If you have more than a passing interest in the Academy Awards, you’re probably well past the realization that the presumptive criteria for those awards — high quality — often has very little to do with the films that are nominated and awarded. Sure, merit doesn’t hurt, but it certainly isn’t necessary; far more important is the quality and quantity of a film’s Oscar campaign, mounted by studios and distributors with the intensity (and sometimes the cost) of a political operation, complete with advertisements, mailings, and glad-handing. And the modern Oscar campaign was perfected by Harvey Weinstein, the face of the Weinstein brothers, who turned Mirmax and the subsequent Weinstein Company into Oscar factories, via notoriously aggressive campaigning (and occasional alleged “dirty tricks” against opponents). And yet, as 2014 draws to a close, The Weinstein Company is all but burying two viable awards contenders — and the only plausible explanation is ego and spite.
While the Oscar nominees aren’t announced for another five weeks, at this point in the process, one of they key considerations of those campaigns are the year-end awards of critics’ groups from around the country. These awards aren’t necessarily predictors — they can often reflect the idiosyncratic tastes of their members — but they frequently indicate thinking coalescing around frontrunners, and when the first group, the New York Film Critics circle, announced their winners last Monday, they handed the Best Actress prize to Marion Cotillard, awarding her work in both the forthcoming Two Days, One Night and the Weinstein Company-distributed The Immigrant. (They also gave The Immigrant’s Darius Khondji the prize for Best Cinematography.) Last weekend, the Boston Society of Film Critics followed suit, giving the same split prize to Cotillard’s two 2014 performances; the New York Film Critics Online and Boston Online Film Critics also honored Cotillard, though just for Two Days.
This isn’t just interesting because Cotillard has racked up more wins thus far than presumptive nominees like Reese Witherspoon and Rosamund Pike; it’s interesting because the Immigrant wins come with no Weinstein Company support whatsoever. On the day of the Immigrant’s NYFCC wins, the film was nowhere to be found on TWC’s official “For Your Consideration” page, though they’re pushing such total long-shots as the lukewarm Bill Murray vehicle St. Vincent and Begin Again (a Best Song contender, I guess?). Also missing: Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, the dystopian sci-fi action movie that won the Boston Online Film Critics’ prizes for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress over the weekend.
Since then, The Weinstein Company’s “For Your Consideration” page has been updated — not to include The Immigrant, mind you, but Keep On Keepin’ On, which was shortlisted for Best Documentary last week. And late last week, they announced a new Best Actress push… for Jessica Chastain (already being pushed as a Best Supporting Actress nominee, for A Most Violent Year and Interstellar), for The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, a low-grossing September release whose critical conversation mostly concerned the odd choice to edit it down, from two well-received festival films into one — and who made that choice.
If you understand that story, you can start to understand why the Weinsteins seem bent on aggressively avoiding possible award recognition. You see, Eleanor Rigby’s first-time director, Ned Benson, was presumably open to editing notes from his distributor (he took pains to insist the re-edit was his idea, but c’mon, who’re we kidding). The Immigrant and Snowpiercer, on the other hand, were the subjects of already legendary battles between their director and Harvey Weinstein, nicknamed “Harvey Scissorhands” for his decades-long habit of slicing up potentially challenging films for wider consumption. He demanded 20 minutes of cuts to Snowpiercer; when director Bong refused, Snowpiercer was downgraded from a wide Weinstein Company release to a limited, VOD-targeted one via side company Radius-TWC (and against all odds, become a surprise success).
The Immigrant’s battle was less publicized; of Mr. Weinstein, Immigrant director James Gray has said only kind words publicly, while carefully noting, “I am eternally grateful to the people who have seen the film and responded to it. They’ve made their affection for the movie known and that has helped the cause tremendously.” According to Variety, The Immigrant was actually ready for 2012’s Toronto Film Festival, but the company “insisted on holding it until Cannes, with Harvey Weinstein hoping he might convince the director to change the ending.” (For the record, the ending is perhaps the film’s most powerful sequence, where the entire picture comes together to become something indescribably moving, so of course that’s what Weinstein wanted to change.) When Gray refused to make that change — or, rumor has it, other cuts per Weinstein’s suggestion — the company shelved the film for a year, sitting out 2013’s Oscar season and finally releasing it to only four US theaters in May, without even a trailer on their website. Less than two months later, it appeared without warning or explanation on Netflix Instant.
We’ve reached out to the Weinstein Company, on multiple occasions, for comments on both The Immigrant’s weird move to Netflix (it was still playing in some theaters when it appeared there) and its current absence from their Oscar campaign; they have not responded to our requests. And to be fair, perhaps the motive is purely financial — if The Immigrant is already on Netflix Instant, then there’s no real financial incentive to offset the cost of an Oscar campaign (though it could affect future DVD and Blu-ray sales, were there any plans to release it in those formats). But Snowpiercer is still selling, on disc and on demand, and while it’s certainly a long-shot for major categories — the Academy typically doesn’t go for darker genre fare — nominations in technical categories aren’t out of the question. (Its odds don’t seem any longer than St. Vincent’s.)
And though Joe Moviegoer may not respond to its deliberate pace and throwback quality, The Immigrant seems like the kind of movie that could kill at the Oscars — and the kind of challenging, high-art picture that they’re supposed to champion. There are opportunities here, not only for Cotillard’s justly awarded performance and Khondji’s cinematography, but for the film’s gorgeous costumes and sets (to say nothing of Gray’s impeccable direction and script). But these are films that ignored King Harvey’s directives, and that’s apparently unacceptable — particularly when their critical reception indicates the filmmakers, not Weinstein, were right about them. “[T]he movies win the Oscars, not the campaigns,” he said in 2012. “It’s the filmmakers that win, not me.” True enough. But it’s hard for the movies to win when someone like Mr. Weinstein is standing in their way.
UPDATE 12/9: At some point after this article’s publication on 12/8, The Immigrant was quietly added to the Weinstein Company’s For Your Consideration page. Yesterday afternoon, a TWC representative finally responded to our request for comment, though we are still awaiting that comment.