Saturday, September 23, 2017

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Silence" (2016)

Andrew Garfield
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

Silence (2016)
Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Written By: Jay Cocks & Martin Scorsese (Screenplay), Shusaku Endo (Novel)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson
Genre: Adventure, Drama, History
Running Time: 161 minutes
Summary: In the 17th century, two Portuguese Jesuit priests travel to Japan in an attempt to locate their mentor, who is rumored to have committed apostasy, and to propagate Catholicism.

The Movie

In the small area where art and commerce intersects is Martin Scorsese. Few directors have been able to be critically acclaimed while making movie that is embraced by the general public. Following the controversial The Wolf of Wall Street, he decided to make a radically different movie that edged into the three hour territory. Silence was a film that allegedly took 25 years to make, and was a grand statement on the director's conflicting nature with religion. This was far from the first film that he has explored faith directly (The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun), and even indirectly (Mean Streets). Even if he's associated with profane gangster movies, there's a convincing argument to be made that Scorsese is just as much about faith, as all of his films explore the "No person is without sin" parable that runs the same territory as the bible.

But why this story? What could the 1600's have to say about him four centuries later? In some ways, it's obvious. It's a story about priests trying to spread faith. As an artist, the choice to spread ideas is in his DNA. However, it can be seen heavily in what details he chooses to focus on. As the title suggests, silence is a big part of the film. It takes place in isolated areas where danger lurks, forcing the characters to question their own sanity, seeking guidance from someone who may or may not be there. Scorsese's tale may fall as a test to his characters, but perfectly expresses the value of faith in everyday life. Is it worth holding onto if people are being persecuted for it? There's a lot to unpack there, and he does so in ways that are powerful, even if they contradict the aggressive and fast style that he had largely been known for.

Silence is a film that tests the faith for its characters as well as audience. This isn't even a conventional Scorsese film in that it lingers on moments for periods that feel uncomfortable. He challenges the cinematic technique in ways that he wasn't known for. As a Scorsese film, it would have a lot to compete with, as even his longest films like The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street all have an engaging sensibility. Silence is a film about the unseen and the possible nonexistence. It's a religious film meant to explore faith geared in ways that aren't the least bit accessible to mainstream audiences. How could it possibly play in awards season, even if Scorsese is largely considered a golden goose?

The Campaign

It's impossible to escape the one talking point of the film: this took 25 years to make. Much like Boyhood being marketed as a story that is told over 12 years, Scorsese believed that exploring the troubling production that stopped and started was somehow going to elevate the final product. In a true case of irony, the film was subject to lawsuits several years before it was finally released/in production. The company Checchi Gorri Pictures claimed to have invested $750,000 into the production and threatened to sue when Scorsese didn't live up to the deal to make it after Kundun (1997). While the director has suggested that this is all untrue, it continues to reflect just how long the movie has been delayed. That lawsuit was in 2012. The film would be sold at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for a predicted 2015 release. That would be delayed to 2016, which even then was considered uncertain midway through the year. Scorsese claimed to be in editing and aimed for an end of the year release. Still, the delays were meant to make the film sound like a great long labor of love: a tactic that the director had used before when campaigning for Gangs of New York.

Despite the famous story of how it came to be, the film's true irony came in the marketing that followed. While most of awards season had been prepping with barrages of trailers throughout the summer and fall months, Silence remained... silent. The idea of the film even coming out in 2016 wasn't confirmed until September 26. The Wolf of Wall Street famously had a last minute production, with Scorsese finishing editing a month before its release. However, Silence already lacked a momentum for general audiences. Even with this news, the first trailer was just as slow in forthcoming in part of some real world consequences. Scorsese claimed that he wouldn't release the first trailer for a few weeks if the Republicans won in the Presidential Race. Long story short, they did. The first trailer didn't drop until November 25, which was less than a month until its scheduled limited release on December 23. Considering that the Oscar race had a front runner in La La Land by this point and Christmas Day releases would bury it, Silence was already a sinking ship.

The film's subject of faith spearheaded the first gimmick of its marketing. Since the film was about priests, Scorsese decided to make the premiere for 400 priests in Rome, Italy. He believed that their positive word of mouth would increase the more religious audience to turn out for it. That was on November 29. By that point, the buzz around Hacksaw Ridge was building and set Silence lead actor Andrew Garfield as a potential Oscar nominee for the Mel Gibson war film. The film relied heavily on Scorsese's name to sell the film, choosing to be light on advertising beyond the idea of the film's long gestating nature. However, the campaign also presented one of the more confrontational quotes that Scorsese has ever given, and one that probably made him come across as a curmudgeon:
“Cinema used to be in a building and even on television, you’d see a film or whatever. I must say a lot of the films that I’m aware of…and I don’t see that many new ones over the past two or three years, I stopped because the images don’t mean anything.” 
He would go on to claim that:
“We’re just completely saturated with images that don’t mean anything. Words certainly don’t mean anything anymore, they’re twisted and turned.” 
It's a damning thing to say during awards season, especially given the hope that Silence would come out big when the nominations were announced. Still, it was present all along that the film wouldn't be a big player. It barely missed eligibility for major awards, such as the Golden Globes. The issue was that most people wouldn't see it until January of 2017, which would be a big issue because the film was praised for its cinematography. Those with screeners wouldn't be able to appreciate the intricate details of the visuals without seeing it on a big screen. Even then, it was daunting to see a notoriously slow movie on the big screen, especially since it was approaching three hours. The film may have gotten acclaim, but it was marketing poison that showed in its low box office. On a budget of $50 million, it earned $1.9 million in its widest expansion (747 theaters). Its low turnout kept the film from expanding further.

With all of this said, there were those who held out hope for Silence. After all, it was a Scorsese movie. Every Scorsese movie held above average chances when it came to the Oscars. Even if it missed other major awards and debuted late enough to sit in La La Land's shadow (as well as miss Best of 2016 lists simply because most people hadn't seen it yet). How could a film that was so reliant on exploring time and dedication both on screen and off going to compete with everyone else, especially given that crowd pleasers had been formed in the awards race by the time that Silence's first trailer had dropped? It would be a tough call.

The Payoff

The general consensus was aggravating. Silence had only received one Oscar nomination, which was for Best Cinematography. With the film shut out of every other category, there was a growing backlash to the film being ignored. Many were even critical when Garfield received a Best Actor nomination for Hacksaw Ridge instead - in large part because of public hatred of Gibson as an artist. When the day came and Oscars were handed out, the jokes grew even more cynical, with many comparing the virtuoso art of Silence to inferior winners of various categories. For instance, Best Hair and Make-Up winner Suicide Squad lead to a famous version of loathsome behavior in "Suicide Squad has more Oscars than Silence." In some ways, it was the perfect marketing of the film's failure to connect. Even if the film was considered a masterpiece, it was an isolating one without much chance of being something like a The Wolf of Wall Street or even Casino.

While the debate will carry on as to why Silence failed to make an impression, it should be noted that it was largely the film's fault. It was always going to be tough to sell a slow three hour movie about faith. It didn't help that the marketing was so brisk and didn't have time to connect. It was a late contender to awards season, and it didn't have enough momentum to avoid being a box office bomb. Even if it was a masterpiece, the film wasn't financially successful. That alone leads to a negative effect on the Oscar buzz surrounding a film. One could hope that this wouldn't be the death of Silence, but even Hacksaw Ridge in some ways reflected the type of movies that the Academy preferred: ones with conventional marketing and more compelling stories beyond "It took 25 years to make." Scorsese will rebound, though hopefully it will be understood why his biggest passion project to date didn't connect with audiences and voters. It was nothing personal, just timing. 

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