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A Year After ‘Birth of a Nation,’ Fox Searchlight Lines Up Oscar Season Players

One year ago, Fox Searchlight Pictures sat primed for awards season with a sure-fire contender in Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation.” On the heels of a pricey pick-up at the Sundance Film Festival, riding the ongoing wave of a diversity rally cry, the distributor that had claimed the best picture trophy two out of the previous three years was poised to dominate.

To say the least, none of that panned out as planned. And there was little else remaining in the quiver. Searchlight was ultimately left with a Toronto acquisition (Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie”) and an uncharacteristically modest showing on the circuit.

But the mini-major has been busy lining up its players for a 2017 comeback. Over the last several weeks, Searchlight has set release dates for three films in the thick of the season: “Battle of the Sexes,” from “Little Miss Sunshine” duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, will land just after the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 22; Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” follow-up “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” hits on Oct. 13; and Guillermo del Toro’s Cold War fairy tale “The Shape of Water” arrives just in time for the holidays on Dec. 8.

Dayton and Faris’ film, about the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, appears the most likely to parlay an early fall festival profile into instant status on the circuit. Written by “Slumdog Millionaire” scribe Simon Beaufoy, it stars reigning best actress champ Emma Stone and Steve Carell.

McDonagh’s latest is more of a question mark. While the writer-director is already an Oscar winner in the short film category, his brand of dark humor in features hasn’t appealed broadly to the Academy yet. He did, however, pick up an original screenplay nomination for 2008’s “In Bruges.” And Searchlight has certainly given his film prime real estate on the calendar this year. He’s quickly rallied a stable of committed performers willing to follow him into the trenches, Abbie Cornish, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell among them, but Frances McDormand looks like a hilarious stand-out in this one.

Finally, while Del Toro’s work hasn’t found an Oscar foothold since 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” he maintains a dedicated fan base. Sally Hawkins leads his new film, about a lonely government laboratory worker whose life is changed forever when she and a co-worker (played by Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified document. Oscar nominees Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins also star.

Sundance acquisition “Patti Cake$” and Roger Michell’s “My Cousin Rachel,” with Rachel Weisz, are also on deck for summer releases. Simon Curtis’ “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” meanwhile — a behind-the-scenes look at the life of Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne — has already been set for a Nov. 11 release.

It’s a varied lineup, and a far cry from banking on a single hot prospect that would ultimately become a ticking PR time bomb. But how will these films, from a three-time best picture champ, register when the season finally rolls around?

Stay tuned…

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