×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Studios Step Back Into the Best Picture Spotlight

After a summer during which a controversy swelled over the possibility of a “popular film” honor being included in the Academy Awards mix, a funny thing happened on Hollywood’s annual trek to the Dolby Theater: the traditional studios are making something of a best picture comeback. Acclaim for Warner Bros.’ “A Star Is Born,” Universal Pictures’ “First Man” and “Green Book”; Walt Disney Studios’ “Black Panther” and “Mary Poppins Returns”; 20th Century Fox’s “Widows” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as well as Sony Pictures’ “The Front Runner” have given the old guard new life in a category the studios have won only four times this century (the last being “Argo” in 2013).

Yet, Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Pictures, preaches caution to anyone suggesting that this is somehow “their year.”

“If you look over the last few years, you’ve had movies like ‘Gravity,’ which is a big studio movie. You had ‘Lincoln,’ which was a big studio movie, very much in the conversation,” Langley says. “I think it’s sort of reductive to look at this year and say it’s going to boil down to ‘A Star Is Born’ and ‘First Man.’ I mean, look, I hope it does, in some ways, for our sake. I think every year now there’s a combination of what the studios have to offer and what the specialty divisions have to offer like Focus and Fox Searchlight.”

The longtime Fox mini took the best picture Oscar in March for Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” but Langley thinks there has been more diversity in the race than most are acknowledging. Last year, the studio’s own blockbuster “Get Out” landed four nominations including best picture and won original screenplay for writer and director Jordan Peele.

“I think we’re seeing that there’s a variety of different kinds of movies in the mix. It just does happen to be that there’s [a few] big studio movies with lovely movie stars,” Langley says. “Obviously, ‘Star Is Born’ is already off to a great start. ‘First Man’ is already off to a great start, critically, and in the awards conversation very much. I think it’s an obvious narrative to kind of grab hold of, but I don’t think it tells the full story, to be honest with you.”

Universal not only has Damien Chazelle’s pic about the life of Neil Armstrong orbiting Oscar, but also Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book,” which was financed by Participant Media, as a major contender. The period drama focuses on a real-life New York City bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who was hired to drive and protect a Jamaican-American pianist, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), on a tour of Southern cities in the early 1960s. The title refers to the guide they used to determine which hotels and restaurants Shirley could stay in when they traveled to segregated cities of the era. The drama has already proved to be a crowd-pleaser, winning the People’s Choice Award at the 2018 Toronto Intl. Film Festival over some stiff competition. Universal had the option to distribute the picture and said the studio was struck by an “absolute humanity” execs believe will help it strike a chord with audiences.

“What’s really nice about ‘Green Book’ and the reaction and the reception that it’s getting is that it is a movie about friendship. Yes, it tackles troubles in the civil-rights era and it tackles racism, but it does it through the prism of the friendship,” Langley says. “It felt like an ‘important movie.’ It was designed to be a movie that lots of people can go and see and can access. The fact that it actually is being received in this incredibly respectful way, it’s not surprising, but it is really heartening and really wonderful.”

David Linde, CEO of Participant Media, knew Farrelly had created something special after a multi-generational, diverse test screening outside of Long Beach. The executives were waiting in the theater lobby afterward and the excitement of the audience when they walked out was “palpable.”

“You could actually feel their enthusiasm,” he says. “We hadn’t seen the scores, we didn’t know really anything other than we loved watching the movie with them, and it was clear as day that they just loved it.

It also screened at the opening night of the Zurich Film Festival, which is a notoriously reserved audience and it got a standing ovation. It doesn’t matter if they speak German or if they speak English or they speak any other language. The film clearly touches people right at their hearts.”

Another film that unexpectedly touched viewers around the globe was Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther.”

It wasn’t that long ago that the best picture field expanded to 10 films, partially because Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” had been snubbed the year before. Still, even with a larger nomination class, a “superhero” film has yet to be nominated for the Academy’s top honor. “Panther” may break that glass ceiling, and not just because it’s as acclaimed as Nolan’s Batman thriller or for its historical stature as a pop-culture phenomenon. The African-set epic has been an emotional touchstone for people of color who have been able to see themselves on screen for the first time in such a heroic manner.

When Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, first read the script, he realized “Black Panther” was a movie with character and heart. Later, he’d learn director Ryan Coogler’s picture had an integrity that made it “very, very special.” He notes, “For every person [around the world] who happens to be black, this film has a special relevance and resonance. It’s a terribly important, prideful thing.”

“Black Panther” is now also the third-highest grossing film of all time in the United States right behind “Avatar,” a former best picture nominee. Horn says he doesn’t want to tell Academy voters what to do, but he’d hate for it be left out just because it happens to be a big-budget studio film.

“I think the audience of Academy members should be, and I know the word these days is agnostic, about the size, scope, scale [of potential nominees],” Horn says. “They should just talk about whether it’s a really good movie that touches them, that resonates with them, that impacts them, that is compelling.”

He adds: “I think that the Academy is aware that criticism has been leveled at [voters] for limiting their selections of contenders to those smaller films that represent the sort of quality films like ‘Academy worthy’ films and all of that. Over the course of several years there’s been an increasing understanding that, ‘Wait a minute, let’s not penalize a picture because it happens to be big. Let’s just look at the quality of the movie.’”

