The Actor's Detective

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oscar nominees prove a point

If you've read any issues of The Actor's Detective, you know that we advocate getting ahead in show business by using unconventional thinking and methods.
We've heard the doubting voices say "Write letters directly to the creators of the project and not wait until the casting directors announce it to the world? Nobody does that. It will never work!" Trust us, we know from personal experience that it does.
It's hard to convince people of this without evidence, of course. They want to actually see where someone has succeeded against all odds by bending the rules, especially in show business. Lucky for us, this year's Oscar contest has nine such examples, and they all are nominees for Best Picture. As I write this, the show is underway and many awards have been given out, but the big prize is till up for grabs.
In order of how nonconformist they were, here are the nine Best Picture nominees and how they defied the naysayers:

The Artist:
Imagine this pitch meeting with a Hollywood Studio exec:
Hi, I'd like to make a movie with no big American stars....
and the director is big in France, but not so much here...
The most recognizable faces in the film will have only cameos....
It's a period piece.....
I'm filming it in black and white....
Oh, by the way, did I mention it would be a type of film (silent) that stopped being popular almost 90 years ago???
That sound you hear is the person making the pitch being kicked to the curb.
Incredible as it might seem, "The Artist" not only was produced (thanks to the passion of its director, Michel Hazanivicius) but has gone on to be celebrated internationally and is the odds on favorite to win Best Picture. If it does, it will be only the second silent film to win the top prize (the last, "Wings" was in 1928) and one of the few black and white films since the 1970's to do so. ("Schindler's List" in 1994 was the last one.)
Even the story itself is one of going against the grain and getting ahead by being proactive. Amazing.

The Help

Originally, nobody wanted to publish the book "the Help." The author, Kathryn Stockett, didn't give up. She just kept writing letters until she made a connection. It became a smash hit best seller.
A successful book like that usually starts a bidding war among studios for the rights, but Stockett sold them long before to a childhood friend, Tate Taylor, a talented actor/writer/director. Taylor owned the rights to "The Help" but nobody wanted him to direct the film. Five studios got involved with the film and tried to push him out, indeed they begged him to turn it over to higher profile directors. Tate refused. He stuck to his guns. He even cast a close friend, Octavia Spencer, in the plum role of Minny. Again, the studios urged him to cast a bigger name. Tate was right in his instincts. 
His unconventional thinking led to box office triumph. Not only was the film nominated for Best Picture, Spencer was nominated for - and won, with a standing ovation no less -  Best Supporting Actress. The only crime is that Taylor himself was overlooked for a Best Director nod. The picture didn't direct itself, did it?


Martin Scorcese is a brand name and an iconic director, but even he knew that he was taking a gigantic risk with his film "Hugo." Like "The Artist", it had a bunch of strikes against it. The film was a period piece, set in France, an homage to the early days of film making, with long stretches of silence.
It was also Scorcese's first foray into 3D. He did an amazing job, and proved that even those with long track records can go against the grain.


"Baseball movies NEVER work! They are box office poison. Nobody will go see it. And it's about math and numbers with no car chases or explosions? Forget about it!"
Well, I guess those myths were knocked right out of the park by this crowd pleasing hit.
The Descendants

"George Clooney is a big star. You can't put him in an unglamorous role as a schlubby Dad whose wife cheated on him!"
"Audiences will hate that, nobody will believe it."
Again, taking a chance and proving the doubters wrong.

Tree Of Life

Behold director Terence Malick... a textbook case of not playing by Hollywood's rules and forging your own path ahead. 
He's spent a career not doing what the "other guys" do, and he's had great success. You should follow his lead and "zig" when everyone else is "zagging."
War Horse

Certainly less of a gamble, but Steven Spielberg - like Scorcese - broke from his traditional blockbuster fantasy epics to make a more heartfelt and personal film about the relationship between a boy and his horse. 
This film, based on the book and hit Broadway play, is another one that is set in the early part of the 20th Century, in Europe, with a mostly unknown ensemble and stretches of silence.
 Many never thought it would work, but he pulled it off beautifully.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Despite a cast filled with luminaries like Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, and Max Von Sydow, the films rests squarely on the shoulders of its 9 year old lead. 
Director Stephen Daldry was sent the reels of every established child actor in town, but he defied the odds by casting an untested actor (Thomas Horn) in his first ever film. It worked, and the kid should have a bright future.

Midnight In Paris 

This was the least risky of the group. So Woody Allen made a comedy, his staple, big deal. Despite this, nobody wanted to finance this film because it was a time travel fantasy partially set in the early 20th Century (do you sense a theme this year?) It finally did get made, and Allen was rewarded with the biggest hit in his long career and yet another award for Best Original Screenplay. Key word there? Original. Don't imitate, make your own mark.
So there you have it, nine examples of thinking outside the box, getting ahead by playing angles nobody else sees. Whatever film wins, you can use all of them as proof that you too can get ahead by listening to your own instincts and not following the pack.
Why not go one step further, write to the people involved in each film and ask them directly what inspired them and how they did it. You'll get amazing responses and you'll build your personal network in the process. Write while watching. Heck, if past Oscar telecasts are any indication, even halfway through you still have almost two hours to do it.

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