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PATH TO THE OSCARS

'8 Mile': What sizzled has fizzled at voting time

January 27, 2003|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

In Hollywood, if you can't get someone's attention, you can always try to buy it.

Witness the unusual ad campaign that Universal Pictures is mounting on behalf of "8 Mile," starring Eminem. The film opened in November to strong reviews from some of the nation's top critics.

Its grosses to date: $116 million. Its Oscar buzz at the moment: close to zero.

Universal's ad, which has run in the Hollywood trades as well as in newspapers in New York and L.A., including The Times, clearly is aimed at Oscar voters, who now are casting their ballots for best picture.

Although it doesn't address its message directly to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it all but beseeches them for a nod. It asks, almost plaintively, if a film "sheds light on a vibrant but largely misunderstood aspect of our culture," if it is hailed as a "superlative piece of filmmaking" by major film critics and if it provokes a "stunning number of editorials and commentaries," should it not be considered?

It happens every year. Films show early promise and attract early Oscar buzz, only to see the excitement evaporate as the Academy Awards race begins in earnest. This year, "8 Mile" is not alone in the fading hopes department. Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love," released by Sony, and Sam Mendes' "Road to Perdition," which was released in the U.S. by DreamWorks, both received favorable reviews yet are struggling to keep their Oscar prospects alive. Even Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven," released by Universal's sister label, Focus Features, has lost some of the momentum it established in year-end critics lists; none of its four Golden Globe nominations (actress, supporting actor, director, score) bore fruit. In the case of "8 Mile," though, Universal faces some other complications, notably its star's refusal to come to Hollywood and engage in the traditional rounds of Oscar campaigning: walking along the red carpets at glitzy events or conducting question-answer sessions at industry screening, as Nicole Kidman of "The Hours" or Maggie Gyllenhaal of "Secretary" have done this season.

Paul Rosenberg, Eminem's manager, says the rapper's goal was to make a good movie, not to solicit awards.

"It's not like he gives a damn whether he gets this stuff or not," Rosenberg says. "He certainly doesn't want to be seen as a movie star. He wants to be seen, first and foremost, as dedicated to music. He doesn't want to walk around on the red carpet. That is not his style. That's not what he wants to be."

The Universal ad campaign also seems to suggest some worry about whether cultural and generational divides between the rap world and the typical Oscar voter are simply too wide. (Not to mention how those incendiary Eminem lyrics about women and homosexuals might be playing in some of the more rarified quarters of Bel-Air.)

Director Rob Cohen, a longtime academy voter whose last two films, "The Fast and the Furious" and "XXX," were designed to tap into the emerging multiethnic global youth culture, isn't at all surprised at the lack of Oscar buzz for "8 Mile."

"Movies like anything I've made, or like 'Moulin Rouge' or '8 Mile,' are beyond the general taste comprehension of the academy," Cohen says. "The academy is about a safer zone of films." As a result, he notes, the voters gladly embrace their idea of a "high-minded extreme film" like "The English Patient."

"Now, you get a white rapper on the streets of Detroit, people having sex in grungy factories, that is not where they go for what they call an 'academy-type' movie," Cohen says.

In the film, Eminem plays Jimmy Smith Jr., a.k.a. Bunny Rabbit, a conspicuously Caucasian Detroit rapper with pent-up rage who lives in a trailer park with his hard-drinking mother (Kim Basinger) and her loutish boyfriend. The movie has an inspiring "Rocky"-like theme as he competes on stage in gladiator-like rap contests.

Adam Fogelson, Universal's president of marketing, acknowledges the ads are an attempt to bring back the early chatter. Oscar ballots are due at the academy Jan. 29, and nominations will be announced Feb. 11.

"This movie was really on everybody's radar [when it came out]," Fogelson says. Now, for whatever reasons, "8 Mile" seems to be "out of the discussion pool."

"How can a film that generated those kind of reviews, that generated those kind of editorials and commentaries, have fallen off everybody's radar?"

Instead, as he looks around this season, among the films being mentioned most often as Oscar contenders are "The Hours," "Chicago," "About Schmidt," "The Pianist," "Adaptation" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."

Of course, maybe those movies simply appear more deserving, now that the entire year's crop of pictures has been released.

Producer Tom Pollock, who once ran Universal Pictures, believes one key reason "8 Mile" has not received more Oscar buzz is because none of the major year-end awards listed it as best film.

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