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Oscar Race at the 2016 Halfway Mark: Diversity and Confusion

As 2016 hits the halfway point, the Oscar race is even fuzzier than usual. Two things are clear: The studios are back-loading their awards hopefuls yet again, with launches at fall festivals and/or the fourth quarter; and there are more diverse films in the mix, with at least 16 potential biggies from filmmakers who are women, Asians, Latino-Hispanics, black and seniors (i.e., over 65).

In the past few years, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Boyhood” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” had been widely screened and started industry buzz by late June. This year, there is a lot of industry enthusiasm for a few January-to-June titles such as “Zootopia,” “The Jungle Book” and “The Witch.” But best-pic contenders? Not so sure.

The festivals so far have offered possibilities like “Manchester by the Sea” and “Loving.” And some pundits anointed “The Birth of a Nation” as the Oscar front-runner last January (a mixed blessing for Fox Searchlight, to say the least). But too many 2016 films are still unseen. Still, studio rivals have praised “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” “American Pastoral,” “La La Land,” “Lion” and “Denial,” based on footage or early prints. (In June, every studio rep is rah-rah about their own films, but it’s significant if they praise a competitor.)

The following roster is pretty long and list-y. At the six-month mark, nearly everything seems a possibility, but it’s really spaghetti-on-the-wall guesswork. However, it’s good to take stock, so strategists and fans can know what’s out there and what’s coming.

As a sign of 2016 uncertainty, some of the most tantalizing awards possibilities may not even open this year. That includes “Silence” (director, Martin Scorsese; writer, Jay Cocks, based on novel by Shusaku Endo; Liam Neeson, Paramount); “Fences” (Denzel Washington starring in and directing the August Wilson adaptation, scripted by Tony Kushner; also Paramount); and “Hidden Figures” (director, Theodore Melfi; with Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson; Fox 2000). Netflix’s David Michod-Brad Pitt movie “War Machine” is set for 2017.

Another reason for uncertainty: There are more players every year. Aside from relative newbies like Amazon and Netflix, there are The Orchard, A24, Broad Green, Bleecker Street and others breathing new life into the Oscar race.

The third reason for confusion is recent Oscar history. “Her,” “Room” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” don’t seem like traditional best-picture contenders; the back-to-back wins for director Alejandro G. Inarritu went against the odds; and Open Road’s “Spotlight” became the first best-picture winner in 65 years to take home only one other award. In other words, “Oscar bait” is harder to define and rules-theories are dissolving.

Oscars 2016: A Preview of This Year’s Best Picture Possibilities

Some January-to-June films could resurface at Oscar time in various categories, especially if recognized in critics or guild voting. That list includes “Hello, My Name is Doris” (Roadside Attractions), “Maggie’s Plan” (Sony Pictures Classics), “Eye in the Sky” (Bleecker Street), and “Sing Street” (Weinstein Co.).

Also, see separate story for handicapping by other Variety‘s Kristopher Tapley and Jenelle Riley. A lot of upcoming films seem like Indie Spirit contenders, but as for Oscar, the Magic 8 Ball says “Ask again later.”

The 2016 festival entries include:

Sundance:Birth of a Nation” (Nate Parker, Fox Searchlight); “The Hollars” (John Krasinski; with Margo Martindale; Sony Pictures Classics); “Indignation” (James Schamus’ directorial debut, based on Philip Roth’s book, Roadside Attractions); “Manchester By the Sea” (Kenneth Lonergan; Casey Affleck; Amazon Studios); “Tallulah” (Sian Heder; Ellen Page; Netflix); “Southside With You” (Richard Tanne; tale of young Obamas in love; Miramax, Roadside Attractions); “Love & Friendship” (Whit Stillman; Kate Beckinsale; Jane Austen comedy; Roadside Amazon).

Berlin: “Things to Come” (L’Avenir), Mia Hansen Love; Isabelle Huppert; IFC/Sundance Selects.

South by Southwest: “Everybody Wants Some!!” (Richard Linklater, Paramount)

Cannes: “The BFG” (Steven Spielberg, script Melissa Mathison; opening July 1, DreamWorks); “Loving” (Jeff Nichols; 1958 interracial marriage; Focus Features); “I, Daniel Blake” (Ken Loach; IFC/Sundance Selects); and “Paterson” (Jim Jarmusch; stars Adam Driver, Amazon).

The domestic release schedule:

July: “Equity” (Meera Menon; Anna Gunn; female-centered look at Wall Street; Sony Classics); “Captain Fantastic” (writer-director Matt Ross; stars Viggo Mortensen; Bleecker Street); “Jason Bourne” (Paul Greengrass, Matt Damon, Universal).

