‘Dreamgirls’ Banked on Best Picture Oscar, and Lost
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 28 — Oscar theorists all have their notions about the failure of “Dreamgirls” to get a best picture nomination last week, despite eight other nominations for Academy Awards and an all-out drive by its backers for top honors.
Too few voters saw the musical at industry screenings, one argument goes. Performances by the newcomer Jennifer Hudson and by Eddie Murphy, each of whom received nominations, overshadowed the film, others say. Marketers were seduced by the movie’s admiring press.
Or, perhaps as Bill Condon, the “Dreamgirls” director who wrote the script for the 2003 Oscar-winner “Chicago,” said on Friday, “I think academy members just liked the other movies better.”
Whatever its cause, the snub left Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks SKG, Viacom units that financed the film, scrambling to capitalize on prospects that were suddenly less dazzling. As well as prestige, a best picture nomination is a valuable asset and can give a film like this one — a musical seeking mainstream credibility — an added boost in theaters and on DVDs.
In the background too were two of Hollywood’s must substantial figures. Brad Grey, Paramount’s chairman, had been through a rough year and could have used the good news of a best picture — something he may still get with “Babel.” David Geffen, though not credited as the producer of “Dreamgirls,” was nonetheless responsible for its birth, having waited 25 years to see a reinvention of the original play onscreen.
Nowhere is the line between selling and overselling more delicate than in an Oscar campaign. And “Dreamgirls,” having stumbled in a dance of managed expectations, may well be remembered as the picture that showed how far a studio cannot go in seeking a prize.
“I don’t see a reason to vote for, or not vote for, a movie simply because it is a front-runner,” said Tom Pollock, a producer and member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gives the Oscars.
Mr. Pollock, who declined to say what movies received his support, described the “Dreamgirls”’ stumble as just another bad break in a tough game. “There are 6,000 people in the academy,” he said, “and they all have different opinions.”
But executives behind the film were left to wonder what exactly had gone awry.
“What is a ‘best picture?’ ” asked Rob Moore, Paramount’s president for worldwide marketing, distribution and operations. Mr. Moore noted that “Dreamgirls” found itself competing with nominees of a more typical bent toward serious drama, including “Babel,” another Paramount film; “Letters From Iwo Jima,” released by Warner Brothers Pictures, and “The Queen.”
“The category isn’t ‘most entertaining movie,’ ” Mr. Moore noted.
In the weeks to come, the discussion will surely turn to the effect of last week’s nominations on the film’s box-office prospects. Paramount executives are encouraged. In an unexpected twist, they said, interest in it appears to have increased, as curious moviegoers want to see what the controversy is all about. The studio said it is on track to make more than $100 million at the box office in the United States — still short of the $171 million in ticket sales for the popular musical “Chicago,” but enough to ensure profit on a film that cost about $74 million to make, after marketing costs, foreign sales and revenue from all sources are factored in.
But those who argue that the “Dreamgirls” team would have done better with a softer sell can point to much.
A year before its debut in theaters, studio marketers had decided to sell the film with its bold musical numbers, a fictional treatment loosely based on the rise of the Supremes, as a “must see” event. In 2005, “Dreamgirls” teaser trailers were attached to movies like “The Producers,” another musical of a much different flavor, even before filming began. And last February, Paramount was already inviting reporters to a cocktail party at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles, where scenes for the movie were shot.
At the time, a few hundred reporters and others gathered under a rain-soaked tent to watch scenes from the film on flat-screen television. Later, they were given a tour of the set.
Terry Press, then a DreamWorks executive who headed “Dreamgirls” marketing, said on Friday that much of the early exposure was meant to counter any sense that the picture, with its all-black cast, would be a tough sell for mainstream audiences.
Also, the studio did not want the movie to be tainted by the showings of “The Producers” and “Rent,” musicals that bombed at the box office in 2005. The early hype reached a zenith in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where, according to Mr. Moore, the studio was fighting to get foreign exhibitors on board early.
