Saturday, October 25, 2014

Failed Oscar Campaigns: Chocolat (2000)

Left to right: Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Chocolat (2000)
Directed By: Lasse Hallstrom
Written By: Robert Nelson Jacobs, Joanne Harris (book)
Starring: Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp and Judi Dench
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running Time: 121 minutes
Summary: A woman and her daughter open a chocolate shop in a small French village that shakes up the rigid morality of the community.

The History

To many audiences nowadays, Chocolat exists solely as a reference from I Love You, Man. Known for its ridiculous overly dramatic love story, the film hasn't become quite as canonical as any of the other films from its impressive cast. In the case of Juliette Binoche, she had lead previous Best Picture winner The English Patient just a few years prior and was arguably at the height of her mainstream appeal. Director Lasse Hallstrom also had an impressive career with What's Eating Gilbert Grape and The Cider House Rules. Meanwhile, this was a time before Johnny Depp was the cartoonish poster boy for Tim Burton as a full time career. In fact, nobody really talks about Chocolat sincerely. It feels strangely forgotten despite its acclaim at the time and two impressive leads.

The Campaign

Leave it to Harvey Weinstein to be the poster boy for making posters for Oscar campaigns. After last time's Gangs of New York saw him use a fraudulent quote from West Side Story director Robert Wise, he proves that he isn't above tugging on the voters' sympathy strings. Where Gangs of New York survived on the prestige of Martin Scorsese, Chocolat didn't have any of that. In fact, nobody was really rooting it on as a Best Picture nominee. It was a quaint little film that somehow received recognition over far more memorable films such as Almost Famous, Billy Elliott and Cast Away. This was back when there were only five slots per nomination, too. So what exactly happened? It's current Rotten Tomatoes rating of 63% suggests that there were better options out there.

It's all about the campaign. Oscar wunderkind Stephen Daldry released his directorial debut Billy Elliott and was primed to be that special slot. Much like Sam Mendes with American Beauty the previous year, it was the magic of the first timer. It lead to a Best Director nomination, but Billy Elliott failed despite being a very sentimental film. Why is this? Allegedly, it's because of release date. Cut to Chocolat, which opened on December 22 in limited release. While it has always been unfair for films to have an advantage because of what month it was released as opposed to actual quality, it is a marketing strategist's dream, especially since it expanded in January, which was just shy of the actual announcement of the nominees. Word of mouth could be building by then.

And what better way than making a barrage of advertisement that is skewered towards voters, who are older and have shown their interest in more dramatic fare. The most popular outlets among voters -Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times - featured advertising for Chocolat with a frequency. Compared to Billy Elliott running ads, their film was currently in theaters and helped to generate revenue. In comparison to other films, the campaign cost $1.8 million while other Best Picture nominee Erin Brockovich wasn't too far behind with $1.5 million. The year's Best Picture winner Gladiator didn't even crack a million dollars with $661,000. That's a rather interesting feat considering that it was released in May and was at the time considered a fun popcorn flick. This leaves the question: why couldn't Billy Elliott catch a break? 

It was possibly because their audience overlapped with Chocolat a little too much and Weinstein is an aggressor. It even came to the point where there were expensive ads featuring sound clips from the film and the actors talking about how extraordinary it was. There was even a campaign that focused on the tolerance angle with a quote calling it "Profoundly humanistic." The Anti-Defamation League even provided a quote saying that it addressed the subject of "prejudice and intolerance in a sensitive and entertaining way." While some loathed the aggression, Weinstein's team considered it necessary to keep the film in the conversation. The hyperbolic nature mixed with focus on presenting humanitarian subject matter that appealed to old people definitely sounded a lot more gripping than Billy Elliott.

The Payoff

Surprising everyone, it received five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress (Juliette Binoche), Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score (Rachel Portman). Billy Elliott and Almost Famous were shut out. The film became lauded as the weakest of the five nominees. But how could this happen? It feels very much like the case of popularity over quality (see: Out of Africa). It was because the cast was well known enough that their popularity to skid them into a nomination without any problem.

The results weren't successful however. Beyond the film's increasingly forgotten reputation outside of I Love You, Man, it is one of those that makes no sense. That is, until you realize that Weinstein was behind it. Even then, the sentimentality angle was a little excessive and using the actors to hype its "extraordinary" nature was a little cheap. This is a film that failed for logical reasons. It just didn't deserve to be in the Oscar race to begin with. It doesn't entirely make sense why some films get overlooked except for the fact of familiar names and a notorious marketer who could buy his way into the race. He did it with Shakespeare in Love and did it again with Chocolat. However, that success didn't payoff.

Even if Daldry has since continued to be nominated for Best Director for almost all of his films (Trash notwithstanding), he was a newbie then and he clearly didn't have what it took to take down Weinstein's popularity. Even if the dichotomy of film releases are confusing, it makes sense. The Oscars rarely reward the freshmen. Still, with Gladiator taking the prize despite a May release, why couldn't a November release stand more of a chance? Who knows. It is a subject that only seems baffling in hindsight. Why was The Master ignored? It's probably based on the fact that it is a little too edgy for audiences. Chocolat is about as safe as things get. It even feels like a predecessor to Crash's victory in that it had some weight despite some naysayers. 

I don't know that Chocolat has suffered from a poor legacy. It has only boosted Weinstein's ego, who has been nominated in the Best Picture category almost every year. While Binoche doesn't quite draw audiences like she used to, she remains a very compelling actress. The only baffling part is why Dench received supporting nominations in almost every outing that she did with Weinstein. Remember when she won Best Supporting Actress for Shakespeare in Love despite being on screen for a very little amount of time? Yeah. Weinstein knows his way around illogical nominations.

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