Here’s a thought to chew on: It’s been 11 years since the best picture Oscar went to a film — Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” — that hadn’t premiered at a film festival (though it did screen as a work in progress at the 2006 Toronto fest to select eyeballs). Prior to that, festival indies were the exception rather than the norm in the best picture race, which was ruled by the kind of big-studio prestige pics that didn’t need the momentum-building progression of a festival rollout.
Needless to say, a lot has changed at the Oscars (and, indeed, in Hollywood) this century, as the kind of tony, adult-oriented drama that tends to rule awards season has become largely the preserve of the independent realm. Film festivals, meanwhile, have been drawn ever more integrally into the Oscar dance: the imagined “official” kickoff of awards season may come with the early-fall trifecta of Venice, Telluride and Toronto, but as early as Sundance in January, continuing through Cannes in May, likely contenders are being earmarked, acclaimed and acquired, with the Oscars firmly in mind.
Picking the right festival to launch an awards hopeful is a tricky matter of timing and perception. Sundance (which, surprisingly, has yet to produce a best picture winner) is best for giving scrappy, earnest American indies from “Precious” to “Boyhood” a head-start, though last year, the Euro-smooth “Call Me by Your Name” and studio-sharp “Get Out” both played against Park City expectations to great effect. Berlin scours the edgier end of world cinema, minting many a foreign-language Oscar player (including winners “A Separation” and this year’s “A Fantastic Woman”). The more glam, more formal Cannes, which has launched such best picture winners as “No Country for Old Men” and “The Artist,” can either signal artistic cred in a commercial enterprise (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) or less an aura of mainstream accessibility than rigorous arthouse fare (“Amour”).
But while the French fest remains the premier European fest in terms of prestige and pulling power — the one event that drags the bulk of the U.S. film industry and press outside of North America — it’s losing ground in the Oscar-buzz stakes to its more intimate, relaxed Italian cousin. In the last decade, the Venice Film Festival has quietly become an awards-season kingmaker. Best picture winners “The Hurt Locker,” “Birdman,” “Spotlight” and, most recently, “The Shape of Water” all had their world premieres on the Lido, as did such heavyweight players as “Black Swan,” “Gravity,” “La La Land” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
“Black Swan,” “Gravity,” “Birdman” and “La La Land” not only played Venice — they opened it, giving the festival glittery bragging rights over Cannes, which has made a veritable tradition of opening-night duds. “The Shape of Water,” meanwhile, finished strong in Venice by taking the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, from a jury headed by Annette Bening. (Yes, the romantic fantasy’s awards season began with Bening and ended with Warren Beatty.) Not counting Laurence Olivier’s 1948 “Hamlet” — which triumphed on the Lido when the festival had a different awards system in place — it’s the first Golden Lion champ to ultimately land the best picture Oscar.
That’s not surprising, given that Venice juries tend to gravitate toward more esoteric work than Guillermo del Toro’s crowdpleaser. (Funnily enough there wasn’t exactly a surge of Oscar buzz for Filipino director Lav Diaz’s four-hour retribution drama “The Woman Who Left” when it took the Lion in 2016.) Any award at Venice is a mere bonus for a high-profile film that arrives there with designs not so much on any jury prizes than a sunny, sexy, photo-friendly launch opportunity — before heading directly to Telluride and Toronto to consolidate. It’s at those closely bunched North American fests, both overlapping completely (Telluride) or partially (Toronto) with Venice’s duration that the wheeling and dealing really begins.
Why, then, the formality of a Venice premiere, when most of the U.S. media that most devotedly tracks and anoints Oscar players is holding out for Telluride mere days later? After all, the lofty, remote American fest has the most enviable record of it all when it comes to unveiling best picture winners: It had first dibs on “Moonlight,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Argo” and “The King’s Speech,” among others, and has hosted the U.S. premieres of several more.
Yet Venice has an old-school aura of prestige and gravitas that neither Telluride nor Toronto can replicate: it’s like Cannes that way, except better timed for awards campaigners concerned about maintaining their Croisette buzz through the summer and beyond. In the past, Venice has famously made success stories of castoffs inexplicably rejected by Cannes — Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” among them — though it’s now seeing a growing number of prestige players apply to them first.
The possibility, however distant, of shiny festival trophies doesn’t hurt, either: “The Shape of Water’s” Oscar triumph comes after a wobbly awards-season patch that saw it ignored by multiple voting bodies including the members of Film Independent (Spirit Awards), at which time that glittering Golden Lion was its most heavyweight claim to awards-contender status. As pundits eye this year’s Venice lineup for the best picture nominee (or two) that will all-but-inevitably emerge from the program — perhaps on its opening night — remember that festival juries and Academy members don’t always live in whole separate worlds.
Fittingly, Del Toro will be right there in the thick of it once again, as presiding over the jury of the event’s 75th edition.