As it's November in Hollywood, and as this year's Oscar race is starting to take shape, the first "For Your Consideration" ads are starting to make the rounds. What surprised me is that I've been seeing a pretty heavy push for the "Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows Part 2," the final "Harry Potter" film that was released this summer by Warner Brothers. And by surprising, I mean that my immediate, knee-jerk response was to dismiss the campaign as hopeless and the film as having next to no chance with Academy voters.
I understand why Warners is doing this. The "Potter" franchise has been one of its best performers over the last decade, and they want to send it off with a bang. And a boost in Oscar publicity would help spur DVD and Blu-ray sales, and all the usual ancillary merchandising. On the other hand, the "Potter" series is part of the fantasy genre, which the Academy traditionally shuns. It's also blatantly commercial in the way that most prestige films aren't - its entire existence is due to Warners wanting another summer tentpole for 2011, which lead them to split the final "Potter" installment into two. It also didn't do much new or innovative with effects or filmmaking technique, which tipped the scales for past genre nominees like "Avatar" and "District 9" in the past.
But then, I remembered "Return of the King," which was not only nominated for a raft of Academy Awards in 2004, but pulled off a sweep that year. It managed this in spite of being somewhat less well-received than the previous installments of "Lord of the Rings," weathering audience grumbles that the picture was too long and had too many endings. You're not going to find many people who pick "Return of the King" as their favorite of the trilogy. Most observers speculated that Academy voters were really rewarding all three films that night, as "The Lord of the Rings" was a watershed series, unmatched at that time in their scope, ambition, and critical and financial success. You could easily draw parallels with the "Harry Potter" series, which managed to maintain a wonderful consistency of quality through eight films. The "Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" film franchises even debuted the same year, with their first installments premiering barely a month apart in late 2001.
However, none of the previous "Potter" films has won a single Oscar, and has only collected nine nominations over seven films, mostly in technical categories. "Lord of the Rings" had already won six statuettes before the "Return of the King" sweep, and all three films were nominated for Best Picture. The Academy very well may want to recognize the "Potter" franchise in aggregate, but do the eight "Potter" films in aggregate match up to the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy? I have my doubts, especially since there were some pretty mediocre "Potter" films, like "Chamber of Secrets" and "Goblet of Fire" that tend to drag down the others. Also, none of the individual films really pushed boundaries or set standards. The first "Harry Potter" actually had pretty poor CGI effects, even for the time it was made.
On the other hand, eight "Potter" films might match up to an "Avatar" or an "Inception." The Oscar race has changed in 2004 in some significant ways that need to be taken into account. Since the number of nomination slots for Best Picture nominees was doubled a few years ago, "Deathly Hallows Part 2" has a far better chance of getting a slot than it would have five years ago. Also, this year's crop of prestige films hasn't been very strong so far, with few clear contenders coming out of the fall film festivals. If there are enough disappointments in December, "Deathly Hallows Part 2" might have a shot. The Academy does like rewarding consistency, and there's not much out there more consistent than "Harry Potter." Also, it would give younger viewers something to be excited about, and the Academy's been chasing their eyeballs for years.
But I think the trouble is what other categories you could justify nominations for beyond the usual technical nods. "Deathly Hallows Part 2" was very well reviewed, with better notices than just about any other wide-release film this year. However, like "Return of the King," it's clearly not the best "Harry Potter" film. When you try to break down its accomplishments, none of the performances really stood out, the directing was only so-so, and the script has some weak spots. The "For Your Consideration" ads list Art Direction, Editing, and Cinematography as possibilities, along with the usual Sound and Visual Effects categories. However, I definitely don't see it picking up any bigger nominations, and without those, "Deathly Hallows Part 2" won't be much of a contender.
Of course, the hype may be a factor. Warners is putting a lot of dollars behind this, and the series is old enough that it might kick up some nostalgic sentiment, or parents and grandparents might be swayed by cajoling kids. The film's box office is certainly nothing to sneeze at. However, it's also important to remember that the "Return of the King" sweep was seen in many circles as rather embarrassing overkill. Even if it gets the nominations, fans shouldn't get their hopes up - "Deathly Hallows Part 2" likely won't win a thing. But nominations alone should be fine for Warners' purposes. It'll get "Potter" into the awards conversation, and bring plenty of attention with it.
Then maybe, finally, they can let the "Harry Potter" franchise go away for a little while. I don't know about you, but I'm just about Pottered out.