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‘Selma,’ ‘American Sniper’ Offer Lessons for the Oscar-Festival Mix

Selma Ava DuVernay David Oyelowo AFI
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Any festival director wants at least one movie that stirs audience buzz and media attention. The just concluded AFI Fest (Nov. 6-13) hit the jackpot with two such films. And they both premiered on the same night. And were last-minute additions. In the festival circuit — as in movie scripts — dramatic plot twists are always fun.

Paramount’s “Selma” and Warner Bros.’ “American Sniper” immediately entered the awards conversation. And the Nov. 11 double bill was an interesting climax to the year’s festivals-and-awards scene, which offers both perils and rewards for awards hopefuls.

The praise wasn’t universal for “Selma” or “Sniper.” But the fans of the two films were passionate, and there was enough positive chatter to encourage the filmmakers and studios. The next few steps are crucial, because a film can be embraced by the social-media world, journalists and festival-goers, but those people are often very different from awards-voters. After passing the first set of hurdles, the studios are working to spread the need-to-see factor within the industry.

“Selma” was directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb; “American Sniper” was helmed by Clint Eastwood and scripted by Jason Hall. The films made for an interesting contrast: Both are fact-based, with one focused on non-violent protest, while the other is about a man centered on violence. “Selma” started at 6 p.m., followed by a Q&A including the director, star David Oyelowo and Oprah Winfrey, among others, which got the crowd even more revved up. “Sniper” began a few minutes after its 9 p.m. scheduled start, eschewing the Q&A but boasting an intro by Eastwood.

Logistically, the double-feature was worrying to some studio and fest reps, fearing the back-to-back screenings would lessen the impact of each film. As it turned out, both did fine. “Selma” got a standing ovation, and it’s a testament to “Sniper’s” adrenaline-fueled filmmaking that people were enthused even after a marathon evening at the Egyptian theater in Hollywood.

The fest had scheduled a 30-minute preview of “Selma,” followed by a “surprise screening” of an unnamed film. At the last minute, DuVernay felt the entire film was ready for an audience, and the day before its “surprise screening,” AFI announced “Sniper.”

AFI hosted premieres of other kudos hopefuls, including A24’s “A Most Violent Year” and Par’s “The Gambler.” Each gained some admirers, especially for the actors, but the question is whether they will be seen by enough voters to move the needle.

The festival also showcased some contenders that had premiered at other fests, including “The Homesman,” “Inherent Vice,” “Mr. Turner” and “Still Alice.”

And the AFI Fest closed with Sony Pictures Classics’ “Foxcatcher,” which is the poster-child for the awards-fest link. It debuted at Cannes in May, appeared at multiple fests since then, and closed AFI a year after it was scheduled to open the festival. Through it all, the film has maintained its heat, which isn’t easy to do.

Companies began rolling out their 2014 awards hopefuls at Sundance in January, including “Boyhood” and “Whiplash,” continued through “Grand Budapest Hotel” in Berlin, then Cannes, the Venice-Telluride-Toronto trio, and New York Festival. All of these festivals are growing in importance in the awards scheme. Also becoming strategic stops are such diverse locales as Carmel, Hamptons, Mill Valley, Palm Springs, Santa Barbara, Whistler and this weekend’s Napa.

Of course, no festival is dedicated solely to awards contenders. But AFI Fest is L.A.-based, so that’s always a factor, even in the foreign-language and documentary offerings.

But arguably, the fest highlight was the Nov. 12 conversation between director Rob Marshall and Sophia Loren. She charmed the audience by talking about her career, life, family, costars — and, of course, her Oscar.