As it does every July, just after the Comic-Con dust has settled and the year’s third quarter begins barreling toward a close, the fall festival landscape is coming into focus, providing an Oscar season snapshot before we dive headlong into the fray.
Announcements emanating from Venice, Telluride, Colo., Toronto, New York, and London have signaled the starting gun as studios jockey to best position their prestige product — with an eye toward leveraging the awards circuit, of course.
Kicking things off will be the Venice Film Festival on Aug. 30 and the world premiere of Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” news of which was broken by Variety. That early drop ought to help rip the band-aid off the film’s bizarre logline — a man agrees to have himself physically shrunk in order to live out the rest of his days in one of many government-subsidized mini-resorts — and set Paramount’s central player up for a run at the gold. Recent Venice openers like “Gravity,” “Birdman,” and “La La Land” have gone on to be dominant fixtures in the Oscar race.
Also set for Venice, per the festival’s reveal this morning, are Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” (another Paramount hopeful, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in an even darker twist on “Rosemary’s Baby”); Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” (a Fox Searchlight player featuring a silent performance by Sally Hawkins); Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (also Searchlight, and possibly a golden ticket for actress Frances McDormand); Stephen Frears’ “Victoria & Abdul” (from Focus Features, with Judi Dench as the late-19th century monarch); George Clooney’s “Suburbicon” (Paramount once again, from a darkly comedic script by Joel and Ethan Coen); and Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” follow-up “Lean on Pete” (A24, from a novel by Willy Vlautin).
Toronto, meanwhile, announced a chunk of its slate earlier this week, and in doing so, lit up a number of expected Telluride debuts as well. Recently-adopted language in Toronto’s annual reveal noting films as World, North American, International, and Canadian premieres takes all the fun out of Telluride’s secretive process, and given both the arbitrary nature of it and recent discord regarding Telluride’s penchant for sneaking Venice and Toronto premieres ahead of their bows elsewhere, you can only assume that is the point.
Nevertheless, it’s clear from Toronto’s announcement that films like Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “Battle of the Sexes” (Fox Searchlight), Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father” (Netflix), Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (A24), Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” (Focus), and Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles” (leveraging for a distributor out of the festival), among others, will begin their journeys in Colorado before heading up north. More on them at a later date, but keep in mind that Telluride has played host to seven of the last eight best picture winners, five of them world premieres. That’s an impressive track record for a four-day mountainside retreat that can only schedule a mere 40 titles or so.
With Toronto featuring four times as many titles (even scaled back by 20% this year), world premieres abound, as ever: Andy Serkis’ “Breathe,” which will also open the London Film Festival, could bring actor Andrew Garfield right back to the circuit a year after “Hacksaw Ridge”; David Gordon Green’s “Stronger,” with an emotional Jake Gyllenhaal performance, will no doubt draw its share of tears; Harvey Weinstein has lined up Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “The Current War,” with Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon (though no word yet on Garth Davis’ “Mary Magdalene,” currently slated for Weinstein’s Thanksgiving release sweet spot); and after already dropping Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” Annapurna will be looking to stir a conversation around Angela Robinson’sOctober release “Professor Marston & the Wonder Women.”
Finally, in a significant coup, Amazon Studios has lined up all three major slots at this year’s New York Film Festival with its own titles: As originally reported by Variety, Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying,” adapted from Darryl Ponicsan’s sequel to his own 1970 novel “The Last Detail” (which itself spawned an Oscar-nominated classic), will open the fest on Sept. 28; Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” will segue from Cannes (and Telluride) to the centerpiece slot; and Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel,” with Kate Winslet and Justin Timberlake, will close things out on Oct. 15.
New York has lit the fuse for flashy awards heavies like “The Social Network,” “Hugo,” “Life of Pi,” and “Captain Phillips” in the past, though its curation has been a little more buttoned up as of late. Nevertheless, it still remains a viable Oscar season launch pad.
Amid all of this, there will also be films looking to land distributors. Even if it’s increasingly rare, movies like “The Wrestler” and “Jackie” have burst out of the fall fests with buyers in tow and taken the season by storm. Along with “Hostiles,” other projects looking for a home include Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” (Venice), starring Ethan Hawke as an ex-military chaplain grieving the death of his son. There is also Richard Eyre’s “The Children Act” (Toronto), with Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, and “Dunkirk’s” Fionn Whitehead, based on the Ian McEwan novel about a minor refusing to undergo a life-saving blood transfusion for religious reasons.
And that’s all just scratching the surface. We’ll be wrangling with these and countless other films over the next seven months. But it would appear to be increasingly important to stake out turf in the early festival circuit if you’re going to be an Oscar season success story. After all, the last film to win best picture without at least a pre-December release or festival exposure was Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby.” So don’t take our word for it; that’s more than a decade of history talking.