In wake of Aurora massacre, should ‘Dark Knight’ campaign for Oscar?

by Glenn Whipp

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

6 August 2012


LOS ANGELES — Time Warner Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes made the company’s first public comment on the commercial prospects of “The Dark Knight Rises” on Wednesday, forecasting that the movie will ultimately cross the $1 billion mark globally, becoming the highest-grossing entry in the “Batman” franchise.

But don’t expect any official public discussion soon on “The Dark Knight’s” Oscar prospects. Warner Bros. had high hopes that the final entry in Christopher Nolan’s epic “Batman” trilogy would net the series its first best picture nomination, along with an Oscar nod for Nolan himself and the usual bevy of below-the-line accolades.

In the wake of the Aurora, Colo., massacre, of course, thoughts of awards were far from the minds of everyone associated with the film. But looking ahead to the Oscar season, an awards Oscar campaign will still certainly emerge — likely in a much more reserved form than originally anticipated.

And, in speaking to Oscar consultants unaffiliated with Warner Bros. and academy voters alike — none of whom wished to be identified out of sensitivity to the subject — that’s how it should be.

“From a class perspective,” says one studio publicist, “it makes sense to lay low and see if the movie can speak for itself.”

Another veteran awards consultant offers a blunter take. “How would I run a ‘Dark Knight Rises’ campaign? I wouldn’t. They should do nothing.”

Judging from academy members’ reportedly muted response at an overflow screening held at the 1,000-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theater on the Saturday after the shooting, a low-key campaign might fall on deaf ears. Given the movie’s relentless assault and somber themes, it’s admittedly not the type of crowd-pleaser designed to leave people dancing in the aisles — though it does end on a feel-good note.

According to academy members who had been present at the event, the tepid applause and attendees’ grim, keep-your-head-to-the-ground exodus to the parking garage, spoke volumes about the audience’s feelings.

“It’s a long, exhausting movie,” says one voter who attended the screening. “Couple that with the whole shooting thing and nobody wanted to stay around and talk.”

Though several critics, including the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, championed “The Dark Knight Rises” as Oscar-worthy, the collective critical response failed to match that of its 2008 predecessor, a sentiment echoed by many voters present at the academy screening.

“It’s a movie you admire more than you love,” one longtime member said. “And with the way the balloting is now, movies people admire don’t lead to best picture nominations.”

Perhaps. But with the preferential balloting system adopted last year — in which members rank their five favorite films in order — “Dark Knight Rises” could enter the nominees’ circle with just a few passionate fans ranking it as their first choice. As with Terence Malick’s meaning-of-it-all chin-scratcher “The Tree of Life” last year, even a critically divisive film can still make the grade.

Certainly, the academy’s predominantly older, Comic-Con-averse membership won’t be lining up behind “Dark Knight.” But the movie only needs 5 percent of the first-place votes cast to receive a nomination. If, say, 80 percent of academy members turn in their ballots, a movie would need around 250 top-line votes. (It’s a little more complicated than that with redistributed, fractional votes and such, but that’s roughly the math.)

“I’d say there’s a good chance the movie could reach the needed number of votes,” says one awards consultant, noting that outgoing Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Tom Sherak revealed that the film’s predecessor, “The Dark Knight,” nearly received a nomination. The movie’s snub was viewed as the primary reason the academy expanded its best picture nominee slate to 10 in 2009 before last year’s rule change revised the set to a variable number between five and 10.

Precedent, though, is not on the side of “The Dark Knight Rises.” No amount of “crowning achievement” or “let’s hear it for consistency” talk helped “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” win the series’ first best picture nomination last year. “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won best picture in 2004, but the prior two entries in the series had also received nominations in the category.

The elephant in the room remains the Aurora tragedy. It’s difficult to gauge what impact the shootings will have in voters’ minds, though one consultant offers a fairly pessimistic take.

“Oscar ballots are statements,” the campaigner says. “Votes for movies like ‘Milk’ and ‘The Kids Are All Right’ reflect both the quality of the movies and what they’re saying about our world. Like it or not, for many people, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is at the heart of a systemic problem of Hollywood producing violence. Supporting that kind of movie isn’t a statement many academy members are going to be eager to make.”

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