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Will 'Juno' be shut out of DGA and Oscars' best-pic races?

October 22, 2007 |  8:10 pm

"Juno" and "Diving Bell and the Butterfly" are two small pix with big, legit hopes to be nominated for best picture at the Oscars. But one of them may be sabotaging its chances.

That top category always has a few small artsy pix. Sometimes they're highbrow biopics like "Capote," "The Queen" or "Good Night, and Good Luck." Or low-budget fare with a political theme like "Babel." Sometimes they can just be a feel-good romp like "Sideways," "Chocolat" or "The Full Monty." Or they can even be in a foreign language like "Letters From Iwo Jima" or "Il Postino," if the movie's message is urgent enough.


What's key in all of those cases is that the films must have a strong rooting contingent behind them. When voting for nominations, Oscar voters rank their choices 1 (best) to 5 in the best picture race, but, the way that the accounting system works, only number 1 votes count. Two movies that have such passionate support include "Juno" (this year's "Little Miss Sunshine," everyone says and they're right) and "Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (this year's "The Sea Inside," a pic about a paraplegic that won best foreign film in 2004).

Originally, "Diving Bell" made the mistake, like another indie pic with high Oscar hopes, "The Savages," of planning to open in mid-December just like most top contenders used to, back before the Oscar ceremony moved up from March and April to February in 2004 and everything else had to move up with it on the calendar. Nowadays the big prestige flicks like "Charlie Wilson's War" and "Sweeney Todd" can stay there because everybody's going to see them, but that can be a dead zone for the lil indies. Studio chiefs caught the mistake in time and moved up the releases of "Diving Bell" and "Savages" to late November. Not perfect perhaps, but certainly an improvement.

Let's recall that movies that won 7 of the top 8 Oscars last year (picture, director, actor, actress, supporting actor and both screenplay prizes) were already released to theaters at this time of year — yes, mid-October: "The Departed," "The Queen," "Last King of Scotland," "Little Miss Sunshine." Only "Dreamgirls" (supporting actress, Jennifer Hudson) was still on the shelf.

Voting for the guild awards — directors, writers, producers, actors, etc. — begins in early December. How many voters will catch up with "Juno" in mid-December when it's only in limited release, not yet rolled out to cities like San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C., where thousands of DGA's 13,000 members live? Remember, DGA members are not permitted to receive DVD screeners and the vast majority of voters work in TV, not feature films, and gads of them do not reside in L.A. or New York. Sure, there are screenings of "Juno" going on in those cities, but how frequently? And how many members, let's be honest, will make it a priority to attend little-known "Juno" before they see some of the sexier, big pix?

What's the big deal, you ask? "Juno" has no shot to be nommed for best director, you think? Oh, yeah? The nobodies (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) who helmed the movie that "Juno" is most frequently compared to — "Little Miss Sunshine" — reaped DGA noms last year, which immediately bolstered its Oscar potential. They got bypassed by Oscar voters in the directors' race, yes, but their film made the high five for best picture.

"Juno" is directed by quite a somebody, Jason Reitman, whose "Thank You for Smoking" recently won best directorial debut from the National Board of Review, best screenplay from the Indie Spirits and was nommed by the Writers Guild of America. (Reitman also wrote the script.)

Reitman plans to attend the first DGA screening of "Juno," which will be held in New York on Nov. 9, where he'll conduct a Q&A with members. He'll then do the same in Los Angeles, but there are no plans for him attend the screenings to be conducted in DGA affiliate cities.

"Juno's" colorful writer, Diablo Cody, probably has a better chance to be nommed by WGA because the studio is permitted to send DVDs and scripts, but will voters watch or read them in time when the early voting is done? Last year "Little Miss Sunshine," which won WGA and the screenplay Oscar, had been a hit in theaters since August. By early December, voters knew all about it.

Maybe "Juno" is coming out late on purpose, to reap real gold, not fake gold statuettes?

That is, maybe Fox Searchlight wants it come out in mid-December for the reason Lou Lumenick of the New York Post says in our podcast chat: "There are so few movies there with mainstream appeal. And I think 'Juno' has more mainstream appeal."

Another small heart-tugging indie with Oscar potential will come out around then too — "The Kite Runner," directed by Marc Forster ("Finding Neverland," "Monster's Ball"), but not because producers like the date. Originally, "Kite Runner" was set to open in November, but Paramount Vantage moved its release to December because it needs time to get its child stars out of Afghanistan before the movie opens and causes potential tumult.

"Juno" is being widely screened to media audiences in L.A. and N.Y., including other guilds, and DVD screeners will be widely distributed to all. A PGA bid can help boost it up to Oscars' best pic slot — that's probably the film's best hope now, that and a Golden Globe nom for best comedy/musical picture. But nothing would've been better than a DGA bid for Reitman. That would've sent a message to Oscar voters to take that comedy, just like "Little Miss Sunshine," quite seriously.