Will Smith should’ve been Oscar nominated for "Concussion" but racism is not the real reas


Blame it on a change of management at Sony, pressure from the NFL, the holiday season and a completely inept release plan for the movie.

Will Smith isn’t planning to attend the Academy Awards this year after his extraordinary performance in Concussion was overlooked - but I don’t believe racism is the real reason.

Smith’s hopes weren’t tackled by an overly Caucasian movie Academy, which over the years has happily rewarded many fine black performers and pictures. In this case, it was the ineptitude, cowardice, and bad luck of Sony Pictures Entertainment, back room pressure from pro football bosses, and to a lesser extent, the general public’s preference for spectacle and overly uncomfortable truth telling.

You can also in part blame it on the Christmas Day release date Sony chose to go wide with Will Smith’s tour de force acting showcase. It was only a week after the record shattering opening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which sucked up all the air (and male ticket buyers) up for a month. Also, you can add in that it was a tough subject to drop in the midst of feel good Christmas-time.

Concussion couldn’t have been set up better to flop. Women, who are hesitant to watch a movie relating to football anyway were busy shopping and men were out buying Christmas trees or in line to catch Star Wars for the third time.

The excuse for the poor choice of an opening date was that Sony wanted to position it (and Smith) for awards consideration, but that is a copout. The truth about Hollywood is no matter how important it is to win awards, movie distributors will tell you first and foremost, it’s a business. Sony has very savvy distribution execs who had to see this coming.

While more than 100 million Americans regularly tune in for the Super Bowl, the behind the scenes story of the real consequences of football got stiff armed at the cinema.

The well produced, brilliantly acted, powerful and little known story of how head trauma from football games was killing beloved retired players couldn’t draw flies. Meanwhile, the NFL was in as much denial as a cigarette company in the 1950's.

If Sony had opened in the slow days of late summer, or even in the fall, Concussion might have gotten its own weekend to shine, just as football fever was rising.

An August release might also have avoided what was the real fatal blow to the movie.

In mid-September 2015, Sony was body slammed by a computer hack, inspired by their film The Interview, which led to thousands of documents being released on the Internet. Journalists from Buzzfeed to the New York Times, pouring over emails from internal studio sources, found a discussion about Concussion.

The emails revealed Sony had deleted or altered scenes to pacify the powerful NFL, which was anxiously doing all it could to keep the lid on the controversy Concussion was about to stir up.

Sony denies it, but it seems clear from the memos that it caved in to the pressure. It did so even though Sony is the rare studio which has no direct commercial link to the powerful pro league. While Disney/ABC, CBS, Comcast, Time Warner and others pay the league billions and kiss their ring for that privilege, Sony didn’t have ESPN to protect.

Still, as the emails detailed, the studio wanted to tone parts of the film which detailed the NFL's culpability, as they blatantly ignored the facts about serious head trauma on the gridiron for years. In fact, as the movie shows, they actively worked to quash the story, and they instead focused on blaming the whistle blowers.

The NFL has finally come around to admitting there is a potential problem. It has now created a “concussion protocol,” which means if during a game someone rings a player’s bell so hard they barely know their name, that player must go to the locker room to be checked out.

The issue has been kept alive not by the movie, which faded faster than a missed pass, but by a number of former players and their families' lawsuits against the NFL over the brain injuries. Whether or not that will make parents hestitate before allowing their children to play full contact football remains unclear.

A neuropsychologist I've spoken with actually encourages her sons to play football, and she says the concussion issue has not been proven. She sounds much like someone denying climate change in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that it’s real. She loves the aura of football and nothing will change her mind. There are millions like her.

Smith, a former stand-up and sitcom darling who has become a major movie star, raised awareness about Concussion just by being in it. But his casting also played against type. This wasn’t Smith being the funny, clever and sexy hero in an action movie. So although about two-thirds of the critics liked the movie (which scored an A from Cinemascore), to many Smith fans it smelled more like the flop After Earth than megahit Independence Day.

It was as if the American collective consciousness said don’t bother me with what can happen to players after the NFL has aged them out (or injuries have cut short their career) because I have a tree to trim, a Star Wars movie to watch, and Cam Newton’s nearly unbeaten Panthers to cheer on.

What the dismal $11 million opening weekend did – days after Disney’s Star Wars racked up a record $529 million global opening weekend gross - was give Sony the perfect excuse to bury Concussion. They cut advertising, watched the movie lose theater screens, and put forward a perfunctory awards campaign as minimalist as one of Frank Stella's geometric paintings.

Much had changed at Sony from the time Concussion's seemingly modest $35 million budget was given a green-light until the movie burnt out instantly at the holiday 2015 box office like a dried out Christmas tree set ablaze.

In February 2015, an important Concussion champion, studio head Amy Pascal, was pushed out in the wake of the hack, which revealed her private conversations, and less than stellar box office results. Remember, it’s a business first.

The new Sony management are fine folks, but the pressure from the home office in Tokyo must have been intense. I don’t imagine the Japanese were ever thrilled about a potentially controversial movie involving a subject of negligible interest outside the U.S. Concussion was completely sacked in the important international market where American football is little known.

Concussion lost money theatrically and isn’t even likely to perform well in home video, where the failure of the movie and the other factors dim DVR, download and streaming prospects.

So I was sympathetic to Jada Pinkett Smith when she became the most vocal celebrity this side of Spike Lee to declare the Oscars an unacceptable white wash. If her husband had been nominated, for a performance that certainly made him deserving, I doubt she would be planning alternate activities on Oscar night.

The real winner in the sacking of Concussion – no surprise – is the awesomely powerful and influential National Football League.

Variety wrote on November 10, 2015, that at Sony, “everyone is nervous about what’s going to happen,” a source said — perhaps with good reason. A September 1, 2015, New York Times story concluded that the film was altered to avoid the league’s wrath, positioning emails from the Sony hack as (perhaps overstated) evidence. Some feel it was a well-orchestrated hit piece, and with an upcoming 60 Minutes segment set to focus on the NFL’s ongoing handling of safety concerns, alert status at the studio is high.”

We now know who won that fight – the NFL. List Smith among those on the losing team.

Sony has strong new leadership in Tom Rothman and will make lots of movies in the future, but the way Concussion was fumbled is appalling not only to Will and Jada, but to all who value truth over hype, even football fans.

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