Saturday, November 29, 2014

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Sling Blade" (1996)

Billy Bob Thornton
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

Sling Blade (1996)
Directed By: Billy Bob Thornton
Written By: Billy Bob Thornton
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 135 minutes
Summary: Karl Childers, a simple man hospitalized since his childhood murder of his mother and her lover, is released to start a new life in a small town.

The History

In general, it remains one of the best films of the 90's as well as one of the greatest acting breakouts. The multi-hyphenate Billy Bob Thornton released Sling Blade, which was adapted from a short called Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade. In both, Thornton plays Karl Childers, whose deep voice and mentally handicapped state makes him one of the most haunting and iconic characters in the Southern Gothic genre of cinema. The film itself is unnerving and very powerful thanks to a performance launched from a great script. As everyone will likely know, Thornton has only went on to great things, most recently receiving an Emmy nomination for work on Fargo.

Sling Blade has fallen into one of those lesser known films to modern audiences. However, if you grew up in the 90's, it is likely that you knew what it was. It was a film that seemed to be everywhere. This is more impressive when considering how close it came to being a flop at the box office. As to be expected, its purchase by Miramax for $10 million helped it in ways that nobody was expecting. In fact, beyond the familiar tactics, the film's marketing went into bizarre new directions that almost seemed to try and humanize the film by making Thornton into an unprecedented star. 

In fact, the Southern Gothic genre isn't one that is visited too often in cinema as relative to Oscars. True, there have been films such as Joe, Mud and As I Lay Dying in recent years, but none have actually come anywhere close to synonymous with the Oscars. While the campaign that follows is one that can easily be seen as a failure, it is one that nonetheless paid off for everyone involved. It became a modest box office success and launched Thornton's career to name the bigger achievements. Most of all, it has become noticed as one of the 90's best films, which it likely wouldn't have achieved without Miramax's aggressive campaign to make Sling Blade into a thing.

The Campaign

For starters, Harvey Weinstein has become a notorious campaigner that hits all of the major markets. He threw advertisements in all of the major publications including Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. He did this by focusing on different topics each week. If you have been following the Failed Oscar Campaigns column, this is nothing new. If anything, Chocolat was a far worse offender of this trend. That film played on sentimentality and importance. At best, Sling Blade had artistic value and extraordinary performances. That is, if you believe the advertisements. Even then, Miramax accounted for 40% of the 200 pages of advertisements, which shows why they were a juggernaut in the 90's and in 1996 specifically.

However, the campaign gets way more personal as things go on. When the film failed to open with a strong box office, Miramax reassessed their whole campaign. They needed to personalize it and make people care. This was done with the most ingenious tactic to date. The studio released a televised infomercial called Mr. Thornton Goes to Hollywood (available on the Sling Blade DVD) which promised to show the compelling story as to how the film came to be and why it was so important. Most of all, it was an attempt to make Thornton into a household name, which by the time that nominations came out, were reflective of this push. Miramax were masters at working too hard to make unknowns into recognizable faces.

By comparison, everything so far seems cute. In a New York Times piece by Mark Landler entitled "How Miramax Sets its Sights on Oscar," he explores one moment of manipulation involving retired actor John Ericson. He was called early and often by a representative about the film, which was shipped to him as a VHS screener. The representative was manipulating Ericson by asking "Didn't you think he was wonderful? I hope it will be something worthy of a nomination." This was after urgent insistence on watching Sling Blade: a film that Ericson initially thought starred Sylvester Stallone. The urgency to intimately push their product on voters worked, as he eventually voted for Thornton. This was done for many other residents in Santa Fe, NM, where many actor retirees lived.

Sling Blade wasn't the only film to do this. Fine Line Studios, whose film in the race was Shine, also called 2,500 voters and mailed the VHS screener with a colorful pamphlet. While these are unlawful tactics, they were still used during a period that was overwhelming with screeners. To top things off, Miramax decided to hold special screenings of their films in order to make their films stand out. In fact, Tina Louise (Ginger of Gilligan's Island) seemed fine with the push for Thornton's promotion stating that ''If you are made aware of a particular performance, that's fine with me."

The Payoff

Let's just say that things paid off nicely for Miramax in 1997. They received a total 20 Oscar nominations. However, the hard push on Sling Blade wasn't entirely successful. The film only received two nominations with Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, both belonging to Thornton. Of those two, Best Adapted Screenplay won, which was the more deserving of the two. Even then, its excessive campaign with an embarrassingly large marketing budget didn't quite pay off otherwise. The film barely made a dent at the Oscars. Likewise, Shine only received a Best Actor win for Geoffrey Rush. It kind of worked. However, it did help to give no name stars some credibility in a race that a year ago nobody would've known their name in.

It isn't like Miramax came up empty handed. That year's Best Picture winner was The English Patient, which was also a film from the studio. Of course, where Sling Blade was this dark and depressing drama, The English Patient was a sweeping epic that had romance, gorgeous cinematography and featured notable actor Ralph Fiennes, who was coming off of Schindler's List and Quiz Show. While it has since become the source of ridicule, most notably in Seinfeld, it remains a breathtaking film that hearkens back to an old aesthetic of Oscar cinema that hadn't been seen in a long, long time.

Of course, it could also be seen as the start of Weinstein's villainous rein on the Oscars starting. While they haven't won too many, they have clocked in a lot of Oscar nominations on any given year. In 1998, the even more divisive Shakespeare in Love (featuring the lesser known Fiennes brother Joseph) won Best Picture against The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan: two films considered to be top tier war films of the modern era. Still, it was the year when things began to click and even if they didn't fail to win, they showed their true colors as time went on by turning the Best Picture race into a death match of advertising. Nonetheless, Sling Blade didn't inevitably fail, as it did enter the public consciousness. It made us recognize Thornton as a true talent. However, it still failed to really spark up the nominations as well as the studio likely would have hoped.

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