Saturday, November 15, 2014

Failed Oscar Campaigns: City of God (2002)

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

City of God (2002)
Directed By: Fernando Meirelles
Written By: Braulio Mantovani
Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Matheus Nachtergaele, Leandro Firmino
Genre: Crime, Drama
Running Time: 130 minutes
Summary: Two boys growing up in a violent neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro take different paths: one becomes a photographer, the other a drug dealer.

The History

For many, this Brazilian film is one of the best of the 00's. Rich with character, it is a crime story about the seedy underbelly of Brazil that as critic Roger Ebert claims deserves a lot of comparisons to Goodfellas. It is so kinetic with humor, action and compelling performances that it is easy to see why this one would stand out. In fact, it ranks #22 on IMDb's Top 250 as rated by its users. The acclaim for the film is endless. 

What if I were to tell you that the film didn't even get nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in the eligible 2002 run? Better yet, it wasn't even Brazil's entry into that year's race (which didn't get picked anyways). It seemed like a failed campaign before things ever got off of the ground. True, the film's legacy has kept it in the zeitgeist of most acclaimed foreign films in history, but why does it deserve to be mentioned here? Most films come and go that deserve more recognition, but City of God pulled an unthinkable hat trick. Well, Harvey Weinstein and the boys at Miramax did. 

To summarize, the campaign didn't actually take place in 2002 that would become a noteworthy mention. It actually came two years later when it managed to rack up a whopping four nominations, confusing everyone including Fernando Meirelles. If this seems confusing, wait until you hear the pretty simple way in which this gangster film managed to defy odds and became a towering giant in the race.

The Campaign

Let's start with a brief discussion regarding the eligibility of Best Foreign Films. The catch is that the films of any given country do not necessarily have to be nominated in their initial year of release. However, they have to be out in their original country prior to an American release. From there, the film must follow the typical guidelines of playing seven consecutive days in an American theater to be eligible. Since countries are only allowed to submit one film, this makes things particularly complicated, especially if there's multiple acclaim features from countries. There have been examples defying these odds as recently as last year. Director Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color won the Palme d'Or and became a cultural discussion piece. However, due to a strange scheduling, it opened in America prior to its home country and thus became disqualified. However, it could run in all of the other categories. As evident, that didn't work out.

Cut back to City of God. How can a film that failed to get the Best Foreign Film nomination from its home country manage to land so many nominations two years later? It is baffling to everyone, but as evident by Weinstein's history here, there's always a very stupid loophole that can work. The film must play in American theaters for consecutive seven days in order to be eligible. Keep that in mind going forward. When the film failed to get nominated after opening in January of 2003, there was a trick up the sleeve so banal and obvious that it makes sense in hindsight.

''We made a conscious decision to keep this movie in theaters for 54 weeks.'' says Weinstein in lieu of the four Oscar nominations. This would mean that the film was in theaters between January 2003 and January 2004. If nothing else, it would be eligible in both years. It also benefited from a word of mouth structure around Hollywood that allegedly had names such as Quentin Tarantino, Russell Crowe and Matt Damon all stating their love for the film. The film was rereleased three times total in order to keep it out there. To summarize, it was eligible for three consecutive years of Oscars because of this strange tactic.

The Payoff

For starters, Meirelles was shocked that he was even nominated. This resulted in four Oscar nominations including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. Not bad, especially since the director was away working on his English debut The Constant Gardener. In fact, he didn't think that he would win any of the awards for a very obvious reason. Still, it was a reason to be excited and the strategy finally paid off for Weinstein, proving that aggression over fair play was the best call. 

To summarize, the film lost in all four categories. However, it was because of a more powerful, popular film that was out. Director Peter Jackson ended his trilogy with Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It was an odds-defying film that came to define the modern blockbuster with enviable technical achievements and turning J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy into a cinematic masterpiece. It could be my own hyperbole, but it was a film that couldn't be stopped because it was just so great. It may in fact be the last time that box office and Oscars really crossed paths in a major way. Ever since, studios and indie films have mingled pretty well together.

Still, the film won 11 Oscars total, all of which were in categories that City of God was nominated in. It was inevitable with many seeing Jackson's win as being a highlight of his 12 hour magnum opus. In fairness, there shouldn't be any bitterness towards City of God losing because even Meirelles didn't think that he would make it. At best, he was just thankful to show up to the ceremony. Even then, the magic of Weinstein's loophole nature has managed to make this one of the most curious cases in Oscar nomination history. I just wonder if it could happen again.

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