Last year at this time, strong and obvious Best Picture Oscar contenders had emerged from the so-called Fall trifecta of film festivals at Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Movies like La La Land and Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Hacksaw Ridge and Arrival all staked their claim to a spot with their debuts and key fest exposure. This has been the norm, actually, for the past several seasons, as the eventual Best Picture Oscar winner, at the very least, was generally first seen at one of those festivals; that list includes Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, Spotlight, and of course, Moonlight, after first hearing the winner was La La Land in that now infamous envelope snafu. Only 2009’s Best Picture champ, The Hurt Locker, broke that streak in the past nine years, and that was because it had opened in late June, an anomaly.
This season, however, feels different. Afer the debuts of numerous hopefuls at Venice, Telluride and Toronto, the Oscar picture is murkier than ever. It appears the Best Picture race is about as wide open at this point as it has ever been, and the possibilities for a wild upset seem more likely than unlikely, especially when the wild card factor of nearly 1,500 new (in the last two years) and very internationalized Academy voters are added into the mix, thus making the traditional way of predicting the results a fool’s game. Who would have thought Moonlight could pull off that kind of upset against the juggernaut that La La Land turned out to be (still winning six Oscars, including Best Director)?
Among the films most often mentioned as frontrunners in this year’s race so far, not many of the sure bets seem to be coming from the fall fests. Warner Bros.’ July release, Dunkirk, is hanging strong as a near-certain Best Picture contender; Universal’s February release of the smash hit horror film Get Out also seems to be gaining momentum, as later releases fall by the wayside or crash at the box office; the critically acclaimed summertime romance, Call Me By Your Name, was actually first seen way back at the Sundance Film Festival, even though it doesn’t open until late November, but it also appears to be gaining momentum.
The major studios are in the game with several so-called blockbuster-type films they are very seriously pushing in many key Oscar categories, none of which came from the fall fests, in a list that includes Logan, War for the Planet of the Apes, Blade Runner 2049, Wonder Woman and so on. Universal, Warner and Disney all shied away from playing the Oscar-friendly fall festival game this year. Fox had only The Mountain Between Us at Toronto, but that is considered more of a commercial play for them. In fact, of the majors, only Paramount and Sony are using the fall fest circuit to drive some contenders. Breaking it down by distributor, here is how their awards season fortunes may be enhanced — or broken — by their participation at the fall festivals, which, in addition to the aforementioned Venice, Telluride and Toronto, also include the New York and London fests, as well as November’s AFI Fest.
FOX SEARCHLIGHT: Battle of the Sexes won lots of notice at its Telluride debut, as well as at Toronto, and has fueled that into respectable box office grosses to remain a contender, particularly for reigning Best Actress champ Emma Stone as Billie Jean King. Guillermo del Toro’s magical The Shape of Water won hearts and minds at all three fests, from its world premiere at Venice, and could have some added mojo when it opens in December. Perhaps Searchlight’s best bet, though, is Martin McDonagh’s acclaimed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which, after Venice, drew strong talk for its cast, including Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, and became the surprise winner of TIFF’s People’s Choice audience award, often an indicator of eventual Oscar success.
A24: Following up a Best Picture win for Moonlight, not to mention a Best Actress and Best Picture nomination the previous year for Room, this little indie company that could is on a roll, and like it did with those two films, used Telluride and TIFF to springboard Lady Bird, the charming Greta Gerwig directorial debut starring an award-worthy Saoirse Ronan, into strong contention, to give them a three-peat on the Oscar stage. It could be the first teen-oriented film since Juno to crack the Best Pic code. Their other best bet, The Florida Project, debuted in Cannes, but won over Toronto — and, coupled with strong results since its opening, is also a possibility, if not a sure thing in the Best Picture race. A midnight TIFF debut for James Franco’s quirky and amusing The Disaster Artist went well enough to position it possibly for Best Adapted Screenplay and possibly in the Golden Globes Comedy categories — it premiered at SXSW in March. On the down side, there is mixed reaction for the challenging Cannes debut, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which attempted to use TIFF as a new launch into the race, but didn’t gain much traction there.
ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS: Their stirring Boston bombing survivor story Stronger, starring Jake Gyllenhaal in the true and inspiring story of Jeff Bauman, did well with a TIFF World Premiere, but fizzled shortly afterwards when it opened in theaters. Still, Gyllenhaal could pull off a much-deserved lead actor nomination once screeners arrive.
ENTERTAINMENT STUDIOS: Byron Allen’s new distribution company made a splash purchasing both the Scott Cooper–directed Western Hostiles and the controversial Chappaquiddick, detailing the Ted Kennedy scandal, following the 1969 fatal auto accident he was involved in. Both were pickups after TIFF reaction and announced for Oscar qualifying runs. Chappaquiddick has since been moved out of the season, but there is hope for a Christian Bale Best Actor nod for Hostiles.
STX: Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, telling the true life story of poker madam Molly Bloom, Molly’s Game had a successful run at TIFF and is positioned to strike at Oscar for Jessica Chastain in particular, in the crowded Best Actress race, following a Christmas opening.
FOCUS FEATURES: Always an Oscar season stalwart, Focus used Telluride to successfully launch Gary Oldman as the current Best Actor front runner for his Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, and Venice to launch Dame Judi Dench’s latest round with the Queen in Stephen Frear’s Victoria & Abdul. Both also played TIFF to nice response and could be dark horse Best Picture contenders as well.
ANNAPURNA: Another new distributor, Annapurna used TIFF to launch Brad’s Status (which they released for Amazon), as well as Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, but any awards hopes for either were dashed by disappointing theatrical runs. The company is hoping an upcoming awards-timed re-release of their maiden August release Detroit will be able to land them some forward momentum into the Oscar race instead.
NEON: Yet another relatively new player to the Oscar game got a lot of traction with the Tonya Harding flick, I, Tonya, which they picked up at TIFF with 30WEST, and which surprisingly came in second for TIFF’s audience award. Strong talk here for Margot Robbie and Allison Janney.
PARAMOUNT: The studio followed the successful pattern established last year with Arrival, by taking Alexander Payne’s comedy Downsizing to Venice/Telluride/Toronto, but after smash reviews in Italy, saw the buzz simmer a bit when it hit North America. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! predictably drew polarizing responses at Venice and TIFF, while George Clooney’s uneven Suburbicon pretty much fizzled at the same two fests.
SONY PICTURES CLASSICS: SPC had a gaggle of movies as usual on the fall festival calendar this year, but got their strongest response after the TIFF North American debut of Sundance find, Call Me By Your Name. There were also encouraging words for Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which, if there is any justice, could put them both into Oscar contention. On the down side, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House and The Leisure Seeker, featuring lovely turns from veterans Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland, didn’t light the house on fire with awards buzz after their debuts.
BLEECKER STREET: Breathe won plaudits for stars Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy at both TIFF and London, but went nowhere at the box office, which might hurt any subsequent momentum awards-wise.
AMAZON: The streamer’s new Richard Linkater film, Last Flag Flying, drew a mixed response after its opening night world premiere at the New York Film Festival, and the same fate met Woody Allen’s NYFF closer, Wonder Wheel, which nevertheless has Kate Winslet back in Best Actress contention. Neither film was the slam dunk, critically, that Amazon must have been hoping for.
SONY PICTURES: A gutsy decision to take the unfinished Denzel Washington-starring Roman J. Israel, Esq. into a much anticipated one-night TIFF screening drew mixed reviews from pundits and lowered its chances, awards-wise, despite a typically fine turn from Washington. Since TIFF, the film went back in to the cutting room and had 12 minutes excised, among other changes in advance of its November opening. Oscar fate TBD. All the Money in the World, meanwhile, will hold its late December date despite allegations against star Kevin Spacey. The film will hastily reshoot his scenes with Christopher Plummer.
NETFLIX: Their respective Sundance and Cannes debuts, Mudbound and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), drew strong support at various fall fests to continue their awards season hopes, and both are primed to test resistance to Netflix’s day and date release strategy that killed the Oscar chances for Beasts of No Nation two years ago.
THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY:
Don’t ask. Even if their big TIFF hope The Current War hadn’t flopped in its Toronto world premiere ( I hear it has gone back into editing for a later 2018 release post TWC), don’t ask.