Early-Year Fests Becoming Important Awards Campaign Stops

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This story appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of AwardsLine.

Awards season is turning into a year-’round affair when it comes to the festival circuit. Though film festivals haven’t always had a strong impact on the Oscar race, this year in particular demonstrates that awards positioning is starting much earlier—so early, in fact, that some of the jockeying for the 2013 Academy Awards started even before the red carpet unfurled for the 2012 ceremony.

While the fall-fest triumvirate of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto has long been considered the true start of the six-month season, campaigners have started using fests like January’s Sundance, May’s Cannes, and even June’s frothier Los Angeles Film Festival as places to spotlight a potential awards player. Though studios and distributors still closely concentrate their awards contenders in the fall timeframe, this year saw more early hints at which films have Oscar hopes.

For instance, Robert Redford’s winter gathering, Sundance, produced a robust selection of films that have turned into Oscar fare, including the high-stakes finance drama Arbitrage starring Richard Gere. Gere’s performance as a Bernie Madoff-type wheeler and dealer has some critics predicting the veteran actor could earn a career-first Oscar nomination. Also, Fox Searchlight, a major awards participant, picked up two hot titles at Sundance that have maintained awards season all year: the June release Beasts of the Southern Wild and October’s The Sessions (originally titled The Surrogate), which has highly-touted performances from John Hawkes and Helen Hunt.

Then along came Cannes in May, which last year saw the premiere of three eventual best picture Oscar nominees: Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, and The Artist, the film that eventually went on to win the big prize plus an actor statuette for Jean Dujardin, director for Michel Hazanavicius, and two other Oscars. This year, the French fest won’t likely be able to match that record, but Cannes contenders could figure into multiple categories with foreign-language crossovers like Michael Haneke’s touching Amour, which was the Palme d’Or winner, and director Jacques Audiard’s Rust & Bone, which could put previous winner Marion Cotillard back into strong contention for another lead actress Oscar.

Then there is the good luck Opening Night slot, which Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris—an eventual original screenplay Oscar winner—occupied last year and Wes Anderson’s specialty smash Moonrise Kingdom occupied this year. Focus Features hopes Moonrise will also get Oscar attention for Anderson and cowriter Roman Coppola in the original screenplay category, among other contests in which the film could figure.

Other titles out of Cannes that might have a harder time gaining traction in the Oscar race are Walter Salles’ Jack Kerouac beat epic, On the Road, for which IFC plans a big December awards push; Lee Daniels’ (Precious) controversial and steamy The Paperboy, a longshot that features a daring and risky performance from Nicole Kidman; Brad Pitt’s chilling work as a hitman in Killing Them Softly, which Oscar magnet the Weinstein Co. has moved into prime awards season position Nov. 30. Weinstein is also looking at a possible awards run for its feel-good period ’60s musical, The Sapphires, a movie more likely to be a fit for the Golden Globes musical/comedy category.

Awards talk used to take a break following Cannes, but these days even festivals considered relatively minor, like Hollywood’s hometown Los Angeles Film Festival, get examined through the awards-season lens. In fact, the June 2011 LAFF spotlighted Richard Linklater’s Bernie, starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, which found distribution through Millennium Films. The dark comedy has become something of a specialty sleeper hit, earning $9.2 million at the boxoffice, and is also starting to gain traction in the race, if only in a small way, getting a push for its two leads and its screenplay. Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love, his first film since Midnight in Paris, opened LAFF this year, but the film’s far weaker reception at the boxoffice (about $17 million) and mixed critical response has doomed its awards chances. However the closer for LAFF, Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper boxoffice hit from Warner Bros could land costar Matthew McConaughey his first-ever Oscar recognition even though the supporting actor category is especially crowded this year. Still, the film-fest slot gave the movie more of a prestige factor than just its wide early summer opening might have provided, an important plus in the race for the gold.

However, despite the increasing visibility of earlier festivals in terms of Oscars, fall festivals remain the best place for a contender to earn the awards attention needed to get a foothold at the boxoffice. “With the exception of a few big-ticket studio films, it is increasingly important to use at least one or maybe more of these film festivals in the fall to make an impact if you want to get a jumpstart for awards,” says one marketing maven.

No one knows this better than the Weinstein Co., whose consecutive best picture winners, The King’s Speech (2010) and The Artist (2011), made big splashes in back-to-back appearances at Telluride and Toronto before their domestic theatrical runs. This is possible since Telluride doesn’t announce its lineup until the fest actually starts over Labor Day weekend, plus it doesn’t label the films as World or North American Premieres, leaving that distinction to Venice and Toronto.

For this year, Weinstein launched The Master in Venice, skipped Telluride, and then hit Toronto carrying a number of wins from Italy (but not the Golden Lion in a controversial awards ceremony) into Canada. The company then exclusively debuted David O. Russell’s crowd-pleasing Silver Linings Playbook at Toronto to nothing less than ecstatic audience and critical reaction, even winning the People’s Choice Award, which previously went to other best picture winners American Beauty, The King’s Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire. After the Toronto premiere, the Nov. 21 release began to top pundits’ list of contenders. Weinstein also used Toronto to launch Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet, starring Maggie Smith, to enthusiastic standing ovations.

But Toronto is by far the biggest fest for an Oscar campaign sendoff and is almost overwhelming in its size. It is not uncommon to see four major movies competing directly against each other in the same timeslot for eyeballs on that first weekend. “It’s just gotten too big, and it could eventually produce diminishing returns if everybody figures they have to be in Toronto,” said one frustrated festgoer with dreams of awards for his movie. Among others getting the big premiere treatment there were End of Watch, The Sessions, Cloud Atlas, The Impossible, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Anna Karenina. All received major standing ovations and had reason to believe the early strategy—and risk—worked out, even if overall reaction to some like Warners’ Cloud Atlas was at best mixed in terms of awards prognosis.

Telluride, not to be outdone, also turned out to have a big winner from Warner Bros. in Ben Affleck’s extremely well-received true-life thriller, Argo, which generated lots of Oscar buzz from the numerous awards bloggers who have suddenly discovered the Colorado town’s awards cachet. In fact, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences itself threw a private party at Telluride and invited members in town for the fest, a soiree Affleck also attended. Warners then took the film to Toronto for its “official” World Premiere, and the reception was just as positive, immediately establishing it as a certified contender.

Also in Telluride, Bill Murray made a strong impression for his portrayal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson and made several appearances with the film there as well as Toronto. The film itself was met with a more muted response, although it had some fans.

The New York Film Festival in late September proved far more significant than usual with important Oscar-buzzing entries like opener Life of Pi from Ang Lee and closer Flight from director Robert Zemeckis and starring Denzel Washington, not to mention Sopranos creator David Chase’s feature directorial debut, Not Fade Away. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln even dropped in as a last-minute surprise premiere.

And though it’s last on the circuit, the early-November AFI Fest has its own piece of the Oscar pie with Fox Searchlight’s late entry, Hitchcock, a tailor-made no-brainer choice to open a fest with a rich film history at its core. After its NYFF splash on the East Coast, Lincoln was chosen as closer for AFI to keep momentum up on the West Coast.

However, a fest strategy definitely doesn’t work out for everything. If producers of To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s followup to The Tree of Life, had hopes it would repeat that film’s successful festival awards trajectory, those hopes were dashed by negative critical and crowd feedback in both Venice and Toronto. The film did eventually find a distributor, Magnolia, but its Oscar chances coming off the fest circuit and into theaters are not good. “You can’t bat .1000 every time,” says one top distributor who saw the film. A lesson learned this year on the circuit for Terrence Malick, who didn’t show up to see the reaction.