Focus at the Academy Awards (and Spirits too)

By Peter Bowen | March 3, 2010
Academy Awards The lull before the storm at the Academy Awards

Nearly every year, Focus Features films show up at both the Spirit Awards and Academy Awards. Follow the company’s journey year-by-year.

The Academy Awards weekend in March has been for the most part a double-barreled event for Focus Features, with the Independent Spirit Awards usually occurring on Saturday afternoon and the Oscars on the following Sunday night. So for Focus executives and nominated filmmakers, the weekend proves to be a mad dash between events, parties, dinners, toasts, and the like. Not to mention the various costume changes. Since Oscar weekend is upon us once again, we decided to look back at Focus’ presence at both the Oscars and Spirit Awards over the years.

Writer-directors Ethan and Joel Coen with cinematographer Roger Deakins on the set of A Serious Man

Writer-directors Ethan and Joel Coen with cinematographer Roger Deakins on the set of A Serious Man

2010

Three films––A Serious Man, Coraline, and Sin Nombre––will be in attendance this year. Cary Fukunawa’s tough adventure about two immigrants with very different reasons for trying to reach America is up for three Spirit Awards: Best Cinematography (Adriano Goldman), Best Director (Cary Fukunaga), Best Feature (Amy Kaufman).  Joining Cary and his crew will be the Coen brothers, whose comedy A Serous Man has been Spirit nominated for Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins) and Best Director (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen). In addition, they have already won this year’s Robert Altman Award, which is awarded to the film’s director, casting director, and its ensemble cast. This year’s Spirit Awards, hosted by Eddie Izzard, has also changed location and time. Previously held on Saturday Afternoon by the Santa Monica beach, the new Spirits will be held in downtown LA on Friday evening. 

Sunday night, the Coen brothers will need to changed their casual wear for tuxes. The brothers are up for both Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. In addition, Henry Selick will be attending as he is nominated for Best Animated Feature Film for his 3-D stop-motion fantasy Coraline.

Sean Penn in Milk

Sean Penn in Milk

2009

In 2009, two Focus films were out front at the Awards––Milk and In Bruges. Martin McDonagh’s comedy of hit men in turmoil was nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. Milk, Gus Van Sant’s poignant portrait of a slain gay leader, was nominated for an outstanding eight nominations: Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Sean Penn); Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Dustin Lance Black); Best Achievement in Costume Design (Danny Glicker); Best Achievement in Directing (Gus Van Sant); Best Achievement in Editing (Elliot Graham); Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score (Danny Elfman); Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Josh Brolin); and Best Motion Picture of the Year (Dan Jinks, Bruce Cohen).  And two very happy nominees went home with statues­­––Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black, with the night’s host, Hugh Jackman, looking on.

The day before many of the same folk who’d being going to the Oscars were in Santa Monica for the Spirit Awards to honor the film’s four nominations: Best First Screenplay (Dustin Lance Black); Best Supporting Male (James Franco); Best Cinematography (Harris Savides); and Best Male Lead (Sean Penn). Steve Coogan, who’d recently starred in the Focus comedy Hamlet 2, hosted the event. And Dustin Lance Black and James Franco went home with awards.

Saoirse Ronan in Atonement

Saoirse Ronan in Atonement

2008

In 2008, the two awards ceremonies were equally divided between four Focus Films––Eastern Promises, Lust, Caution, Atonement and Talk To Me.  On Saturday afternoon in Santa Monica, host Rainn Wilson welcomed the nominees and guests. And Ang Lee’s espionage romance Lust, Caution was up for three awards: Best Cinematography (Rodrigo Prieto); Best Female Lead (Wei Tang); and Best Male Lead (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). In addition, Talk to Me, Kasi Lemmons’ stirring profile of Washington DC radio DJ Ralph "Petey" Greene, was up for two acting awards: Best Supporting Male (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and (Best Male Lead) Don Cheadle. Only Chiwetel Ejiofor walked away with an award that afternoon.

