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Awards Season Preview: Despite Industry Changes, Winning Oscars Remains Top Priority for Studios

Apple, Netflix and Warner Bros still want to win best picture, despite shifts in leadership and strategy

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It’s never too early to start thinking about the Oscars.

There are eight more months until the Academy Awards get handed out, but studios and indie players are already deep into planning their campaigns for the films they hope will have what it takes to go the distance. There’s already a pair of populist contenders in Paramount’s blockbuster “Top Gun: Maverick” and A24’s metaverse action-dramedy “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which have cemented themselves in the best picture discussion. But as fall festivals such as Venice and Toronto unveil their slates, it’s clear that battle will soon be joined by many more Oscar hopefuls.

To be sure, a lot has changed since “CODA” captured the top prize last spring. Many of the studios that are expected to vie for top prizes are grappling with major corporate shifts or even new parent companies.

Netflix, which has become an awards season juggernaut in recent years, has been navigating a new reality after its stock has cratered amidst subscriber losses. The diminished streaming giant has been laying off hundreds of employees in an effort to cut costs and bolster margins. The streamer has always been one of the big spenders during awards season, pouring tens of millions of dollars into the awards campaigns for “Roma” (2018), “The Irishman” (2019), “Mank” (2020) and last year’s “The Power of the Dog” (2021), which netted a single statuette for director Jane Campion.

As they navigate this new world order, how much can we expect them to scale back with their spending? Working with auteur filmmakers like two-time Oscar-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu with “Bardo” and reuniting with “Marriage Story” (2019) director Noah Baumbach with the adaptation of “White Noise,” Netflix still expects to make some noise, but they may not shell out as much on megaphones.

The change in fortunes may help the streamer, which has faced criticism that it was essentially trying, and thus far failing, to buy itself a best picture statue. Now, Netflix finds itself as something of an underdog as it looks to launch not only the Baumbach and Iñárritu films into contention but also the Christian Bale starring vehicle, “The Pale Blue Eye” and “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” into contention. The latter, a sequel to “Knives Out” (2019), was not initially pegged as a major awards player, but based on early viewings from industry sources, this sounds like a potential commercial entry into the Oscar race, with a rumored standout performance from singer and actress Janelle Monáe.

As Netflix fades, Apple has emerged as a force to be reckoned with after becoming the first streaming service to win best picture with “CODA.” At one point, Will Smith and Antoine Fuqua’s “Emancipation” was believed to be one of the company’s central players, but after Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, it’s unclear if Apple will move ahead with those plans or delay the film’s release. Now with Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” with Leonardo DiCaprio officially going into 2023, they are hedging their bets on other titles or any possible acquisitions from the festivals. This includes “Raymond & Ray” with Ewan McGregor and Ethan Hawke, produced by two-time Oscar winner Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), along with “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” by Peter Farrelly, the best picture winning director of “Green Book” (2018).

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(L to R) Jalyn Hall as Emmett Till and Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till Bradley in TILL, directed by Chinonye Chukwu, released by Orion Pictures.
Credit: Lynsey Weatherspoon / Orion Pictures
© 2022 ORION PICTURES RELEASING LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Lynsey Weatherspoon / Orion Pict

After returning to the awards season scrum with “Licorice Pizza,” MGM has a new corporate owner in Amazon Studios and is still looking for a new leader after former film chiefs Michael DeLuca and Pam Abdy decamped for Warner Bros. Discovery. But the pair left behind some potential contenders in Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” with Frances McDormand and Jessie Buckley, as well as the Emmett Till feature “Till” starring “The Harder They Fall” standout Danielle Deadwyler as the mother of a boy who is lynched. There’s also “Bones & All,” an off-beat look at “vampires” (so to speak) that reunites the “Call Me By Your Name” duo of Timothee Chalamet and Luca Guadagnino, though this outing may be too macabre to appeal to Oscar voters. On Amazon’s side of the aisle, the streamer will push “My Policeman,” a historical drama with Harry Styles as a gay man in 1950s Britain, which will play at TIFF.

