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Oscars to arrive late at the 'Precious' party?

November 10, 2009 |  3:11 pm

If all of us huffy Oscar "experts" remain so smug about "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" being a front-runner in many top categories, where's the actual support within the academy, eh? Attendance was modest at its recent, official academy screening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. By contrast, the place was packed last week to cheer a film that really has no shot at a best-picture bid: Michael Jackson's documentary "This Is It."

As Steve Pond reported yesterday at TheWrap, "Precious" "played well, with the largest applause going to the film’s lead actresses, Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique. (Director Lee Daniels, in contrast, reportedly didn't prompt as much enthusiasm.) The size of the crowd suggests to me that the film’s biggest problem will be getting Oscar voters to see it." Pond put attendance at 300. A separate report I heard claimed the body count was slightly less than 500 at a theater with about 1,000 seats.

Precious film gabourey Sidibe news

Either way, Steve's right. "Precious" may have deafening Oscar buzz, but it hasn't caught on big time within the academy yet. That sets up a fascinating situation that must seem weird to casual Oscar watchers observing the derby from the sidelines. On one hand, they see swarms of award pundits shouting, "Precious'! 'Precious'! Oscar! Oscar!" while voters yawn, "Ho-hum … I can't be bothered to attend a screening to see it."

Surely, the Oscar watchers must think quietly to themselves: have the pundits finally gone bonkers? We should believe them?

Answer: Yes, believe us. Because we're right. Stay tuned. When this derby plays out, you will have all the proof you'll ever need that we Oscarologists actually know our stuff — that we're smarter than real Oscar voters.

The reason 5,500 Oscar voters didn't show up for the screening is because they know that the flick is a dramatic downer about vicious ghetto trash. They'll catch up with it later when the DVD is shipped to their homes and their curiosity grows in equal proportion to the dizzying buzz building nationwide for "Precious" as it rolls out to more and more theaters, setting off waves of huzzahs. Then, after they see it, they'll give it lots of top nominations. We pundits know that because it's the only movie in the derby so far that triggers the same fanatic response as last year's feel-bad ghetto flick that went on to win best picture. "Precious" is "Slumdog Millionaire" without the big song-and-dance finale.

Of course, that's what many of us Oscarologists thought about another all-black film that triggered fanatic audience response: "Dreamgirls," which didn't end up with a nomination for best picture. "Precious" only played in 18 theaters last weekend, but it raked in $104,000 per screen, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. That's the highest in three years and the 11th best of all time, the biggest since "Dreamgirls" reaped $126,000 per screen three years ago. It's the third biggest among all live action films, behind "Dreamgirls" and "Brokeback Mountain."

Mention of "Brokeback Mountain" is scary, of course, since it ended up losing best picture in an upset to "Crash," but at least it was nominated. "Precious" will probably make the list too, considering that there's more room for it — there will be 10 slots for contenders instead of the usual five. So there probably won't be a repeat of the "Dreamgirls" disaster.

But can "Precious" win best picture?

I don't know. Most outstanding about "Precious" are its dynamic performances. Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique are out front to win best lead and supporting actress and that may hurt the film's shot at best picture. Voters have a few obvious categories to reward it, so that takes care of that in their minds. Usually. Sometimes there are broad sweeps across categories, but those tend to be pulled off by more epic, big-screen films, not little art-house indies like "Precious," which won't get major below-the-line support in the tech branches.

I do think "Precious" can win best picture. I'm just not betting on it yet.

Meantime, we know it's a major player because it's triggering fanatic responses from viewers. And, oh, yeah, it has a vigorous campaign behind it, spearheaded by three top industry veterans, some of the best in the biz: Stacey Mooradian at Lionsgate and guns-for-hire Lisa Taback and Amanda Lundberg. That matters a lot.

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Photo: Lionsgate

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