LOS ANGELES -- After a screening of "Zero Dark Thirty" for Sony Pictures executives in September, studio co-chair Amy Pascal gathered the filmmakers in her office on the Culver City lot and uncorked bottles of Champagne.
Elation and confidence filled the air, recalled William Goldenberg, an editor on the film who was there to share a toast with a group that included director Kathryn Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal, financier Megan Ellison and line producer Colin Wilson. "The (executives) were really high on the movie," Goldenberg said. They said (star) Jessica (Chastain) was going to win the Oscar. They called it brilliant. It was a great day."
Two months later, "Zero Dark Thirty" won top prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. "OK, folks, you can plan on something else for Oscar night ... 'Zero Dark Thirty' will win best picture," Richard Corliss wrote in Time.
But the film's road to awards-season glory then took one of the sharpest turns in recent Oscar memory. Its wild ride offers a telling portrait of the 21st-century news cycle and how it can play havoc with a studio's carefully laid campaign.
Beginning with newspaper op-eds in early December -- and continuing when U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., released a letter excoriating the movie for its depiction of torture -- "Zero Dark" became the subject of a relentless attack from politicians and pundits. Critics said the film incorrectly asserted that the use of torture played a role in the capture of Osama bin Laden.
The firestorm hit even before the film opened nationwide, and just as Oscar voters were marking their nomination ballots.
Sony and the filmmakers faced a dilemma, according to a series of recent interviews: Should they respond forcefully to the criticism and attempt to wrest control of the narrative? Or remain relatively quiet and try not to stoke the flames?
Sony opted for the latter, partly concerned that fanning the flames would keep moviegoers away. The gambit paid off -- the movie has grossed $85 million in the U.S. -- but the strategy appears to have hurt the film on the awards front. En route to Sunday's Oscars, "Zero Dark" has been nearly shut out of awards -- save for a Golden Globe and a Writers Guild prize -- to some degree, voters say, because of the torture controversy.
"All of us agreed that the most important thing was to ensure the commercial success of the motion picture, and if that meant a momentary ding, that was part of the price of being at the party," Boal said in a recent interview. "In retrospect, I might do it again differently. But we don't have that luxury in life."
As "Zero Dark" opened in a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 19, Feinstein confronted Sony Entertainment Chief Executive Michael Lynton about her displeasure with the way the film depicted torture. Her feeling, as she put in a letter to Lynton that was also signed by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was that the movie was "grossly inaccurate."