August: “Florence Foster Jenkins” (Stephen Frears; with Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant; Paramount); “The Founder” (John Lee Hancock, Michael Keaton, story of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc; Weinstein Co.); “Hands of Stone” (Jonathan Jakubowicz; Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez; TWC); “Hell or High Water” (David Mackenzie; Ben Foster, Chris Pine; CBS Films); “Little Men” (Ira Sachs; Greg Kinnear; Magnolia).

September: “The Book of Henry” (Colin Treverrow; Naomi Watts, Jacob Tremblay; Focus); “Denial” (Mick Jackson; writer David Hare; story about Holocaust deniers, with Rachel Weisz; Bleecker Street); “Deepwater Horizon” (Peter Berg; Mark Wahlberg in fact-based story of oil spill; Lionsgate); “The Light Between Oceans,” writer-director Derek Cianfrance; DreamWorks); “Miss Peregrin’s Home for Peculiar Children” (Tim Burton; Eva Green; Fox); “Queen of Katwe” (Mira Nair; Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo; Disney); “Snowden” (writer-director Oliver Stone; Joseph Gordon Levitt; Open Road); “Sully” (Clint Eastwood; Tom Hanks; Warner Bros.).

October: “American Pastoral” (Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut; Lionsgate); “A Monster Calls” (J.A. Bayona; Felicity Jones; Focus and Participant); “Christine” (Antonio Campos; Rebecca Hall; fact-based story of a 1970s TV reporter; The Orchard); “Desierto” (writer-director Jonas Cuaron; STX); “The Girl on the Train” (Tate Taylor; Emily Blunt; DreamWorks Universal).

November: “Allied” (Robert Zemeckis; writer, Steven Knight; Brad Pitt; Paramount); “Arrival” (formerly “Story of Your Life”; Denis Villeneuve; Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner; Paramount); “Bleed for This” (Ben Younger; stars Miles Teller; Open Road); “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (David Yates; Eddie Redmayne; WB); “Lion” (Garth Davis; Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman; TWC); “Nocturnal Animals” (Tom Ford; Isla Fisher, Jake Gyllenhaal (Focus); “Rules Don’t Apply” (writer-director Warren Beatty as Howard Hughes; Fox); “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (Ang Lee; Sony); “Shut In” (Farren Blackburn; with Naomi Watts and Jacob Tremblay; EuropaCorp).

December: “Collateral Beauty” (David Frankel; Kate Winslet, Will Smith; WB); “La La Land” (Damien Chazelle; with Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone; Lionsgate); “Passengers” (from “Imitation Game” director Morten Tyldum; with Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt; Sony);“Patriots Day” (Peter Berg; Mark Wahlberg in their second collaboration of the year, about the Boston Marathon bombing; Lionsgate); “Rogue One: A Star Wars Tale” (Gareth Edwards; Ben Mendelsohn, Felicity Jones; Disney).

Likely for 2016 but undated are “Moonlight” (Barry Jenkins; from Plan B Entertainment; A24); “A United Kingdom” (Amma Asante’s tale of 1940s inter-racial marriage; Rosamund Pike, David Oyelowo; Film United, Pathe); “20th Century Women” (Mike Mills; Annette Bening; Annapurna Pictures); and Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” (A24).

To clarify: mentions of director, actors and/or writers are to jog readers’ memories, not to handicap: It’s impossible to predict these films’ Oscar strengths based just on pedigree.

The year also is offering great documentaries and artisan work, which will be handled in a later column. And the feature-toon race looks particularly strong, thanks to “Zootopia” (Disney), and films covering every style: stop-motion, cel and computer animation (e.g., Laika’s “Kubo and the Two Strings,” Focus; “The Red Turtle,” SPC; “Sing” from Illumination and Universal; ”Trolls” from DreamWorks Animation and Fox, et al.)

Foreign-language contenders include “The Handmaiden” (Chan-wook Park, Amazon) and a trio from Sony Classics: “Julieta” (Pedro Almodovar), “Elle” (Paul Verhoeven, Isabelle Huppert) and Cannes critics fave “Toni Erdmann” (Maren Ade).

Diversity will certainly be a topic when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences unveils its nominees. And this year has more racial-gender diversity than the 2015 crop, but, of course, there are no guarantees until the films are widely seen. But most people hope that #OscarsSoWhite will be a thing of the past. So fingers crossed, and start your engines.

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