The next evening at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, with host Jon Stewart ruling the roost, two other Focus films were in the spotlight. For David Cronenberg’s tough Russian Mafia thriller, Eastern Promises, Viggo Mortensen was up for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. And Joe Wright’s Atonement was one of the big films to watch that night with seven Nominees: Best Picture (Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Paul Webster); Best Achievement in Art Direction (art director Sarah Greenwood, and set decorator Katie Spencer); Best Achievement in Cinematography (Seamus McGarvey); Best Achievement in Costume Design (Jacqueline Durran); Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Saoirse Ronan); Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published (Christopher Hampton); and Best Achievement in Music, Original Score (Dario Marianelli). Again only one person––Dario Marianelli—received a statuette.

2007

Remarkably, no Focus films were nominated for Academy or Spirit Awards.

Ang Lee with Jake Gyllenhaal on the set of Brokeback Mountain

Ang Lee with Jake Gyllenhaal on the set of Brokeback Mountain

2006

Without doubt, Oscar weekend 2006 belonged to Focus Features. Five films––Brokeback Mountain, Pride and Prejudice, The Constant Gardener, Broken Flowers, and Brick––were nominated for Academy and/or Spirit Awards for a total of 16 Oscar and 7 Spirit nominations.

On Saturday afternoon, three films were being honored in Santa Monica, as the remarkably irreverent Sarah Silverman hosted the event.  Ang Lee’s cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain was clearly the most talked (and joked) about with four nominations: Best Director (Ang Lee); Best Feature (James Schamus, Diana Ossana); Best Male Lead (Heath Ledger); Best Supporting Female (Michelle Williams). But also up that day was Jeffrey Wright, who was nominated for Best Supporting Male for his role in Jim Jarmusch’s bittersweet travelogue Broken Flowers. In addition, Brick, first-time director Rian Johnson’s mash-up of high school and film noir, was up for the John Cassavetes Award as well as a Producers award for Ram Bergman.  Brokeback Mountain won two big awards––Best Picture and Best Director. One highlight from that after was Peter Gallagher singing a parody of Brokeback Mountain to the tune of “On Top of Old Smokey:” “On top of old Brokeback, all covered with sheep, two amorous cowboys aren’t getting much sleep….”

The next day at the Academy Awards, Brokeback Mountain was the film everyone was watching and talking about, including the night’s host, Jon Stewart. But two other films––Fernando Meirelles’s stunning thriller The Constant Gardener and Joe Wright’s lush adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice––were also up for four awards each. Pride and Prejudice was nominated for: Best Achievement in Art Direction (art director Sarah Greenwood, and set decorator Katie Spencer); Best Achievement in Costume Design (Jacqueline Durran); Best Achievement in Music, Original Score (Dario Marianelli) and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Keira Knightley). The Constant Gardener was up for Best Achievement in Editing (Claire Simpson); Best Achievement in Music, Original Score (Alberto Iglesias); Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay (Jeffrey Caine); and Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Rachel Weisz). From these two films, Rachel Weisz was a winner that night.

Interestingly, Brokeback Mountain was in competition with the two other Focus films in several categories. All three films were up for Best Score and Brokeback competed with The Constant Gardener for both Best Supporting Actress and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay. In all, Brokeback had 8 nominations: Best Achievement in Directing (Ang Lee); Best Achievement in Music, Original Score (Gustavo Santaolalla); Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay (Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana); Best Achievement in Cinematography (Rodrigo Prieto); Best Picture of the Year (Diana Ossana, James Schamus); Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Heath Ledger); Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Jake Gyllenhaal); Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Michelle Williams).  While many predicted it would win Best Picture, Brokeback Mountain instead won three Oscars for Directing, Music, and Adapted Screenplay.

Kate Winslet, Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry on the set of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Kate Winslet, Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry on the set of Eternal Sunshine of
the Spotless Mind

2005

In 2005, three Focus features––The Door in the Floor, The Motorcycle Diaries, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind––were up for awards.

