Best Picture – Ford v Ferrari and the Art of the Stealthy Oscar Campaign

There are three styles of launching a Best Picture contender that I know of from the *cough cough* two decades of watching the race go down.

1) Get out early, stay dominant with publicity blasts and lots of press and attention. That would mean you launch out of Telluride or Toronto and you hit every festival and you get every interview and you make every list and every prediction – you are locked and loaded. This can work for films that have no choice but to be everyone’s favorite – The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire. But sometimes it can work against a contender – it can simply become TOO FAMILIAR and thus, not an exciting enough choice to win. On the other hand, a lot of times the tried and true can make it all the way through to end. There is just one problem: It just needs to LIVE UP TO THE HYPE. So that when people sit down with it they don’t think, “Really? That’s it?”

2) The fringe that needs blood, sweat and tears to get through. This is if you have a movie that isn’t a bonafide contender, but that you think is special enough to push hard, maybe through back channels, maybe through bloggers or critics or celebrities who might introduce the film at a screening, for instance. Then, if enough people get on board it can make it into the race. Though it only works if people like the movie once they finally do force themselves to watch the screener. Publicists have to work so hard to get movies that nobody wants to watch actually SEEN. This is a job that is hard but rewarding if the film or actor or screenplay makes it through. In a year like this, though, it’s tough. It is better in a “weaker” year. This is not a weak year. This is a very strong year.

3) And then, there is the art of the stealthy Oscar campaign. This is like putting a chicken in the oven hot, at 400, lowering the temperature after 20 minutes and never opening the oven door. Just let it cook. Don’t check on it, don’t baste it, don’t move it around – just let the oven do the work. This is a way of surprising voters with a movie you KNOW has the goods but is just waiting to be put in front of an audience. It’s a shock and awe kind of thing that sometimes takes you (me) completely by surprise because “nobody is talking about it.” If bloggers are talking about it, and critics are talking about it, and Twitter is talking about it, it gives the impression that it’s getting buzz. But that isn’t REAL buzz. That is in the bubble. A stealthy Oscar movie is one that is really really good but is just laying low, simmering, doing its thing while the hype swirls around other movies. This is a very successful way of bringing home a big Oscar movie — let the voters decide, not the tastemakers. It can backfire, though, if it really is just plain old forgotten by voters because the more hyped films are at the forefront.

Ford v Ferrari is a stealthy Oscar movie. So is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. While it’s making all of the lists, it’s not doing a lot of campaigning, if you notice The Two Popes is a stealthy campaign – it’s Netflix but The Irishman and Marriage Story, and hopefully Dolemite is My Name are taking the heat of the hype right now. Since Little Women, 1917, Richard Jewell and Dark Waters haven’t yet been seen they aren’t quite the stealthy campaigns since they are eagerly anticipated but they have the same effect, more or less.

Ford v Ferrari is quite easily one of the most satisfying movies of the year. It is going to make a SHIT TON of coin. Even if some idiot drags out some dumb clickbait to sabotage it, the subject matter is the kind of thing adult audiences all over the country have been craving. It’s a sports movie but it is, because James Mangold is the director, a character study, a friendship movie, with a hell of a lesson about what it takes to make something, what it takes to be good at something and the difference between corporations and people.

But I think that’s about to change. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are two leads – and they will campaign as such. That means it’s harder for either of them to get in because they’re both so good, but who knows, one might. Bale just last year had ballooned up to disappear into the body, voice and mannerisms of Dick Cheney – now a wiry Brit who doesn’t get along with people but can drive the hell of a race car. It is just him, the car and the road – what a thrill to watch those scenes. And Matt Damon gets all of the best lines and really holds the film together. Again, nothing but pure joy to watch him in this role that he feels so comfortable in. Tracy Letts as Ford II very nearly steals the whole movie. The whole supporting cast is, well, like a well-oiled machine, to borrow a phrase.

I don’t know where this movie is going – none of us knows where any of it is going right now and anyone who pretends they do is bluffing. It is a wide open year with a lot of options everywhere you look. Lots of strong early contenders hyped to the heavens, lots of fringe films that need a push, lots of stealthy movies flying nicely under the radar ready to surprise those who cover the race.

Maybe it will, maybe it won’t but watching Ford v Ferrari last night for the second time I was reminded of what a strong film this might be in the Oscar race, as a stealthy, under-the-radar film that voters like. I wonder if the Globes might like it and launch it hard out of the gate. I don’t know where it will land but what I kept thinking about last night is Ford v Ferrari is the best movie nobody’s talking about.

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