Before last Friday, "The Dark Knight Rises" was a strong candidate for Oscar recognition, but one that had to overcome some serious prejudices on the part of Academy voters.
In the aftermath of the shootings in Colorado, Christopher Nolan's film not only has to overcome those prejudices, but it has to do so with the air of tragedy hanging over the entire enterprise.
In the scheme of things, damage to the film's Oscar chances is one of the least important effects of the shootings. But just as the horrific events impacted dollars and cents at the box office, they could have an effect on how the film is perceived by Oscar voters, who are normally reluctant to embrace films with comic-book pedigrees.
The Academy typically honors action, fantasy and science-fiction movies mostly in categories like sound and visual effects. "Batman Begins," the first of Nolan's Batman films, received only a single nomination, for Wally Pfister's cinematography. "The Dark Knight" received eight, including wins for supporting actor Heath Ledger and sound editor Richard King; it was also nominated for art direction, cinematography, film editing, makeup, sound mixing and visual effects – but not for picture, director or screenplay.
Still, the failure to nominate "The Dark Knight" for Best Picture was widely seen as the tipping point that caused the Academy to expand the category from five nominees to 10, in the hopes of including more crowd-pleasing, money-making films. (The 10 has since been replaced by a sliding scale that will produce between five and 10 nominees.)
Before the tragedy, one theory said that lingering guilt about that oversight might cause voters to look more fondly on this final installment – and that just as the Oscar sweep for Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" was a reflection of voter admiration of the entire trilogy, so would the Academy honor Nolan's three films by honoring the final one.
But at the film's official AMPAS members screening at the Academy's Beverly Hills headquarters on Saturday night, any and all thoughts of snubs and trilogies were banished by thoughts of horror and tragedy.
The screening had long been on the schedule at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, which typically hosts matinee and evening shows for members every Saturday and Sunday. Warner Bros. and the Academy opted to hold the screening as planned, though without a scheduled post-screening Q&A with Pfister.
Academy president Tom Sherak told TheWrap that he asked theater staff not to run the usual pre-show clips announcing what's coming and asking patrons to turn off their cell phones. Instead, the president delivered brief remarks that concluded, "Let us take a moment of silence before we begin to hold those innocent people and their families in our hearts and in our prayers."
After that moment of silence, the screening began.
"I thought I needed to say something, but what can you say?" Sherak told TheWrap. "But I wrote some words and showed them to Warner Bros., and they were fine with it."
The film itself played in front of what some in attendance say was the biggest crowd they'd ever seen at the 1,000-seat Goldwyn. Members began filling up the room an hour early, and the main parking garage was at capacity a half hour before the screening.
As later-arriving members searched for seats, the Academy announced that an overflow screening would be held in the Little Theater, a second screening room in the Wilshire Boulevard building.
As for how the screening was received by the voting audience – which was, by all reports, a typically older Academy audience – the initial report was lackluster.
On Twitter, Bret Easton Ellis wrote, "Not that it really matters but there was zero love for 'The Dark Knight Rises' at the packed Academy screening in Los Angeles tonight."
But Ellis' description of the screening was at odds with most eyewitness accounts.
"The film played extremely well," said a member in attendance, who added that many of the voters he spoke to thought it was the best of Nolan's three Batman movies. Still, he added, the shootings could taint the movie in voters' minds: "The Academy members were certainly with it, [but] psychologically it may hurt at nomination time, in my opinion."
Sherak summed it up by saying, "I think it went over exactly how you thought it would go over. It's a very intense movie, and it was being shown with the freshness of the tragedy. After, nobody stayed around to talk about it. They got in their cars and drove home.
"I thought it played well, and I think it's a brilliant movie. But it wasn't one where you stood around in the lobby afterward."
Typically, the movies about which Oscar voters are most enthusiastic prompt lengthy post-screening discussions in the lobby.
In a strange twist, viewers exiting the theater walked out to Wilshire Boulevard to find three Beverly Hills police cars parked in front of the Academy. "I don't know where they came from," said Sherak, who said he had nothing to do with summoning the cars. "Staff, not me. But better to be overprotective. There are too many crazy people."
Afterward, even Ellis lavished praise on the film: "Despite its flaws and the fact that it has to be compared to THE key movie of its era ('The Dark Knight') I'm with the 'The Dark Knight Rises'" … "The tragic epic realism that Chris Nolan has given the trilogy is what saves the films from legitimate complaints … "
But does that mean that "The Dark Knight Rises" will weather the tragedy to do what its predecessors could not and win a Best Picture nomination?
If voters felt guilty about snubbing "The Dark Knight," that guilt didn't carry over to Nolan's next film, 2010's "Inception." While that film was warmly received by the Academy with four wins and eight nominations, including Best Picture, it was also the subject of the year's most notable snub, with Nolan bypassed in the Best Director race.
And the comparisons to "Return of the King," the gold standard to which all genre films are compared — and the film that made fans of the "Harry Potter" series hope fruitlessly that the Academy was saving its plaudits for the last film in that series – is problematic.
The two previous installments in the "LOTR" series, "The Fellowship of the Ring" and "The Two Towers," were themselves multiple nominees (13 and six, respectively), crucially including Best Picture nominations for both films.
Nolan's Batman saga doesn't have that, and now it also has to deal with the pall cast by the horrific events in Aurora. "Nobody's going to blame the shootings on the movie," said one voter. "But I don't know if anybody's going to be able to think about the movie without thinking about the shootings."
In the end, perhaps, the Oscar chances of "The Dark Knight Rises" – and by extension, of director Nolan and stars Christian Bale and Michael Caine, and writers Nolan, Jonathan Nolan and David Goyer – may hinge on how well the Academy likes the 10-to-20 films that have a more conventional Oscar pedigree and are due out before the end of the year.
Those five-to-10 slots could fill up quickly if Academy voters embrace Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby," Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables," Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina" and Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty."
And that doesn't even account for Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," Peter Jackson's first installment of "The Hobbit," David O. Russell's "The Silver Linings Playbook," Roger Mitchell's "Hyde Park on Hudson," Ben Affleck's "Argo," Neill Blomkamp's "Elysium," the Wachowskis' "Cloud Atlas," the Coen Brothers' potential 2012 release "Inside Llewyn Davis" and quite a few others.
In addition, Benh Zeitlin's Sundance sensation "Beasts of the Southern Wild" by all reports played extremely well at its own Academy screening and drew a surprisingly large crowd. And a few other 2012 releases, including Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" and this week's Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris film "Ruby Sparks," may not be out of the running either.
No doubt a good number of those films will fall by the wayside, but they make up a very crowded slate for a relatively small number of spots. And the majority of those films are more typical Academy fare than "The Dark Knight Rises."
An 86 percent positive Rotten Tomatoes rating and a Critics Choice Seal of Distinction from the Broadcast Film Critics Association will help the film stand out as not just another comic-book movie, and the undeniable heft that Nolan brings to the enterprise means its chances outside the below-line-categories are far better than rivals like "The Avengers" or "The Amazing Spider-Man."
But it wasn't going to be easy for "The Dark Knight Rises" before Colorado, and it won't be easy now.