS students.

Following a trip to the UN where the kids served as delegates to the Commission on the Status of Women, they started fundraising through bake sales, yoga-thons, and Kickstarter in order to finance the machine and supplies. In the following five years, now college students, they were able to hire Zehtabchi, who was only 23 at the time herself and had just graduated USC Cinema School, to make a film to further benefit their cause and their Pad Project activities.

SBIFF

Last Sunday, Zehtabchi was a standout on the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s women’s panel, which featured a record nine female Oscar nominees (moderated by Madelyn Hammond). She explained how this all came to her. “A producer friend told her they were looking for a young female director. He said, ‘I don’t know if you ever directed a documentary before’, and I said, ‘I haven’t. Are you sure you want me?’ And then he asked if I wanted to come on board. I was so incredibly moved by this issue and surprised that I had not known about it myself. I was completely ignorant. I had no idea that around the world, this was a big issue, and I was just so taken aback the first time I entered Oakwood School for our first meeting with our producers and realized our producers were, like, 15-year-old high school girls.

When I first started making this film at 23 – I am 25 now – I felt really connected to these women and to these young girls who were devoting their time to this project,” she said. Wouldn’t it be an amazing Oscar moment if this film were to win, and those school girls stormed the stage? Of course, with the Academy obsessed with big stars and short speeches, that moment probably won’t happen like it should. But memo to Oscar producers: if it wins, it should be given that kind of opportunity. It is a remarkable and inspiring story all around and deserves a moment in the sun to counter all the negative that rules the news – and Oscar races for that matter – these days.

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Notes On The Season: Fox Searchlight Chiefs On Playing ‘Favourites’ And Rejecting Oscar Politics; Viggo Mortensen’s Rousing ‘Green Book’ Defense

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