In the five weeks since “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” opened, the comedy has made more than $110 million and earned the unofficial title of box-office wonder alongside those Chihuahuas from Beverly Hills. On the other hand, “Frozen River” was in theaters for 27 weeks, never played on more than about 100 screens at once, earned only $2,309,958 according to Box Office Mojo, but picked up two Academy Award nominations.
It would seem that nominating “Frozen River” was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ equivalent of standing before the Capulet crypt, poised to take a nip from the poison punch. Might as well nominate good work and attempt to die honorably if the show's dead anyway.
The best actress and best screenplay nominations for “Frozen River” are good for the Oscars, and not just because the film, which was made for less than half a million dollars, is well executed, but because the “Frozen River” back story is so quintessentially American. That makes for a good awards story, which in turn is good for the show, according to industry experts.
“Oscar needs a story. If it was just studio titans sort of banging codpieces, it wouldn't be that interesting,” said New York Times reporter and Carpetbagger scribe David Carr. “The fact that (writer-director) Courtney Hunt took some chewing gum, wire and duct tape and conjured a film that's made it to the Oscars — that's a great American story.”
The story of “Frozen River” and how it went from a short to a feature length film with two Oscar nominations certainly does begin with Hunt, who spent 2005 and 2006 penning the script, then shot the film in 2007.
“For my movie, I was just glad we finished it and told the story and sent it to Sundance,” said Hunt. “We crossed our fingers. It (Sundance) is the only route available for unknowns. Making this film, it was about getting her done.”
Hunt recognizes that “River's” nominations are proof that the Academy does its homework. “Anyone can be submitted and is considered for the honor,” Hunt said. “It's an American institution. The Academy doesn't just look at the elite and money-driven films, and that's American.”
It's not just a dream, it's a business
In entertainment, and certainly politics, the past year has been about nothing if not the American dream, but at the end of the day, the dream doesn't get a film in front of audiences, and it sure doesn't guarantee ratings for the Oscar broadcast.
The former part of the equation — getting “River” in front of people, especially Academy members — was largely the responsibility of Michael Barker, Sony pictures co-president. Barker said the rollout was similar to the studio's 2005 release of “Junebug,” which resulted in an Oscar nomination for Amy Adams. Like “Junebug,” “Frozen River” was released in August.
“You don't want to get lost in the traffic jam,” Barker said, alluding to the glut of Oscar contenders that hit theaters in November and December. “When we saw ‘Frozen River’ at Sundance, we realized it would be a tall order to see it in time to vote, so (like with “Junebug”) once again we had to make sure we were also the first DVD being sent to Academy members. We sent them out in September and this year with the economy we really benefited since some studios were hesitant to spend the money to send DVDs out.”
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Slideshow: 2009 Academy Award nominees While most studios don’t admit that the economy had much to do with their Oscar campaigns (a glance at the pricey full-page ads in newspapers and trades offers proof enough that studios are tweaking their strategies), when times are tough, all shows and films are looked at under the ratings microscope more than ever. Whether the Oscars broadcast is considered a success or not will have to do with the show’s host, Hugh Jackman, and of course, ratings.
And bridging that gap between quality films and good ratings on Feb. 22 might be an impossible task.
“We want to reward the best, but we want the biggest show possible, and we're all about our ratings. If it's going to be about the ABC telecast, then we should be nominating ‘Dark Knight’ and ‘Iron Man’,” said John Ridley, a screenwriter currently at work on “Red Tails,” George Lucas’ film about the Tuskegee airmen. “We're in this middle ground where they (the Academy) want to have their cake and eat it too. I work in the business and I couldn't tell you the first thing about these movies. It's fine (to nominate smaller films) but don't get upset a month from now when we wake up to awful ratings.”
In other words, if you put a bunch of filmmakers and actors no one had heard of on the podium and listen carefully, that sound you hear is one of people changing their channels.
But maybe that won’t be this case this time around, Hunt said.
“I think maybe it’s too canned and too famous,” Hunt said. “It can play both ways. Take a little film like ‘Frozen River’ and people are curious about that. And it can be that we’ve already seen four (awards) shows with the same four faces winning.”
Carr agrees, but takes it one step further, citing the change in the production of the show, from longtime producer Gil Cates to “Dreamgirls” producer team Laurence Mark and Bill Condon.
“Hiring Larry Mark and Bill Condon to put it on and make it a real show has value and this narrative of great big money versus smaller more nimble films — it's like every Hollywood movie,” Carr said. “It's a meme, an important way of storytelling and good for the Oscars.”
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