‘Unbroken’: Universal Pins Oscar Hopes on Angelina Jolie

CinemaCon 2014: Raunchy comedies “A Million Ways to Die in the West” and “Dumb and Dumber To” earn howls

Universal Pictures is pinning its Oscar hopes on Angelina Jolie and “Unbroken,” the inspiring true story of Olympic athlete and World War II prisoner of war Louis Zamperini.

The studio first optioned the incredible story of survival in 1957 as a possible vehicle for Tony Curtis, but it took Lauren Hillenbrand’s 2010 best-selling book about the true-life hero and Jolie’s passion for the material to get the project to the big screen.

“Angie made this movie happen,” Universal Pictures Chairman Donna Langley said Tuesday at CinemaCon, the annual exhibition trade show. “She fought for it and earned the right to direct it.”

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The studio clearly thinks Jolie should make room on her mantle come awards season. It teased theater owners with an extended look at the picture, which tracks Zamperini as he matures from a street ruffian into an Olympic distance runner and eventually an air force bombardier. After his plane crashes off of Oahu, he manages to survive only to be captured by the Japanese. The preview showed Zamperini (played by English newcomer Jack O’Connell) enduring all manner of physical hardship, from beatings to whippings to sadistic tests of strength.

“Louis Zamperini is the toughest man I’ve ever met,” Jolie said.

The story of his life and her film is one she argued the world needs to hear, with its message, “to never, ever give up. ”

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The cinematography by Roger Deakins, which manages to make these torments visually arresting while bringing the brutality home, could finally win the “Skyfall” and “Prisoners” veteran his long denied Academy Award after 11 failed nominations.

“Unbroken” was dramatically different in tone from a steady stream of raunchy R-rated comedies that the studio is banking on for the rest of the year. The studio offered sneak peeks at “Neighbors,” a frat house comedy with Seth Rogen and Zac Efron; Seth MacFarlane’s western spoof, “A Million Ways to Die in the West”; and “Dumb and Dumber To.” These films seem destined to shatter standards of good taste but also possibly break box office records. Gags ranged from Rogen milking Rose McGowan to a man being crushed to death by a block of ice to Jim Carrey using a truck to remove his catheter. Each escalating indignity was received with howls of laughter.

Universal tacitly acknowledged that 2014 will be more modest than past ones (the euphemism of choice was “diverse”). The death of Paul Walker forced the studio to push “The Fast & the Furious 7” into 2015, depriving it of a major tentpole. Still, what a year 2015 stands to be, bringing with it not just another “Fast & Furious” sequel, but also “Jurassic World,” “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Ted 2” and the “Despicable Me” spin-off, “Minions.”

Langley told theater owners to mark their calendars for a “gonzo year full of the biggest titles.”