Over Tom Rothman’s career he’s been involved in the production of two of the highest-grossing films of all time, James Cameron’s “Avatar” and Cameron’s Oscar-winning “Titanic.” Now the chairman of Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group, Rothman has Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner” with Hugh Jackman hoping for awards season recognition in the months ahead.

Like Horn, he’s noticed the increase in studio contenders the past few years, but disagrees on whether it will lead to a long-term balance among studio, independent and streaming fare. He thinks it’s simply cyclical and that people overestimate the significance of trends.

“There’s a certain randomness as to when pictures are finished and what they are,” Rothman says. “Let me put it to you that way. I think it’s a great thing. I think it shows that big studios are continuing to invest in original, diverse products. I hope like hell that next year there won’t just be one. I hope next year we’ll be talking about the Quentin Tarantino movie or the Greta Gerwig movie we have next year, any of those films, and that the other companies will as well. I hope that big studios will not abandon filmmaker-driven material. We’re not going to.”

The majors are going to have competition from their specialty divisions and established streaming players such as Netflix and Amazon Studios. Netflix hopes Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” can become the first foreign-language film winner from the streamers. Meanwhile, Fox Searchlight hopes to repeat with Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” Focus Features has Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and “On the Basis of Sex” while Annapurna has two major contenders in Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” and Adam McKay’s “Vice.” Still, at this stage of the campaign, you could certainly make the argument that “A Star Is Born,” “Black Panther” and “Green Book” are seen as the current frontrunners to win it all.

As an early Miramax veteran, the co-founder of Focus Features and former co-chairman of Universal Pictures, Linde has been on both the studio and indie side of the awards-season game. In his opinion, the studios making their way to the front of the pack may be more than just a trend. In fact, it may be the result of strategic, creative work.

“I think the studios and all the distributors are hyper-focused on what they do well, and with whom they work well with,” Linde says. “And are proving that that combination can be really dynamic. And I think you’re seeing the results.”

More Film

  • Nordic Film Market: New Pálmason, Hákonarson,

    Nordic Film Market Selects Latest Palmason, Hakonarson, Hafstrom, Ganslandt

    The 20th Nordic Film Market in Göteborg, unspooling Jan. 31-Feb 3, will showcase 16 works in progress including Hlynur Pálmason’s “A White, White Day”, Grímur Hákonarson’s “The County”, Mikael Håfström’s “The Perfect Patient” and Jesper Ganslandt’s “438 Days.” Iceland is well represented this year with top directors and festival darlings Pálmason (“Winter Brothers”), Hákonarson (“Rams”) [...]

  • 'All These Small Moments' Review

    Film Review: 'All These Small Moments'

    The magic of writer-director Melissa B. Miller Costanzo’s “All These Small Moments” can be found within the intimacy of the scenarios, the authenticity of her earnest characterizations, and the accessibility of the actors’ honest performances. In her deftly polished directorial debut, Costanzo dovetails the primary story about a teen’s coming of age with a secondary [...]

  • Bruce Tufeld Dead: Hollywood Agent and

    Hollywood Agent and Manager Bruce Tufeld Dies at 66

    Bruce Tufeld, a Hollywood agent and manager who once repped stars like Rob Lowe, Laura Dern, and Kelsey Grammer, died Tuesday in Los Angeles as a result of complications from liver cancer. He was 66. The son of respected television announcer Richard “Dick” Tufeld and Adrienne Tufeld, Bruce began his career as an assistant at ICM [...]

  • Bruce Dern

    Film News Roundup: Bruce Dern's 'The Lears' Bought by Vertical for February Release

    In today’s film news roundup, Bruce Dern’s “The Lears” and “Angels Are Made of Light” are acquired, Cold War drama “Stanley Cage” is launched and a documentary about Madonna’s early music career gets a release. ACQUISITIONS Vertical Entertainment has acquired North American rights from NeoClassics Films to “The Lears,” starring Bruce Dern in a modern-day [...]

  • Octavia Spencer Bryce Dallas Howard

    Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard to Reunite for Comedy 'Fairy Tale Ending'

    Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard will reunite for the ensemble comedy “Fairy Tale Ending.” Jim Hecht (“Ice Age: The Meltdown) and Tracy McMillan (“Marvel’s Runaways”) are writing the screenplay. Howard will also produce the Universal movie through her Nine Muses Entertainment alongside Eric Carlson and Susan Carlson. Seth MacFarlane and Erica Huggins will produce [...]

  • Robert Smith, Longtime Executive at DuArt

    Robert Smith, Longtime Executive at New York's DuArt Film Labs, Dies at 88

    Robert Smith, a longtime executive with New York’s DuArt Film Labs, died Jan. 11 in Montvale, N.J. He was 88. Smith spent some 62 years with DuArt, the film processing and post-production facility founded in 1922 in the penthouse of an automobile garage in Midtown. Smith rose to president of DuArt before retiring in 2015. [...]

  • Bird Box

    Los Angeles On-Location Feature Filming Surges 12.2% in 2018

    On-location feature filming in Greater Los Angeles expanded impressively in 2018, gaining 12.2% to 4,377 shooting days, according to FilmL.A. Production activity for feature films rose 15.5% to 1,078 shooting days during the fourth quarter, with 146 days coming from projects receiving California tax credits — including Netflix’s “Bird Box,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content