Off the Carpet: From 'Young Adult' to 'Dragon Tattoo,' building the perfect strategy

As always, studios navigate the tricky waters of expectation this season

<p>Charlize Theron in a scene from &quot;Young&nbsp;Adult&quot;</p>

Charlize Theron in a scene from "Young Adult"

Credit: Paramount Pictures

It's been quiet. You might say too quiet.

Mid-to-late-October, those thin moments just after the New York Film Festival concludes and a number of the fall festival staples segue to the London Film Festival, it's always a bit of a lull. Call it the calm before the storm if you want, but I don't even really see much of a storm on the horizon. Just some heat lightning, maybe.

The season will show further signs of life this week as both Jason Reitman's "Young Adult" and Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar" finally screen for LA-based press. The former has been playing for as long as possible on the outside, building steam and word-of-mouth initially in Minnesota (where the film is set -- first "reviewed" by the Minneapolis Star Tribune in a blog entry of less than 200 words accompanied by a whopping four comments) and then adjacent to the Austin Film Festival as one of a few "pop-up" screenings held around the country.

It's an interesting strategy for a film that doesn't appear on the outside to need a grassroots campaign to drum up excitement, but perhaps that says something about the un-"Juno"-ness of the project. Reitman and Paramount may still be feeling the sting from peaking early with 2009's "Up in the Air" in the fall festival circuit, so one can only imagine this is an attempt to draw things out.

"J. Edgar," meanwhile, is set to screen for most on November 4, the day AFTER its world premiere at this year's AFI Fest. The reasoning is Eastwood's planned acceptance of a LACMA honor with cast in attendance. It's a great way to present a feel-good vibe and screening environment for a film which has registered reactions on both sides of the quality scale. But it's still a bit of keep-away with the film's November 9 release date looming less than two weeks away. (Eastwood runs the show on his films, so it's somewhat out of WB's hands with this stuff.)

Eastwood has found his champions as of late, as he always does. Die-hard supporters from the old days, whether Peter Bart or Todd McCarthy or Richard Schickel, always rally to his aid, even when he doesn't exactly have the goods. So it makes sense that Bart, for instance, was one of the individuals hand-picked to get a look at the film's first screening of note at the Carmel Film Festival (Eastwood's backyard) recently.

If there's a take-away here, I don't really know what it is. It takes all kinds. Studios shift their strategies every year and it's always a bunch of heads coming together to decide on the best course of action.

Elsewhere, for instance, we've seen The Weinstein Company bring Michel Hazanavicius's "The Artist" to any festival that will have the film (and generally walk away with whatever audience award might be available). Meanwhile, the distributor held on to "My Week with Marilyn" for an exclusive New York Film Festival look-see to give it an aroma of freshness amid films like "Carnage" and "The Descendants" that had already started their festival marches prior to hitting the Big Apple.

Also looking to find a foothold while the talk swirled around a number of the year's other contenders was Paramount again, dropping an unfinished "Hugo" on NYFF audiences and getting mostly appreciative reactions. It helps to make people feel special by putting them in an exclusive room, naturally. The film will be ready for further scrutiny within the week, but I think the goal was met: people were talking about it, however briefly.

Focus is letting the "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" cat out of the bag more and more now as a bunch of screenings have been set, this after a tiny pair of US screenings on the occasion of the film's UK premiere last month. The aim there is to direct as much of the reaction as possible to the December 9 release date. The film opened strongly overseas but it could easily be lost in the fray on these shores.

Meanwhile, films like "Midnight in Paris," "The Help" and "Moneyball" have already opened, have their supporters and present strong cases to maintain their stay. They're waiting for the season to show them something, while other possibilities like "The Tree of Life" and "The Ides of March," which have marks against them, are waiting for any sign of weakness so they can capitalize.

Some films have been in the edit bay. "The Iron Lady," for instance, should be closing in on a final cut. And "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is in the final stages, too. Who knows on "War Horse," but it nevertheless finds itself in the unenviable position of being an anticipated (sight-unseen) awards beast. Long-lead screenings should be happening shortly. And things are perhaps quietest around Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo." A not-so-great trailer and a bunch of tongue-in-cheek discussion about it vis a vis recent news out of Ohio is all there is to chew on.

And then there is "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," seemingly out of the hands of Sony publicity as director David Fincher again disavows the traditional marketing process in favor of "hip" and "cool" and viral and whatnot. I've said it here before: I dig it -- as a fan. I'm just not sure what the impact of that process will be on a larger audience. But, again, it takes all kinds. And like the other December entries, we won't know whether the film is a contender or not for a few more weeks.

So on those, we wait, as this next wave of revelations prepares for its close up.

Guys like me, we suck the air out of these proceedings. The mouth-breathing expectation, the "show me" spirit, the anticipatory atmosphere we establish, admittedly, it's unhealthy. And I don't envy publicists who have to navigate those waters and find the right course and trajectory for their product. But when you aim for the awards circuit, you make your bed. So with November right around the corner, the end of the year beckons all the more. What do you have in store for us?

Oh, and Happy Halloween.

The Contenders section has been newly tidied this week. The sidebar predictions reflect those changes.

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Kristopher Tapley
Editor-at-Large
Kristopher Tapley has covered the film awards landscape for over a decade. He founded In Contention in 2005. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Times of London and Variety. He begs you not to take any of this too seriously.
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UPDATED: MARCH 2, 2014