Saturday, November 19, 2016

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Steve Jobs" (2015)

Michael Fassbender
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

Steve Jobs (2015)
Directed By: Danny Boyle
Written By: Aaron Sorkin (Screenplay), Walter Isaacson (Novel)
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 122 minutes
Summary: Steve Jobs takes us behind the scenes of the digital revolution, to paint a portrait of the man at its epicenter. The story unfolds backstage at three iconic product launches, ending in 1998 with the unveiling of the iMac.

The Movie

In 2015, there were few films with as tumultuous a reputation as that of director Danny Boyle's Steve Jobs. With Michael Fassbender in the titular role, the film was considered to be one of the heavyweights for the upcoming awards season. In fact, the early reviews would suggest that this was the case. The acclaim surrounded the film immediately and many wondered how soon until it would show up with a large amount of Oscar nominations. Instead, it earned a reputation that few films received that Fall, specifically Burnt and The Walk, and was the definition of Oscar bait. It was a prestigious film that many felt existed for the sole reason of racking up awards. After all, who would want to see a movie about Steve Jobs, right?

There's a lot to unpack when it comes to the public failure that was Steve Jobs. This is especially true in the hard numbers, where the film performed significantly under expectations and was notoriously pulled from chains almost immediately. Even with Oscar-worthy performances, direction, music, and writing; Steve Jobs was a film that got quickly buried underneath its own failure: serving as evidence that box office results often do play an important role in how awards season goes. After all, it may have impacted the success of Carol from around the same time. The only difference is is the lesbian romance drama had a critical success that Steve Jobs didn't.

When Universal sold the film, there was worries that the studio was losing "The modern Citizen Kane." It's a notion that makes sense considering that the real life Jobs was a technology tycoon who changed the world. However, the production went through a chaotic shift (including Jobs' widow Laurene Powell Jobs asking both Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio to not take on the project) to the point that it was a miracle that the film got released at all. It didn't help that almost a year before the film was even released, the Sony hacks revealed just how exhausting the production had been (you can read the entire story on Mashable). "The modern Citizen Kane" was doomed, though its initial failure does share that ironic tie to Orson Welles' masterpiece. Still, the reputation will need to grow in time to even meet half of the recognition Citizen Kane has today.

The Campaign

Steve Jobs made its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. It received immediate acclaim with many pitting both Fassbender and Kate Winslet as potential Oscar front runners. Considering that it featured an Oscar-winning director (Boyle) and writer (Sorkin), it only added to the prestigious allure. This was going to be a hard hitting look into the man who made Apple Computers and changed the digital landscape in the 21st century. In the real world, Jobs was a man of mythic heights and had a cult-like existence for his consumers. It wasn't until a later biography published by Walter Isaacson that the man's stubborn, problematic personal life began to enter the conversation. It was also the point of contention that fueled both the intrigue and dismay; likely based on how much you were willing to shill out money for the latest iPod invention.

The reviews were looking good initially when it came time for a limited release in New York City, New York; and Los Angeles, California. It premiered on four screens and went on to have the highest per-screen average debut weekend for 2015 with $130,250, beating previous record holder Sicario. Things were looking good. Cut to a few weeks later and the story looks different. With a wide release, it debuted in 15th place and well below its projected weekend gross. The film was considered to be dead in the water with many pundits asking the question "How did this happen?" After another two weeks, the studio infamously removed the film from over 2,000 theaters due to poor turnout. While some claimed that it suffered from being released too late after initial release, Boyle claims that it was in wide release too soon.

With this sore spot on its record, Steve Jobs began to deflate any Oscar chances. While it still earned Kate Winslet a Golden Globe win, it wasn't going to be the surefire Oscar front runner that Telluride had predicted it would be. Unlike most Failed Oscar Campaigns entries that featured failure through bad marketing, the real foe in Steve Jobs may have very well been the legacy of... Steve Jobs. It wasn't even the first poorly performing Jobs movie of the decade. The Ashton Kutcher-lead Jobs did terribly at the box office along with having even more dismal reviews.

The first culprit is likely historical accuracy. Upon seeing the first trailer, Jobs partner Steve Wozniak claimed that his former friend didn't talk like that. Considering that Fassbender was also criticized for not looking enough like him, it would take some hard convincing to get audiences in the door. Wozniak would eventually change his tone, but other people - such as such as Tim Cook - would still claim that the Jobs on screen is not the Jobs in real life. Boyle and Sorkin would claim that they adapted the source material with creative license, much like how William Shakespeare did centuries ago. It wasn't supposed to be faithful, but instead use reality as a ground to explore a broad array of themes that this one man embodied. Boyle would even credit that Jobs was a different man to almost everyone.

Then there was the bigger question: WHAT was Steve Jobs? It wasn't a biopic nor was it actually a faithful rendition of his life. It was an account of three eras in the man's life, admittedly fictionalized. The question now became why anyone would want to see a fictionalized Jobs movie. Those who loved the man would likely be opposed to portraying him as an egocentric and controlling creator with a terrible family life. Those who hated him, well, probably wouldn't have seen it in the first place no matter how good it was. Jobs is by nature a divisive figure and one who couldn't be appreciated in a middle ground, let alone for a story that can be perceived as lazy when it comes to important details. The film was an anomaly that explored the struggles of a creative mind with one of the most familiar creators of the 21st century. Nobody would see it just because there was a protagonist who kinda looked like Steve Jobs. Sadly, it was this type of logic that inevitably kept the film from gaining any momentum and forever billing it as Oscar bait.

The Payoff

To be fair, Steve Jobs wasn't entirely shut out of the Oscar conversation. While it looked initially to be a front runner, maybe even a potential Best Picture nominee, it only ended up earning two Oscar nominations: both for acting. Fassbender received a Best Actor nomination and Winslet received a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Both would lose their respective categories. Even then, the film failed to earn other expected category nominations, such as a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for Sorkin, a Best Original Score for Danny Pemberton, and other technical fields. While it ended up being a competitive year, there's no telling how differently things would've looked had Steve Jobs managed to maintain its momentum and make the divisive subject matter come to life in ways not synonymous with "box office bomb."

While "The modern Citizen Kane" failed to have the critical success (or nearly as many Oscar nominations), there is a certain optimism for the film long term. Boyle jokingly thanked Jurassic World: which, along with Minions, gave Steve Jobs' studios a banner year of success. The studio claims that they will stand by the film and give it a fair shake. While little of its impact is felt a year later, there are those who believe that the film will continue to grow in popularity and will be recognized for its artistic craft. Like most great cinema, it will be discovered in time. After all, a film that has 86% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes cannot be all that bad, right? 

Maybe it will take time until the memory of the real Steve Jobs fades for the fictional Steve Jobs to hold any cultural resonance. Even then, the controversy over the man's depiction will likely keep some from ever truly appreciating what the film achieves. It's hard to tell how successful the film would've been had the film been called "Generic Icon" instead of singling in on Steve Jobs. He was an eccentric who made the world different, for better or worse. To adapt any aspect of his life would be a great risk. Boyle learned it the hard way. However, history may remember the film differently. Like Citizen Kane, only time will tell.

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