LOS ANGELES — After a screening of “Zero Dark Thirty” for Sony Pictures executives in September, studio co-chair Amy Pascal gathered the filmmakers in her office on the Culver City lot and uncorked bottles of Champagne.
Elation and confidence filled the air, recalled William Goldenberg, an editor on the film who was there to share a toast with a group that included director Kathryn Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal, financier Megan Ellison and line producer Colin Wilson. “The (executives) were really high on the movie,” Goldenberg said. They said (star) Jessica (Chastain) was going to win the Oscar. They called it brilliant. It was a great day.”
Two months later, “Zero Dark Thirty” won top prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. “OK, folks, you can plan on something else for Oscar night ... ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ will win best picture,” Richard Corliss wrote in Time.
But the film’s road to awards-season glory then took one of the sharpest turns in recent Oscar memory. Its wild ride offers a telling portrait of the 21st-century news cycle and how it can play havoc with a studio’s carefully laid campaign.
Beginning with newspaper op-eds in early December — and continuing when U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., released a letter excoriating the movie for its depiction of torture — “Zero Dark” became the subject of a relentless attack from politicians and pundits. Critics said the film incorrectly asserted that the use of torture played a role in the capture of Osama bin Laden.
The firestorm hit even before the film opened nationwide, and just as Oscar voters were marking their nomination ballots.
Sony and the filmmakers faced a dilemma, according to a series of recent interviews: Should they respond forcefully to the criticism and attempt to wrest control of the narrative? Or remain relatively quiet and try not to stoke the flames?
Sony opted for the latter, partly concerned that fanning the flames would keep moviegoers away. The gambit paid off — the movie has grossed $85 million in the U.S. — but the strategy appears to have hurt the film on the awards front. En route to Sunday’s Oscars, “Zero Dark” has been nearly shut out of awards — save for a Golden Globe and a Writers Guild prize — to some degree, voters say, because of the torture controversy.
“All of us agreed that the most important thing was to ensure the commercial success of the motion picture, and if that meant a momentary ding, that was part of the price of being at the party,” Boal said in a recent interview. “In retrospect, I might do it again differently. But we don’t have that luxury in life.”
As “Zero Dark” opened in a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 19, Feinstein confronted Sony Entertainment Chief Executive Michael Lynton about her displeasure with the way the film depicted torture. Her feeling, as she put in a letter to Lynton that was also signed by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was that the movie was “grossly inaccurate.”
“The filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective,” the letter said. “You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts straight.” The missive grabbed headlines for days.
The condemnation stuck in the craw of the filmmakers, who believed they were caught up in a larger Washington drama. (Feinstein’s intelligence committee had just approved a classified report criticizing CIA interrogations.) Said Boal: “The (lawmakers) hijacked the marketing of the film with what, to my mind, was an intellectually dishonest publicity ploy.”
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., meanwhile, questioned whether the Obama administration had inappropriately cooperated with the filmmakers. Acting CIA Chief Michael Morell chastised “Zero Dark” for not fairly representing his agency. Steve Coll, who wrote the bin Laden manhunt book “Ghost Wars,” called out the film on accuracy grounds.
The filmmakers, who maintained that their movie takes no explicit position on torture, wanted to reply and expressed that in a series of meetings with Sony and its awards consultants, according to a person familiar with the discussions who was not allowed to speak about them publicly.
But the studio was concerned that a prolonged debate could deter moviegoers. They pleaded for silence until the Jan. 11 national release, hoping the furor would die down, the person familiar with the talks said.
Neither Bigelow nor Sony executives would speak on the record for this story.
More criticism came. The studio released only a three-sentence statement signed by Boal and Bigelow that said in part: “We depicted a variety of controversial practices and intelligence methods that were used in the name of finding bin Laden. The film shows that no single method was necessarily responsible for solving the manhunt.”
When Oscar nominations were announced, the film was nominated for best picture, actress, editing, sound editing and original screenplay, but Bigelow was left out of the director shortlist.
“I know (the torture issue) affected me — not in terms of whether I appreciate her or not, but it affected my opinion about the content of the film,” said Allen Baron, a member of the Motion Picture Academy’s directors branch, who said he loved the film but would not vote for Bigelow because of the torture issue.
In the meantime, the studio seemed unwilling or unable to muster support from Washington figures. While Sony hosted tastemaker screenings in L.A. and New York around Thanksgiving, the same efforts were not replicated in Washington.
One rival Oscar consultant who asked for anonymity so as not to be seen criticizing a competitor also wondered why the studio didn’t enlist advocates, just as Harvey Weinstein rallied Dr. Mehmet Oz to tout his studio’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” or Steven Spielberg recruited Bill Clinton to stump for “Lincoln.”
Finally, on the eve of the film’s national release, Boal and Bigelow began to speak up. Pascal at last put out a forceful statement (“‘Zero Dark Thirty’ does not advocate torture,” she said) after an Oscar voter called on other academy members to shun the film on their ballots over the torture issue.
Boal gave a talk at Loyola Marymount University in which he took aim at his critics. Bigelow offered her perspective for the L.A. Times and appeared on “The Tonight Show.”
Supporters finally began to come forward too. In an interview with ABC News, former CIA Chief Leon Panetta said the film got many things right. In the Washington Post on Jan. 28, Richard Cohen wrote, “(W)hat the film says is really less important than what is being said about it. In the category of ‘thought-provoking,’ it deserves an Oscar.”
On Sunday, the WGA handed Boal the prize for original screenplay, giving the campaign hope he could pull out a win at the Academy Awards. But Oscar forecasters feel like it otherwise may be too little too late.
Boal says he’s trying to stay optimistic about the path he and his partners took. Asked whether he was given a fair shake by pundits and politicians, he paused for nearly a minute. “We made a serious, tough adult movie and we got a serious, tough adult response,” he said. “Not all of it was honest and not all of it was fair and not all of it was correct. But at the end of the day it all comes with the territory.”
Los Angeles Times staff writer Ken Dilanian contributed to this report from Washington.