On May 19, Paramount threw a lavish party at the grand Hotel Martinez, flying in the film’s stars, Beyoncé Knowles, Jamie Foxx and Ms. Hudson for the celebration. There, the director introduced four songs from the film and the cast to a wildly enthusiastic crowd.
“I think the one thing that really caught people by surprise were the performances by Jennifer and Eddie Murphy,” Mr. Moore said. (Ms. Hudson played Effie, the role made famous by Jennifer Holliday on Broadway, and Mr. Murphy played a James Brown-style performer.) “People were saying, ‘Wow, it feels like a big hit movie.’ ”
Indeed, the party caused a stir at Cannes and in Hollywood. Photographs of the handsome cast circulated widely on the Internet. Bloggers and columnists gave the movie early raves. A Foxnews.com columnist, Roger Friedman, predicted that “Dreamgirls” would “be a monster of a movie.” Lavish praise by a Hollywood blogger, David Poland, set off a debate among readers when he wrote, among other things, that Mr. Murphy’s performance “stinks of Oscar.”
“Later on, people accused us of the big hype thing,” Mr. Condon said. “But people would see it and love it. I know the perception was we were coming on like a Mack truck.”
Mr. Moore said the goal of the campaign was commercial success for “Dreamgirls.” But Ms. Press, asked when the “Dreamgirls” marketing campaign ended and its Oscar promotion began, replied, “That’s a good question.”
Neither she nor Mr. Moore, who said they hired two Oscar consultants for the film, offered an answer or would discuss the marketing budget, which experienced marketers in Hollywood have put near $40 million.
By November, the “Dreamgirls’” publicity machine was in overdrive ahead of a limited release on Dec. 15. Oprah Winfrey played host to the cast on her show. (Beyoncé, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Foxx also appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair) and hailed the film as Oscar-worthy.
Paramount covered the usual bases in the awards campaign, for instance by seeking to get as many guild members as it could to early screenings. The movie’s celebrity-packed premieres in New York and Los Angeles were popular events. But things stretched toward the extraordinary when Ms. Hudson embarked on a 10-city publicity tour, with screenings for patrons who paid $25 to attend.
The campaign clearly made an impression on the media crowd: More than a month before the Oscar nominations were to be announced, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as Oscar bloggers, called “Dreamgirls” an early front-runner for the academy’s best picture award.
Studio executives and others began to believe it, especially after “Dreamgirls” was nominated for five Golden Globe awards in December (winning three) and received critical praise from industry guilds.
“It’s not like we ran trade ads and we got calls from people who said, ‘You’re crazy. What are you doing?’ ” Ms. Press remarked.
But even then, the filmmakers say, they were conscious that early Oscar confidence could be misplaced. “The advisory here, as always, is don’t start believing your own publicity,” said Laurence Mark, who produced “Dreamgirls.”
The notion that the movie was not seen by enough academy members — though discounted by Mr. Condon — stemmed from its relatively late wide release on Dec. 25, and the fact that screener DVDs were sent out after many executives had left for the holidays.
Another unforeseen hitch involved what some in Hollywood are calling “the Clint plot twist.” The Oscar-winning Clint Eastwood is an academy favorite who directed “Flags of Our Fathers,” the World War II drama about the battle for Iwo Jima, which was an early Oscar favorite but fared poorly when released in October.
So in November, Mr. Eastwood asked Warner to move up the release of “Letters From Iwo Jima,” a Japanese-language companion movie to “Flags,” once planned for 2007, thus qualifying it for Oscar consideration. Despite its late entry, “Letters” was nominated for best picture, leaving many in Hollywood to wonder if “Dreamgirls” had been edged aside.
“You are not entitled,” Mr. Condon said of the Oscar, an honor he won in 1999 for writing “Gods and Monsters,” and for which his “Chicago” script was nominated. “It’s a gift. That sense that you deserve it is wacky.”
Besides, avoiding added weeks of best picture campaigning brought a perverse benefit: reduced costs.
“We were never going to win even if we were nominated,” Mr. Condon said, laughing. “The money we would have spent on the campaign, the insane amount of money we saved. People spend like drunken sailors, you know.”