Though the outcome may not have been a total shock, it represented a dramatic fall for "The Social Network," whose Oscar momentum felt nearly insurmountable less than two months ago — particularly at an opulent party thrown for the film by Sony Pictures.
But just 16 days after that pricey party, "The Social Network" lost the Producers Guild of America contest to "The King's Speech." The following weekend, the British World War II drama scored an even bigger upset at the Directors Guild of America awards, and the next day secured the top prize from the Screen Actors Guild. All of "Social Network's" momentum suddenly vanished.
"We didn't steal it," said "The King's Speech" screenwriter David Seidler, who won the original screenplay Oscar. "It just happened."
Oscar races, like political campaigns, are often filled with giant opinion swings, many of which cannot be explained, and there's no shortage of recent best picture upsets — "Crash" prevailing over the favored "Brokeback Mountain," or "Saving Private Ryan" losing to underdog "Shakespeare in Love." Sunday's ceremony featured any number of perceived close races, including the lead actress duel between Natalie Portman from "Black Swan" and Annette Bening from "The Kids Are All Right."
"That's the way it's always gone with the history of the Oscars," said Mike De Luca, one of the producers of "The Social Network." "There's more of a populist choice and more of a critics' choice and you don't know which way the academy will go." But in the recent years, critical favorites "The Hurt Locker" in 2010, "Slumdog Millionaire" in 2009 and "No Country for Old Men" in 2008 all went on to also win the top Oscar.
When Oscar voters finally marked this year's ballots, it could very well be that the plurality decided that "The King's Speech" was simply the better film.
Whatever the reason, rarely has a pacesetter with such a wealth of early critical and awards support faded as fast as "The Social Network."
"We were going to all these [events] and everyone was like 'Social Network,' 'Social Network,' 'Social Network,' and I kept saying, 'This is not good — there is going to be a backlash,' " said Dana Brunetti, one of the producers of "The Social Network." "It started at the PGA and went to the DGA and then SAG. It's because we came out of the gate so hard, so fast and so early."
Did Sony's awards team make any strategic blunders? Might "The Social Network's" marketers have put too much faith in the endorsements of film reviewers and critics' organizations? Did voters come to see "The Social Network" and its key creators as being as arrogant and entitled as Mark Zuckerberg was portrayed as being in the movie? Are academy voters simply too old to appreciate a movie about the Internet's top social networking site?
For the most part, Sony and the filmmakers were not volunteering answers about what might have gone wrong, but interviews with several people close to the film and rival awards strategists suggest that even if "The King's Speech" was destined to win, "The Social Network" could have played its cards more effectively.
"The Social Network" was the critical favorite from the outset, recognized for its topical relevance and topping most of the year's "best of" lists. Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers called it the movie of the year, saying, "[Director David] Fincher and [screenwriter Aaron] Sorkin triumph by taking it further. Lacing their scathing wit with an aching sadness, they define the dark irony of the past decade."
But the film is also focused on a male elite from Harvard, and its women characters serve mainly as sexual conquests. Audiences often leave the theater contemplative and eager for discussion but rarely having a rooting interest for any one character. With its contemporary themes and au courant topic, many question whether the film was too young for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is primarily made up of industry insiders over 50.
In contrast, "The King's Speech" though set in the 1930s was positioned by its Oscar campaign as a timeless story about friendship, loyalty and courage. And while characters can't get more elite than King George VI, his struggle for a voice made him far easier to relate to than anyone in "The Social Network." It played to rousing receptions at its first screenings at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, and even Oscar producer Bruce Cohen emerged from an early showing declaring "The King's Speech" a shoo-in for a best picture nomination.
Despite the overwhelming acclaim that accompanied the film's release, "The Social Network" faced some difficult obstacles from the very start, chiefly the film's comparatively early release of Oct. 1 ("The King's Speech" premiered in a limited number of theaters on Nov. 26). In effect, "The Social Network" was forced to maintain its front-runner status for five months — an eternity in movie time. "The King's Speech," for comparison, did not reach its widest point of release until the first weekend of February.
"The Social Network's" Oscar strategists took advantage of the high praise bestowed by critics nationwide (the film was among the best-reviewed in the year, according to three websites that aggregate reviews), hyping the film as the best picture from the beginning — almost daring Oscar voters not to get on the train.
It didn't seem to help that Sony Pictures seemed overly eager to win the best picture Oscar — an accolade that had been out of its reach since "The Last Emperor" in 1988. Rival campaigners estimated that Sony spent more than $10 million on its awards push, but the studio said the figure was closer to $7.5 million.
Some of that money was used to send DVD screeners to SAG's entire membership of close to 100,000 in a bid to win that guild's top award, but "The Social Network" walked away empty-handed. Actors are the largest voting bloc in the academy, and sources on "The Social Network's" campaign said they believed they needed the support from the actors union to capture the best picture trophy. ("The King's Speech" won SAG's ensemble honor.)