On Saturday afternoon at the Spirit Awards with Samuel L Jackson hosting, Tod Williams’s The Door in the Floor, his lyrical adaptation of a section from John Irving’s A Widow for One Year, was nominated for Best Male Lead (Jeff Bridges) and Best Screenplay (Tod Williams). And Walter Salles’ adventure tale of Che Guevara’s early life, The Motorcycle Diaries, was nominated for Best Director (Walter Salles); Best Cinematography (Eric Gautier); Best Debut Performance (Rodrigo De la Serna). By the time the afternoon was over, cinematographer Eric Gautier and composer Rodrigo De la Serna had Spirit Awards in their hands.

The next day at the Academy Awards, Chris Rock hosted, and Michel Gondry’s mind-bending love story Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was up for two Oscars: Best Writing, Original Screenplay (Charlie Kaufman; Michel Gondry; Pierre Bismuth) and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Kate Winslet). That night, the writers went home as winners.

Sofia Coppola with Bill Murray on the set of Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola with Bill Murray on the set of Lost in Translation

2004

In 2004, two films––21 Grams and Lost in Translation––had a busy weekend, both being up for Academy and Spirit Awards. At the Spirit Awards, everyone was a winner. While 21 Grams was not actually eligible to compete––its budget exceeded the $20 million limit placed on Spirit nominees––it was awarded a Special Distinction Award for cast and crew (director Alejandro González Iñárritu, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, producer Robert Salerno, Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, and Naomi Watts). And Sofia Coppola’s whimsical ode to alienation, Lost in Translation, won for all four awards for which it was nominated: Best Director (Sofia Coppola); Best Feature (Sofia Coppola, Ross Katz); Best Male Lead (Bill Murray) and Best Screenplay (Sofia Coppola).

The next day the winners from the night before got all dressed up for the Academy Awards, hosted by Billy Crystal. 21 Grams was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Benicio Del Toro) and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Naomi Watts) and Lost in Translation was up for essentially the same awards as the day before: Best Director (Sofia Coppola); Best Picture (Sofia Coppola, Ross Katz); Best Actor in a Leading Role (Bill Murray); Best Writing, Original Screenplay (Sofia Coppola).  Sofia Coppola went home with a statue for her role as a screenwriter.

Adrien Brody with Roman Polanski on the set of The Pianist

Adrien Brody with Roman Polanski on the set of The Pianist

2003

For the most part, 2003 was the first year the newly formed Focus Features was up for awards, and as a new company it many a stunning debut with two films––Far From Heaven and The Pianist––getting lots of attention.  At the Spirit Awards, Todd Haynes’ moving homage to Douglas Sirk, Far From Heaven, swept the board, winning everything for which it was nominated: Best Feature (Jody Allen, Christine Vachon); Best Director (Todd Haynes); Best Cinematography (Edward Lachman); Best Female Lead (Julianne Moore) and Best Supporting Male (Dennis Quaid).

The next day, the Academy Awards kicked off with Steve Martin as the night’s host. Far From Heaven was up for four awards––Best Writing, Original Screenplay (Todd Haynes); Best Cinematography (Edward Lachman); Best Actress in a Leading Role (Julianne Moore) and Best Music, Original Score (Elmer Bernstein).  Unfortunately, it didn’t win anything. Roman Polanski’s The Pianist fared much better. This drama of one man’s fierce determination to survive the Nazi occupation of Poland received seven nominations: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Adrien Brody); Best Director (Roman Polanski); Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay (Ronald Harwood); Best Cinematography (Pawel Edelman); Best Costume Design (Anna B. Sheppard); Best Editing (Hervé de Luze); and Best Picture (Roman Polanski, Robert Benmussa, Alain Sarde).  Adrien Brody won for Best Actor, making him at 29 the youngest recipient ever. Ronald Harwood and Roman Polanski also won. Unable to attend in person without risking being arrested, Polanski received a standing ovation when his award for Best Director was announced.

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