"The Soloist" moves to the back of the orchestra pit
The one thing you can count on in Hollywood is that when a studio makes a sudden or unexpected decision, it is almost guaranteed that the official reason for the move is a smoke screen for what's really going on. I'm guessing that's the case with Paramount's surprise announcement late Thursday that it's knocking "The Soloist" out of the awards season scrum, "dashing any hopes," to use Variety's melodramatic phrase, for the film to win any Academy Award accolades in 2008. The film is of particular interest to those of us here at the LA Times, since it is based on a series of gripping columns by our own Steve Lopez about his relationship with a homeless musician grappling with schizophrenia.
The film, which stars Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez and Jamie Foxx as the musician, was slated for release Nov. 21st, a prime slot for a potential year-end Oscar campaign. The film, produced by Dreamworks and co-financed by Participant Media and Universal's Working Title, has now been bumped to March 13th, 2009. Why? According to a story in the LA Times, Paramount executives said the current economic collapse "might have made November an awkward time to release a movie about homelessness."
That's the kind of whopper you'd only hear in Hollywood. I think the appropriate response to that would be--when exactly would be a good time to release a film about homelessness? Halloween? The Fourth of July? Having read the script and seen the film being shot, I'm guessing that only a studio disguising its real motives would call "The Soloist" a film about homelessness, when in fact, it's a male-bonding love story about a crusading newspaper reporter and a musician with a troubled soul.
Paramount apparently told its partners, as well as top CAA brass, who represent most of the talent on the picture, that the studio was under pressure from Viacom superiors to cut costs, having recently acknowledged that it was thinning out its future release schedule. With even Sumner Redstone being forced to sell stock to keep his investments afloat, the studio was forced to take drastic measures. With four potential Oscar movies slated for year-end release, something had to give. It certainly wasn't going to be "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," an expensive and much-anticipated Brad Pitt and David Fincher collaboration that studio chief Brad Grey has already publicly embraced as his ticket to a front-row seat Feb. 22nd at the Kodak Theater. And it certainly wasn't going to be "Revolutionary Road," a Scott Rudin-produced literary drama with a star too big to offend (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the kind of rarified subject matter that desperately needs Oscar buzz to sell tickets.
That left the studio's Ed Zwick-directed drama, "Defiance," which is a long-shot for Oscars, but still enough of a contender that while it's being pushed back to late December, is still getting an Oscar qualifying run before going wide in January. That made "The Soloist" the low man on the totem pole, since it conceivably has enough commercial potential to make a dent at the box office in the spring without the benefit of any Oscar coattails. Since the film was produced by Dreamworks, which just concluded an ugly divorce with Paramount, the inside chatter has focused on the idea that Paramount is somehow punishing Dreamworks by robbing the departing Spielberg team of any Oscar glory.
If anyone at Variety actually asked Paramount about all these complicated twists and turns involving "The Soloist," they didn't bother to mention it in their story, which credulously quotes Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore as simply saying "We decided it's a commercial movie that will play well in the spring." Like I said, studio executives almost never give the real reason for their moves. If they did, Paramount would acknowledge the obvious: These moves aren't so much about saving money--which is small potatoes in terms of the giant outlays studio make these days--as focusing the studio's marketing machinery on its biggest potential cash cow.
Even though it co-financed the film with Warners, Paramount has a huge bet down on "Benjamin Button," which is the one movie here that could be both an enormous commercial and critical hit. The studio has clearly decided to clear the decks. It can't do anything about potential Oscar rivals from other studios, but it doesn't want to compete with itself. My guess is that the studio is being uncharacteristically pragmatic. In an era where studios release all their quality films in the same 10 week time period--I call it the Oscar demolition derby--Paramount has decided to create some breathing room for its strongest contender. Only in Oscar-crazed Hollywood, where everyone lives and dies by awards glory, is the decision to move a quality movie to the spring viewed as an ignominious death sentence. If "The Soloist" gets a good reception in March, it will survive and flourish. I wish some of the industry's hand-ringers would realize there is actually life after the Oscars.