Once again, the Oscar race is being dominated by the Big Three fall film festivals: Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Should we congratulate this as a successful partnership between these three and Oscar? Or do we lament the fact that the fest circuit has turned into the schoolyard bully, knocking down quality movies that opened between January and August, and trying to block the path of November-December openers?
In nine of the past 10 years, the best picture winner debuted at one of the Big Three. The lone exception: “The Artist,” which had premiered at Cannes in May. In addition, 15 of the 19 feature-film Oscar winners this year had also debuted at one of the Big Three fests.
In other words, most of the categories (including best picture) had been seen, handicapped and virtually sealed by mid-September.
That’s one reason why the end-of-February Oscar ceremony seems so late: It arrives more than five months after pundits have declared the winner.
The 2018 Oscar contenders arrive in three basic categories.
The first grouping deserve to be remembered: Films that debuted in the first eight months of the year. That includes “BlacKkKlansman,” “Black Panther,” the surprise hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” as well as “The Rider,” “Leave No Trace,” Glenn Close’s vehicle “The Wife,” the Ethan Hawke-starrer “First Reformed,” “Paddington 2” and “Eighth Grade.”
The second group is, of course, the festival movies. Some debuts lived up to advance buzz, including “First Man,” “A Star Is Born” and “Widows.” There were also below-the-radar movies that appeared “suddenly” to wow critics and audiences: “The Favourite,” the Nicole Kidman vehicle “Destroyer,” “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” with Melissa McCarthy, Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” “Beautiful Boy,” “Roma” and three excellent films: Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book,” Paul Greengrass’s “22 July” and “The Front Runner” with Hugh Jackman.
Also arriving with less fanfare but still plenty of fans: Joel Edgerton’s “Boy Erased,” the Coen brothers’ “Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Julia Roberts in “Ben Is Back” and “A Private War,” with Rosamund Pike.
The fest trio also offered films that the Oscar pundits are still mulling: Willem Dafoe in “At Eternity’s Gate,” “Outlaw King,” “The Old Man & the Gun” and movies that split people, including “Suspiria” and “Peterloo.”
In terms of 2018 Academy Award hopefuls, the third calendar group includes films that arrived after the Toronto fest, such as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” “Mary Queen of Scots,” “On the Basis of Sex,” “Vice,” and “Stan & Ollie.”
And every year brings films that are in post-production until the last minute. Many of them gain some Oscar attention, but it feels as if they might have scored more if they’d been more widely seen, including “Hidden Figures,” “Silence,” “Fences” and “Selma.”
It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy: The festivals recently have offered the hot Oscar contenders, so distributors now center their campaigns around festivals. Pundits start making predictions, without having seen the films, and toss aside their once-cherished early-in-the-year films.
There are solutions. When the Oscar ceremony moves even earlier, starting Feb. 9, 2020, studios and strategists will need to rethink their campaigns. And digital screeners are a long-time-coming inevitability. So this is a good opportunity to tone down the over-reliance of the fall fests. Journalists and “taste-makers” also need to rethink their rote actions.
The fall festivals can be a tool in building Oscar buzz, but they have become the tail wagging the dog. They should be a factor, but not the deciding factor.