Can Oprah Lead Precious All the Way to Oscar?

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Evan Agostini / AP

Author Sapphire, left, and executive producer Oprah Winfrey, center, listen to director Lee Daniels at a news conference for the film Precious during the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 13

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.

While Oprah will woo the public, the involvement of Winfrey and Perry as executive producers only enhances the film's backstory — a crucial ingredient when it comes to becoming the talk of the Academy. Voters love hearing about the actress who saved a doomed production (Kate Winslet in The Reader) or a left-for-dead drama that went on to become the darling of critics and audiences (Slumdog Millionaire). Thus far, the narrative surrounding Precious is one of audiences and critics being moved to tears, caught off guard by its stark portrayal of poverty and wrapped up in its uncompromised performances from newcomer Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), the comedian Mo'Nique (her mother) and Mariah Carey, in a surprisingly glamourless role.

Precious marks the first film to be affiliated with Perry's 34th Street Films, and in the case of Oprah it marks her biggest move yet to use her media empire in service of a film that doesn't feature her in the cast. Two years ago she stood behind The Great Debaters — a film that went on to gross only $30 million. She produced and co-starred in 1998's Beloved, 12 years after she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in The Color Purple. If Precious were to be crowned Best Picture next February, Winfrey could well be singled out as one of the producers to take the stage to accept the award: Oprah would have her own Oscar.

For now, Winfrey is keeping the focus on the story that first inspired her to sign on to the project. "None of us who sees the movie can now walk through the world and allow the Preciouses of the world to be invisible," Winfrey told reporters in Toronto. But few things on earth are as precious as an Oprah Winfrey endorsement, and that's the X factor that is bound to have Hollywood insiders talking throughout the winter, wondering just how far this one woman can take an independent film — and how they can convince her to do the same for them. Until she starts up that film club.