When Oprah sets out to do something, she does it with zeal — whether that means attaching her name to a hit Broadway musical (The Color Purple), storming the campaign trail on behalf of her favorite presidential candidate or launching the most influential book club in publishing history (her latest pick, Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, was shipped to bookstores just last week). So when even the hint of a possible Oprah Winfrey Film Club arose at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, reporters took note. “A film club,” the TV icon said in response to a question at a Sept. 13 press conference. “That’s a thought.”
But what might have seemed like only idle speculation a week ago took on a new dimension of seriousness Sept. 19, when the film Winfrey is producing took the festival’s top award. Lee Daniels’ Precious (based on the novel Push by Sapphire), the story of an illiterate black teen in 1980s Harlem who is both abused by her mother and pregnant with a second child by her father, was honored with Toronto’s coveted audience award, following in the wake of last year’s Toronto-to-Oscar champion Slumdog Millionaire. It was only the latest in a long line of victories for Precious. At the Sundance Film Festival in January, the movie swept both the jury and audience awards; a few days later Lions Gate signed on to distribute the film, aided by the production companies headed by both Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, who had both come aboard as executive producers.
In recent years, Toronto has emerged as the launchpad of choice for producers with an eye on Oscar gold — There Will Be Blood and Juno in 2007, Slumdog Millionaire and The Wrestler in 2008 — and Precious now has the buzz of a sure-fire Oscar nominee, particularly given the Academy’s decision this year to expand the Best Picture slate to 10 titles. The rollout of Precious seems to be following the familiar playbook: gaining momentum at three key festivals (Sundance, Cannes and Toronto) and looking to convert critical support into public intrigue and attendance when the movie hits theaters in November.
What’s different about the Precious campaign is the O factor. At the same press conference where she toyed with the notion of undertaking a film club, Winfrey announced her intention to lead a promotional blitz on behalf of Precious across her various platforms, hoping to “bring in different audiences” by promoting the film on her show, in her magazine and on her satellite-radio channel.