Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” debuted to rapturous reviews at the Venice Film Festival last week, a boost as it enters awards season. It could also mean that Paramount, the studio behind Payne’s latest film, has a chance to snag the best picture Oscar. If “Downsizing” pulls off that feat, it would be the first time a major studio has claimed Hollywood’s top movie prize since Warner Bros. nabbed a gold statue for 2012’s “Argo.”
Over the past decade, only one other major studio release has won the top prize, 2006’s “The Departed,” another Warner Bros. production. Recent victors such as “Moonlight,” “Spotlight” and “12 Years a Slave” have emerged from upstart indie distributors like A24 and Open Road, or have been the product of major studio specialty labels such as Fox Searchlight. There have been major studio releases nominated for best picture, such as last year’s Paramount drama “Fences” or 2015’s “The Revenant” (Fox), but none has taken the trophy.
“Downsizing” is not the only big studio film in pursuit of gold statues. Fox, Sony, Warner Bros. and Universal have outsize chances of cracking into major categories with the likes of “The Greatest Showman,” “All the Money in the World,” “Dunkirk,” “The Post” and “Get Out.” In addition to “Downsizing,” Paramount will likely mount campaigns for “Mother!,” a Darren Aronofsky horror thriller with Jennifer Lawrence, and “Suburbicon,” a George Clooney-directed crime tale. All three Paramount films will screen at this week’s Toronto International Film Festival, where they will try to generate buzz heading into a competitive awards season.
Part of the reason major studios haven’t been stocking up on metallic plaudits in recent years is that they’ve largely ceded the kind of adult dramas that dominate awards season to independent players as they’ve obsessed on spinning big-budget superhero and sci-fi fantasy tales. Some, like “Wonder Woman” and “Logan,” might also score awards consideration.
If the majors find themselves with a wealth of big contenders, expect an arms race of Oscar campaigning, fueled by massive spending on billboards, receptions, television spots and for-your-consideration ads. One of the biggest costs is ferrying stars to and from events: Rides on private jets can set companies back $100,000 a pop. Insiders estimate that in the past, major studios have spent more than $20 million on a single awards campaign. That dwarfs the spending of independent distributors, which shell out between a few hundred thousand dollars to $4 million to hawk their wares.
Of course the definition of an indie film has changed dramatically. Amazon and Netflix have made a splash in recent years, buying up films and earning awards for the likes of “Manchester by the Sea” and “The White Helmets.” Both companies will be back in the thick of awards season — Amazon is fielding Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” and Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel,” while Netflix will counter with “Mudbound,” a look at racism in the South that was a critical smash at Sundance. These companies are new media giants that rival the clout and spending ability of the Time Warners and Disneys of the world.
It’s unclear how many of this year’s awards hopefuls will blossom into true contenders. Venice and the Telluride Film Festival have helped narrow the field, and Toronto will further clarify the picture. Sony will debut “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” at the gathering, and insiders believe that the Denzel Washington legal thriller could be a contender. This year’s festival will also offer Warner Bros. an opportunity to remind Oscar voters how much they liked “Dunkirk,” the Christopher Nolan World War II epic that earned strong reviews when it bowed in the summer. The studio will host a special conversation and screening with the director. Many other major studio candidates, from Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” to Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World,” won’t be ready to be screened until at least November. At that point, it should be clear who has the goods to go home a winner on Oscar night.