CinemaCon, the big annual exhibitors confab in Vegas, isn’t exactly where you go to with Oscars on your mind. It is a place where the biggest applause lines are usually about how many billions of dollars studios are making for theater owners and themselves.
Nevertheless, in recent years, amidst all the various summer tentpoles, action and animated movies being hawked in the Caesars Palace Colosseum Theatre where each studio does their big rollout, a few movies have gone on to Oscar glory that had early Oscar buzz created with first looks and appearances by filmmakers. Movies from The Life of Pi to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody got a CinemaCon boost even if the actual words “Academy Awards” weren’t used.
So this week, as my colleagues Anthony D’Alessandro and Nancy Tartaglione (who both cover the box office beat) are doing play by play on the studio presentations, I have been trying to spot potential Oscar contenders. With STX, Warner Bros and this morning’s Universal presentations now history, it has been fairly easy to tag potential players, even without seeing the movie — and in a couple of cases even actual footage.
This convention is basically all about the major studios, but as 2018 showed they still had the goods to compete with more adult-oriented fare from the indies or specialty divisions with such films as Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born — the latter two first showcased during last year’s CinemaCon. At its entertaining show this morning, Universal was not shy about reminding exhibitors that Green Book not only has made $300 million worldwide but also won three Oscars including Best Picture. It was also prominently featured in a splendid and emotionally powerful reel celebrating movies called “The Power Of Cinema Is Universal,” the rare studio reel that also featured movies from other studios.
If ever there was a compelling antidote to all the controversy swirling around Netflix, it was this inspiring message about the theatrical experience. It was goosebump-inducing, as Universal chairman Donna Langley agreed. “It brings tears to my eyes every time,” she told the crowd, which didn’t have to be convinced that theaters are the place to see movies first.
On Tuesday, NATO’s John Fithian and the MPAA’s Charlie Rivkin tiptoed around the conundrums of Netflix (which is obviously invisible here) and streaming, with Fithian even trying to offer comfort food by showing numbers that seem to indicate streaming actually can be a help to theatre-going. It wasn’t met with nearly the raucous response Helen Mirren got during Warner Bros’ “Big Picture” event, when she made the headline-grabbing remark, “I love Netflix, but f*ck Netflix!”
Still, though not here with footage to show from five potential Oscar contenders it has on tap for this fall including Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Netflix is obviously trying to permanently play in the Oscar game as it is good for its business plan. But just from these three companies showing off their wares so far in Las Vegas, it appears there will be plenty of contenders that actually still adhere to theatrical windows of 90 days, a cause near and dear to the hearts of the AMCs, Cinemarks and Regals of the world (all who refused to play Roma or even acknowledge its Best Picture nomination — the first ever for Netflix).
Universal has a number of possible contenders, most notably Tom Hooper’s (Les Miserables, The King’s Speech) star-laden adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, which due to heavy motion-capture elements had no footage to show but did preview the possibilities with a behind-the-scenes featurette featuring rehearsals, performance-capture footage, and interviews with Hooper and the actors. The capper to the Universal show was a stirring live rendition of “Memory”, the key song from the Webber score sung by Jennifer Hudson, who plays Grizabella. It brought the only standing ovation so far witnessed this year at CinemaCon. A brief mention of another year-end Universal contender was made by Langley for the currently shooting Sam Mendes feature 1917, a war drama shrouded in secrecy starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard Madden, and almost assuredly headed for an Oscar campaign.
Footage from Danny Boyle’s unique Beatles movie Yesterday was intriguing and could make this film a summer sleeper leading into awards season, and possible recognition from Golden Globes for sure (but maybe beyond). Newcomer star Himesh Patel, playing a guy who wakes up in a world where he is the only one who ever knew the Beatles existed, brought out his guitar and sang a sweet version of the Paul McCartney title song. Another film from writer Lena Waithe and director Melina Matsoukas, called Queen + Slim, also looked intriguing, but we’ll have to see the film to determine its real awards prospects. Get Out Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya is among the stars.
Warner Bros showed off a very diverse slate and seems to be back in the Oscar game with a number of prospects including Todd Phillips’ Joker origin story with Joaquin Phoenix talking on the iconic role that won a posthumous Oscar for Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight — so far the only actor in a comic book movie to win one. The role offers lots of potential as witnessed by the trailer, and Warners has given it a prime awards-season slot of first week of October where many of its contenders have landed in the past including The Departed, Argo and A Star Is Born.
More Warner Bros Oscar fodder, judging by the clips shown, could come from the big-screen adaptation of bestselling novel The Goldfinch featurin,g among others, Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, Ansel Algort, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, and Finn Wolfhard. There’s Edward Norton’s starring and directing prospect, Motherless Brooklyn, and the female mob drama The Kitchen with Tiffany Haddish and Melissa McCarthy going against type that looks like it could be strong even if it feels like Widows already got there last year (and landed zero Oscar noms).
Then there is the very intriguing drama from director Bill Condon called The Good Liar, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren (the reason she got to slam Netflix yesterday). Both Condon and Mirren were hard-pressed to describe the film except to say no one should ever reveal the big twisty ending which apparently is a doozy. Condon suggested that in this age of social media, perhaps exhibitors could go back to learning from the master promotions of Alfred Hitchcock in making sure the film’s secret is kept. At any rate it looks like it offers two juicy roles for McKellen and Mirren.
All of the aforementioned movies are getting fall release slots. Another that could figure is August release Blinded By the Light, from Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha. It was a Sundance hit picked up by Warners and is a 1987-set film about a guy obsessed with Bruce Springsteen. Like Yesterday for the Beatles, Rocketman for Elton John, and of course four-time Oscar winner Bohemian Rhapsody, films with a strong musical connection at their core can’t be counted out. Warners is giving Blinded By the Light the Crazy Rich Asians slot, and another shot at a diverse film with box office potential to break out thanks to Springsteen’s stamp of approval.
As for STXfilms, it hasn’t been much of an Oscar player, but its presentation was impressive — particularly Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen which puts the director back in his comfort zone of tougher British flicks like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and features an impressive cast that includes an almost unrecognizable Hugh Grant doing his best Michael Caine impression, or at least the tough guy Caine. The Secret Garden with Oscar winner Colin Firth also looked rich, as did gritty cop drama 21 Bridges, Chadwick Bosemen’s first starring role since the huge success of Black Panther (and to be seen again this month in Avengers: Endgame).
On Friday, STX releases a terrific new Southern-set true story of racial strife in 1971 Durham that features excellent work from Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell. In some ways it could be compared to Green Book with a strong message of learning to communicate with each other, despite the differences that divide us. Certainly didn’t hurt our reigning Oscar winner, did it? Its April release isn’t prime for Oscars, but hopefully it will gain some traction.
The company also has its first foray into animation opening May 3 called Uglydolls. Kelly Clarkson, who is in the voice cast and contributed songs along with others like Pitbull, was on hand yesterday to sing one of the catchy tunes that could possibly crack the Oscar Best Song race. Time will tell.
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