The Warner Bros merger has been challenging for many executives, with new boss David Zaslav also vowing to cut costs as he grapples with the $30 billion in debt the company is carrying. But he may loosen the purse strings in support of Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” a box office hit that could land Austin Butler in the winners’ circle for his shape-shifting turn as the King of Rock. The studio also has Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling,” a stylish thriller with Florence Pugh and Harry Styles that is set to play at the Venice Film Festival.

And there’s a new kid on awards block with Utopia, which nabbed the Cannes hit “Holy Spider” from Iranian writer and director Ali Abbasi. Its star Zar Amir Ebrahimi won the best actress back in May, and as “Drive My Car” distributor Janus Films demonstrated last year, you don’t need millions of dollars to make a substantial impact with voters.

Two-time Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg returns with “The Fabelmans,” a semi-autobiographical look at his childhood. In recent years, the Academy has been suckers for these kinds of deeply personal stories, lavishing prizes and nominations on the likes of “Roma,” “Belfast” and “The Hand of God.” Universal will be overseeing the release of “The Fabelmans,” which may compete with another of the studio’s big fall films for awards love, Maria Schrader’s “She Said.” That drama follows the New York Times journalists who broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual assault and abuse. If “She Said” becomes an Oscar contender, it could serve as an ironic coda for the imprisoned producer. After all, Weinstein, the boorish mogul behind The Weinstein Company and Miramax, derived much of his power from his ability to turn movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “Shakespeare in Love” into awards season winners.

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TAR Focus Features

There’s far more to come down the seasonal pike.

With “Everything Everywhere All at Once” becoming the highest-grossing film in the history of independent studio A24, they may have more capital to play with to get Michelle Yeoh an overdue nomination for best actress. They’ll also give a qualifying run to “The Whale” from “Black Swan” (2010) by Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky, said to have the comeback performance of the year from Brendan Fraser. They’re also partnering with Apple Original Films once again for “Causeway,” formerly “Red, White and Water” from Lila Neugebauer and starring Jennifer Lawrence, who also produces.

We shouldn’t expect any festival debuts for James Cameron’s long-awaited sequel “Avatar: The Way of Water” from 20th Century Studios. Still, we can expect the same amount of energy behind its Oscar run miming its 2009 predecessor, which lost to “The Hurt Locker.”

Its sister studio Searchlight is angling for the best position for “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes’ next venture “Empire of Light” with Olivia Colman while getting behind “Three Billboards” filmmaker Martin McDonagh for “The Banshees of Inisherin.”

Sixteen years after “Little Children” (2006), writer and director Todd Field makes the return to the screen with “TÁR,” about the first female chief conductor of a significant German orchestra. With star Cate Blanchett at the helm, Focus Features is excited about its prospects, along with Michael Showalter’s upcoming “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies,” an adaptation of TVLine founder Michael Ausiello’s memoir.

Sony Pictures enters the discussion with a remake, biopic and a historical epic. Most attractive for awards attention is “The Woman King” from Gina Prince-Bythewood under the TriStar banner. It stars Oscar-winner Viola Davis and rumored standouts Lashana Lynch and Thuso Mbedu. Also on its roster is “A Man Called Otto” with Tom Hanks and the Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” with Naomi Ackie.

And never count out Sony Pictures Classics, with “The Son” from Oscar-winning screenwriter Florian Zeller (“The Father”), rumored to have the long-awaited best actor vehicle for Hugh Jackman, with possibilities for Vanessa Kirby.

After stumbling a bit last year with “Spencer” and best actress nominee Kristen Stewart, Neon is back in full force with the Palme d’Or winner “Triangle of Sadness,” which will play the festival circuit, and could be a strong contender for original screenplay, alongside three-time acting nominee Woody Harrelson and breakout Dolly de Leon.

The first Oscar charts have launched for the following categories: best picture, director, actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress, original screenplay, adapted screenplay and animated feature.

NOTE: All releases are subject to change and the listings are not yet completed.

Click through to the categories down below.

2023 Academy Awards Predictions