It was just about 18 months ago at the Toronto Film Festival that a new full-service production company called Cinelou made its mark, with co-CEO Mark Canton telling me at the time they planned to release 10 movies a year. They were just forming Cinelou Releasing, the distribution arm of the company, and a small indie called Cake starring Jennifer Aniston would be first to go out under that banner to qualify for 2014 awards races. No one gave it too much thought because it’s so hard for a small upstart to make a dent in an Oscar contest that can cost millions to succeed.

Remarkably, Cinelou very nearly pulled off that kind of upset, winning key actress nominations for Aniston from the Critics’ Choice, Golden Globes Pete Hammond badgeand SAG awards. That kind of pedigree almost always spells an Oscar nom too, but despite a game campaign, Aniston just missed out. Regardless, Cinelou made its mark and showed it was serious about supporting talent.

It turns out the company was serious about that prediction of doing 10 pictures a year, too. After just 18 months, Cinelou has five under its belt, two more planned Oscar campaigns for this year and other big-name films in development. I was invited to take a look this week in Cannes at up-to-now-hidden footage from some of the Cinelou films currently in post or shooting. Co-CEO Courtney Solomon, here promoting the company’s films to the international community, told me the plan is to put their films out and keep control of marketing and distribution while bringing in studio partners for ancillary. Warner Bros has handled international on Cinelou’s slate to date.

cannes-2016-670-380And as for 10 films? Solomon told me right now he’s thrilled they have been able to put together and shoot five with stars like Aniston, Eddie Murphy, Robert De Niro, Jacob Tremblay and many others. They are all being made for a price, but quality is not being sacrificed — and to hear Solomon talk about their plans, Cinelou sounds like they are drinking some of the STX Kool-Aid. They are focusing on talent- and content-driven movies the studios mostly have left behind for tentpole dreams.

In doing so, Cinelou also is harboring big awards hopes for two of their films this year: director Bruce Beresford’s Mr. Church, starring Murphy in a dramatic role, and the contemporary war drama The Yellow Birds featuring a cast that includes Aniston, Alden Ehrenreich, Jack Huston and Tye Sheridan. Although the latter film is slated for 2017, the company plans to qualify it for this year’s Oscar race in several categories. I got a look at 11 minutes of it, and though it definitely has the feel of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, there also seems to be some strong female supporting roles for Aniston and Toni Collette ObLwYRLSthat could figure into acting races if all goes well. Ehrenreich suddenly is very hot, appearing in Warren Beatty’s upcoming Howard Hughes movie — newly titled Rules Don’t Apply — in October for Fox and New Regency as well as just being cast as the young Han Solo in a Star Wars spinoff movie. The Yellow Birds is based on a bestseller by Kevin Powers and drawn from his own experience as a machine gun runner in Iraq. Released in 2005, it was on New York Times bestsellers lists around the same time as Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which Ang Lee adapted into a film that will be competing for Sony this awards season. Both Iraq War-themed film will be vying for Oscar voter attention now too.

Cinelou also is hoping its September release Mr. Church can bring Murphy back to the Oscar wars with a change-of-pace role as a cook who goes to work for a young girl (Britt Robertson) and her dying mother and winds up staying 15 years. I’ve seen it, and Murphy is excellent — andmaxresdefault restrained — in the role. And even though the film is named after his character, Cinelou will push for a Supporting Actor nom, which makes sense since the thrust of the movie is really for Robertson’s character. Beresford, you might recall, directed Driving Miss Daisy, which won four Oscars including Best Picture. Mr. Church, which premiered last month at Tribeca, has a similar tone. The company has retained awards consultant Lisa Taback to work on its campaigns, just as she did for Cake and, most recently, Open Road’s successful Best Picture bid for Spotlight. 

In production now is Taylor Hackford’s The Comedian, starring De Niro — not quite back in Rupert Pupkin territory but close as a not-well-liked comic. From the brief preview, it looks like it could be one of De Niro’s more promising recent works. Meanwhile, Solomon says Cinelou signed Tremblay to star in Burn Your Maps before seeing any of Room, and there are high hopes at Cinelou for this heartwarming story about a young boy who dreams of being a Mongolian goat herder (yep, go with it).

FROM KRISTEN STEWART TO MARION COTILLARD, CANNES ACTRESS RACE HEATS UP

There is no question the Cannes Film Festival has been criticized over the years for having a paucity of women both behind and sometimes even in front of the cameras, but let’s give the festival’s artistic director Thierry Fremaux some props for changing things this year. True, only three 20-plus films in the main competition are directed by women, but in my opinion, all three should be near the top of any consideration list by the jury: German Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, French Nicole Garcia’s From the Land of the Moon and Brit Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (which I just caught up with today). It is interesting that all three are auteurs from Europe, where female directors seem to be more prevalent, at least in awards-bait type movies. And all three have made beautiful movies with great roles for leading ladies. The list of women in contention for the Best Actress honor at Sunday night’s awards ceremony is blessedly very long. For the Oscars, it often seems it is hard to find five worthy female roles to nominate in a business dominated by male actors, but not in Cannes, not this time. Consider just some of the top contenders, all getting raves for their work:

Sandra Huller, Toni Erdmann: a risky, accomplished, even nakedly hilarious performance.

Marion Cotillard, From the Land of the Moon:  The Oscar winner is a perennial bridesmaid in Cannes, never having won, but this touching performance could do the trick. Unfortunately she also just appeared in a second competition film, Xavier Dolan’s awful It’s Only the End of the World; although she tries in that one, the actors can’t do much with weak material shot in 343108E300000578-0-image-m-19_1463320285194unflattering close-ups.

Sasha Lane, American Honey: An extraordinary debut for Lane, who never had acted before and was discovered in classic Old Hollywood style just sitting on a beach. The camera loves her, and her backstory is irresistible, but the fest has a rule that awards must be spread around and the movie is a real Palme d’Or possibility, thus American Honeyhurting Lane’s chances.

Ruth Negga, Loving: The Ethopian-Irish stage actress makes the very American Mildred Loving and her quest to be married to a white man just flawless. There’s already Oscar-nomination talk.

Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte, Julieta: Pedro Almodovar plays a trick on the audience and cast two actresses in the same role of Julieta. The twin gambit could result in a shared Best Actress prize for pulling off a tricky assignment.

Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper: Stewart, who earlier this year became the first American actress to win the French Cesar, was seen by the jury twice. First, she virtually stole Woody Allen’s Cafe Society, which was out of competition, and then appeared in the lead in French director Olivier90 Assayas’ Personal Shopper, ultimately winning strong critical response.

Sonia Braga, Aquarius: This deliciously sexy veteran Brazilian national treasure has a full-bodied, dominating role in the entertaining Brazilian entry. Way overdue and very deserving.

And that list doesn’t even mention some longer shots, as well as those yet to be seen in the festival’s closing two nights, including Charlize Theron in Sean Penn’s The Last Face, young Elle Fanning in Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon  and especially Isabelle Huppert, on the trail of her attacker in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. That film won’t be seen until Saturday, but I hear from those in the know it represents the best work ever from this iconic French star.