There are certain things to expect every Oscar season. The films that become the front runner early on that people haven’t seen yet (which this year could be The Wolf of Wall Street or American Hustle) which sometimes deliver and sometimes don’t, the sneaky films that manage to stick around (which could be Lee Daniels’ The Butler or Gravity) and the films that are obviously meant to be a prestige picture, but aren’t embraced by the academy or critics. Right now that’s looking like The Fifth Estate.
Bill Condon‘s follow up to the final two Twilight movies screened at Toronto, which was a make or break decision. If it played well, then it would build Oscar buzz for a month or so into its wide release. If it didn’t, then it would be released to little fanfare and less box office. Right now it looks like the latter is the case as the Toronto fest screenings left audiences cold and unsatisfied, if partly because it wasn’t a full picture of Julian Assange (as played by Benedict Cumberbatch), and the wikileaks scandal. Is Assange a hero or villiain or possibly both? The film’s merits may be better judged from a distance, but that doesn’t help its Oscar chances.
And good intentions were surely there, in the sense that if it worked it could have been the All the President’s Men for the cyber age. But the film never found that traction early on, so it’s likely that it won’t upon release, unless mainstream audiences embrace the picture. Will they? Modern cinema has shown that even when done well (like The Hurt Locker) there tends to be a smaller audience for films about modern crises.
This is partly because of how films are sold and marketed, but also (something that Alfonso Cuaron pointed out recently) a reaction to a post-9/11 America. Not only is it harder to sell foreign films, but with an economy that has flagged, the modern adult and modern family don’t have the money they once did. Which is why ticket prices have risen, and why people don’t go to the movies like they used to. There are fewer people taking chances on their entertainment, and the youth class, which is more likely to have extra cash on hand, hasn’t been raised in an environment where they necessarily want to go to an art film for fun. If the economy recovers significantly, that could change, but the bubble of the 90′s is long gone, and with it people willing to take risks. It boils down to this: If you only have a set amount of money for food, why would you try a Thai restaurant you’ve never tried if you know you can get what you want from a burger place? Maybe if you had more money, you’d be up for taking a risk on something new, but when you don’t have that much flexibility, it seems more prudent to get what will satisfy. To stick with comfort food.
That said, there’s likely nothing that could have salvaged The Fifth Estate after the Toronto reviews, unless the tides turn with upcoming reviews. And that doesn’t seem in the cards.
Will you catch The Fifth Estate this weekend?