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The Oscar Warrior: Can a Movie Be a Best Picture Contender Without Festival Buzz?

Source:   Edward Douglas
September 13, 2013


Things may be a little slow going for the Oscar Warrior this year because just as festival season gets rolling, he's potentially going to be taken out of commission by a procedure necessary for the treatment of his leukemia, but before that happens, we're going to try to get in a couple quick Oscar and awards preview columns.

First of all, it seems like a good time to take a look at the current film festival season and how important that is to get movies seen in order to get buzz going on them. Things tend to kick off even before Labor Day with the Telluride and Venice Film Festivals, followed closely by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center and then others like Chicago, Hamptons, AFI Fest and more.

Telluride is a festival that's more about the attending filmmakers and actors, many of them voting Academy members, so movies go there hoping to create early buzz among the people that matter most—those who vote. Hamptons and AFI Fest have similar aspirations, as does the New York Film Festival to a lesser degree.

But let's look at the main question and that's whether any movie has a chance at winning Best Picture (let alone being nominated) without getting festival buzz.

For the best example, we can go back to earlier this year when Ben Affleck's Argo won Best Picture. Its run for Hollywood's most prestigious award actually began at the Telluride Film Festival six months earlier when it was a surprise screening and it got so many early accolades that it began steamrolling through awards season. It opened theatrically in early October with a respectable $19.5 million and then stuck around for months, ultimately grossing over $130 million by Oscar night. Those word-of-mouth legs mainly came about because it was a strong audience-pleasing movie, but the buzz for it started during festival season.

The Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men got a Cannes premiere in May in the year for which it eventually went on to win Best Picture, but it also screened at a number of the fall festivals including Telluride, Toronto and New York. The same thing happened with the French silent movie The Artist a couple years back. Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire premiered at the Toronto film fest where it won the audience award, which was in turn followed by The King's Speech and The Artist also winning the festival's top honor before both won Best Picture. Both Paul Haggis' Crash and Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker debuted at the Toronto Film Festival over a year before they were even being considered as Oscar movies, their summer releases seemingly too early in the season to make them strong contenders. Clearly, their distributors Lionsgate and Summit saw something in them when they picked them up for distribution at TIFF, yet waited a full year before starting their awards campaigns.

You'd have to go back seven years to find a Best Picture winner that didn't start things off without festival buzz and that would be Martin Scorsese's The Departed, which Warner Bros. played close to their vest until October, but then had a substantial box office hit with it. Before that time, festivals weren't really that big a part of the equation with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chicago and others all waiting until closer to their December releases before screening, and a few movies like Gladiator and The Silence of the Lambs opening earlier in the year. On the other hand, Sam Mendes' American Beauty began its run for Best Picture during festival season as well and many Best Picture nominees like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Silver Linings Playbook and Precious were first were seen on the festival circuit.

This year there are a lot of studios hoping that festival buzz will help their movies with the Weinstein Company screening no less than three major fall releases at the Toronto Film Festival: August: Osage County, Philomena and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. They also picked up distribution rights for Tracks (which probably will be saved for 2014).

Fox Searchlight is going big with 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen's drama which is already getting raves for the performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, newcomer Lupita N'yongo and Michael Fassbender. Paramount debuted Jason Reitman's Labor Day with Alexander Payne's Nebraska already getting buzz out of Cannes, while Warner Bros. has used the festival season for three of their own movies: Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, Dennis Villeneuve's Prisoners and Spike Jonze's new movie Her.

Universal has Ron Howard's Formula 1 epic Rush, which premiered at Toronto and has many elements that could appeal especially to foreign Oscar voters.

Sony has Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks, which kicks off the New York Film Festival, followed a couple weeks later by Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty from 20th Century Fox, which acts as that festival's centerpiece. Disney's Saving Mr. Banks, starring Emma Thompson and (again) Tom Hanks, was just announced to open the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, even though that movie, like "Walter Mitty," is scheduled for a Christmas release.

Of the movies that have already screened above, 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Rush, August: Osage County and Captain Phillips seem to have built up the most buzz and accolades and standing ovations at their respective premieres that they could in theory be Best Picture nominees although it's still very early in the game.

There are still a handful of movies that haven't screened at all, like David O. Russell's American Hustle (Sony) and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount), both which will be screened after festival season, as well as Grace of Monaco, another Weinstein release, and George Clooney's The Monuments Men, which like the other three, might be able to create enough buzz among Academy voters to get around any need for a festival premiere.

That's not to say a movie can't win Best Picture without festival buzz, because many studios have waited until late November to show some of their strongest wares, but you'll have to go back many years for a movie that won Best Picture without starting its run with some early festival buzz. These days, it certainly looks like the odds are not in favor of movies that choose to wait until November or December to roll out to Oscar voters because most of them will have already jumped on the bandwagons of the movies that have been screening for months, giving them a much better advantage.


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