Is it Oscar season yet? It’s kiiinda starting to look like it, or a semblance of it. The fall festivals, virtual as they are, are beginning to take shape. Limited and muted, without the glitz and glamour of highly trafficked and heavily papped red carpet premieres (we’re not getting Lady Gaga arriving by boat to Venice looking like a star or having a legendary red carpet moment in the rain), it could mean an Oscar season that looks very indie and very streamer-driven.
Warner Bros has opened Tenet in some international locations to mostly good responses (read our review here) and it just began screening for press in the US this last week. For some, it was their first time back in a movie theater in six months. The plan is still to open the Christopher Nolan would be blockbuster wide(ish) in the states on September 3. But is it going to be the savior WB and Nolan want…need it to be? Is there even going to be a way to recoup the $200M price tag and become one of this season’s few major studio films in the race?
If that pressure weren’t enough, Warner Bros also has Denis Villeneuve’s Dune reboot. Word on the cost of the production budget has been tight-lipped but just three years ago, Villeneuve took another existing WB property, Blade Runner 2049, and rebooted it as a massive financial bomb, earning just $92M domestically on a $155M budget. The film was a critical success and still ended up winning two Oscars. But, add to it that his Dune will be a two-parter, what if this meets an equal financial fate? Warner Bros has suffered at the box office for enough years now (last year’s box office haul for Joker kept them afloat) that two huge disasters in a row, in a single year, could put them in real jeopardy as a studio. They, and we, will be looking closely at Tenet‘s box office receipts and how they might shape Dune‘s, which is set to come out the week before Christmas. The first trailer will preview ahead of Tenet screenings and then be online September 9.
What I think is Warner Bros true secret weapon in this race though is Judas and the Black Messiah. Already a major contender in Best Actor and Supporting Actor (and possibly director), this true story of civil rights activist Fred Hampton and the FBI is set for late January, taking full advantage of the extended Oscar eligibility date, and just feels like a timely, powerhouse film.
What all that leaves room for are films that do plan on hitting the virtual festivals this fall like they normally would in order to build buzz and attention. Neon’s Ammonite (November 13), Searchlight’s Nomadland (December 4) and Amazon’s One Night in Miami (date TBD) all have the potential to be even stronger Oscar contenders than may originally had been. The Academy voters have done a pretty good job recently curating Best Picture nominee lists that cover the small indie and the huge blockbusters and everything in between. But this year could be the balance shifted a bit, possibly unlike any since the 1996 BP nominees went 4/5 indie.
Can’t have a Best Picture conversation without the streaming behemoth Netflix. After finally breaking through the last two years with top tier Oscar wins in Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón for 2018’s Roma) and Supporting Actress (Laura Dern for 2019’s Marriage Story), Netflix is set to dominate with a slate so impressive and deep that it…might be their undoing? That is to say, is the Academy ready to go so all in with Netflix that it holds three, four, maybe five slots in Best Picture and nearly as many in some in the directing and acting categories? In this year, anything can happen and when you have potential Oscar powerhouses like David Fincher’s Mank (date TBD), Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (October 16), Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (June 12), Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy (date TBD) plus George Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (date TBD but I’ll have more on this for you Monday) you’ve got damn near a monopoly.
I’m continuing with my alphabetized list of top contenders and other contenders rather than ranked (as some pundits currently do) in Best Picture as I did with Best Director. I think a ranked list puts a bit too much stock on regurgitating a perceived top 5 or top 10 and those films and directors ranked underneath that become too groupthink. By simply showing the list of contender that I see in the race, the reader can come to conclusions on their own. Is Mank ahead or behind The Trial of the Chicago 7? Are Regina King’s One Night in Miami and Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland fighting over a spot because we generally accept that if a female director’s film is nominated that there can only be one? By removing these pre-existing notions in the predictions process I think it will allow this part of the race to unfold a bit more organically than trying to force a narrative, at least until we get closer to the end of the year. Plus, with so much up in the air (will theaters even be open before the extended Oscars’ eligibility period?), who knows if some of these films will even qualify or be held until next season.
Here are my 2021 Oscar predictions in Best Picture for August. Green means a film has moved up from the Other Contenders list, Red means it’s moved down to it and Blue is a new entry for the month.
- Ammonite (Neon)
- Da 5 Bloods (Netflix)
- The Father (Sony Classics)
- News of the World (Universal)
- Dune (Warner Bros)
- Judas and the Black Messiah (Warner Bros)
- Mank (Netflix)
- Nomadland (Searchlight)
- One Night in Miami (Amazon)
- The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)
The French Dispatch (Searchlight), Hillbilly Elegy (Netflix), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix), Minari (A24), Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Focus Features), Next Goal Wins (Searchlight), On the Rocks (Apple/A24), Stillwater (Focus Features), Soul (Walt Disney/Pixar), Tenet (Warner Bros), The United States vs Billie Holiday (Paramount), West Side Story (20th Century)