Sat. Sep 19th, 2020

When Oscar Bait Fails: How Film Festival Response Makes or Breaks a Film

From left; Freeheld, I Saw the Light, Our Brand Is Crisis and Suffragette - all on Oscar life support
From left; Freeheld, I Saw the Light, Our Brand Is Crisis and Suffragette – all on Oscar life support


What has happened to this Oscar season? The Toronto International Film Festival, currently underway, is normally the jumping off point, or in some cases the breeding ground, for the season’s major Oscar players and for the most part many of them are here. But one by one, they’ve been shot down, bang bang. Hype and hope collided and didn’t create a fantastic supernova but disastrous black hole. Now, we see Oscar bait fail every year, that’s nothing new. Just not this many, so quickly. Often, high-profile prestige projects and juicy biopic material are the first things we start listing as potential Oscar nominee material, and reasonably so, they still do well. This year is proving to be a potentially tide-turning year in which everything we think is nothing as it is at all.

The first looks at some very highly anticipated films have more than just disappointed, they’ve all but knocked themselves out of any consideration. Our Brand Is Crisis saw its Toronto debut blasted and it’s looking at a 43% Rotten Tomatoes rating. What might have looked like Warner Brothers big Oscar push is no more. Maybe a Globe nom for Sandra Bullock when/if the film is pushed as a comedy. Freeheld, from Lionsgate, and starring the most recent recipient of the Best Actress Oscar, Julianne Moore, premiered this weekend to reviews so scathing (despite some positive mention for Moore) that it sits at 36%. Looks like Lionsgate can focus on its upcoming action thriller Sicario to pick up the slack. Demolition, which was the TIFF opener and scheduled to be released in November by Fox Searchlight was yanked from 2015 and shuttled off to April 2016. It sits at 43%. Guess you can see the writing on that wall.

Let’s turn the clocks back a bit, to earlier this summer. At the Cannes Film Festival there weren’t a lot of fall releases in competition but we could cherry pick the ones that would likely last through the seasons and make it all the way to the end. Carol, which won Best Actress for Rooney Mara, was one of them. It’s sitting at a very healthy 96% on Rotten Tomatoes right now and despite Harvey Weinstein’s recent insistence on hoarding nearly a dozen films for presumed fall awards releases, Carol has remained in tact. One might think he’s buying up these films less for The Weinstein Company but more to keep them from other studios. The only thing is, his game isn’t as strong as it used to be. Or at least his intuition on what will be awards bait. The $6M he paid for About Ray is a wash. There’s no way it’s earning that money back and at 50% on RT now gives it practically zero chance of any awards traction. Bradley Cooper’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated turn in American Sniper, Burnt, has gone through more transitions in name and content that I’ve actually lost count of how many test screenings it had this summer.


After the lull of Cannes we Oscar pundits started digging in, looking at the fall and winter slate of films and began the serious Oscar predicting. Well, here at AwardsWatch we start that the day after the Oscars, but I digress. As the Telluride and Venice film festivals approached we saw that a handful of studios were struggling with their releases. What would they push? What was their #1? What would go to festivals vs. wait for mainstream release? Fox Searchlight, the reigning Oscar champ of the last two Best Picture winners (Birdman this year, 12 Years a Slave last year) seemed in a good spot with Youth (which played Cannes) and Brooklyn. Both films have a wealth of AMPAS wheelhouse properties; Oscar winning veterans Michael Caine and Jane Fonda in Youth lamenting their age and place in the world, the romanticism of immigrant life in New York in the 1950s with Brooklyn and starring Oscar nominees Saoirse Ronan and Julie Walters. While both films have played strongly for critics (Brooklyn is currently at 100% on RT) and had good festival runs that aren’t over yet, it doesn’t seem like Fox Searchlight has chosen what will be their main player. But then, do they need to? Just this year they championed two films, Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel to the lion’s share of Oscar wins with Birdman and Budapest each netting nine nominations that yielded four wins apiece. They know how to campaign two films. Plus, there isn’t much crossover between the two films in terms of competitive nominations. They could very well be the champ again this season.

'The Danish Girl'
‘The Danish Girl’

Focus Features, the holder of the last two Best Actor wins (Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club), also has two films in their quiver but unlike Fox Searchlight their films are far more in direct competition with each other and rather than relying on nostalgia as part of their themes, The Danish Girl and Suffragette are films with highly and hotly topical subjects. For The Danish Girl, loosely based on the world’s first ever sex reassignment surgery recipient, trans visibility has never been more open as it is in 2015. Despite the film taking place in Europe in the 1920s the film has relevance to right now. It stars Eddie Redmayne, fresh off his Oscar win, and newcomer Alicia Vikander. Its receptions at Venice and Toronto have been mostly respectful but a bit muted. Less for the performances and more for the bland direction (it is Tom Hooper, after all) and it sits at 77% on RT right now, not bad considering. Focus Features’ other film is another highly topical story, the women’s suffrage movement in England in the 1920s. Again, another film that takes place nearly 100 years ago and in Europe but is relevant to the current state of women’s right in the U.S. right now. It stars Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep. Its reception has been far less warm. After its Telluride debut it sits on RT at a dreary 56%. Much debate has occurred as to whether Focus would try and push both Mulligan and Vikander in Lead or commit some famous and regular category fraud by putting Vikander in Supporting. All signs are pointing to the latter as to avoid the two women from having to compete against each other (despite the fact that Vikander reportedly has more screentime than Redmayne, who is clearly going to be pushed in Lead) but then what of Carter and Streep? Or Anne-Marie Duff, for that matter, who’s gotten great reviews for Suffragette. Doesn’t seem like those ladies were considered as much.

'Son of Saul'
‘Son of Saul’

Sony Pictures Classics. Oy, where to begin. It started out so well. The grabbed Cannes winner Son of Saul, a holocaust drama like we haven’t seen in a long time (if ever) and then Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light, the Dan Rather-gate drama Truth with Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett and then scooped up the highly anticipated Miles Ahead from Don Cheadle after it was announced at the New York Film Festival’s closing night film. All sounds good, right? Well, first came the waffling about Miles Ahead’s release. Would it see a 2015 berth? Were they waiting on the response to their other musical biopic? Then both Tom O’Neill from GoldDerby and Anne Thompson from Thompson on Hollywood said the SPC brass told them specifically to hold off on putting Miles Ahead in their awards predictions and that it would “go wide in 2016.” Vague, to say the least. Hedging their bets is more likely. Well, now I Saw the Light and Truth have both been seen at Toronto…and it doesn’t look good. I Saw the Light is currently at Razzie-worthy 22% on RT right now. Despite some good notices for Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen there is nary a good word about the film itself. Truth has fared better, at 67%, but still not good enough to be a major push. Plus, SPC didn’t seem to care a lick about the film. Dropping it in October with barely a few production stills and no trailer, it seems like they put their eggs in the basket of two films that aren’t paying off. So that brings us back to Son of Saul. At 100% it should be clear that that’s the film they need to push, and push hard. It’s not the 80s or 90s anymore and a Holocaust drama might feel like a bit of old-fashioned Oscar bait but never underestimate the power of something old-fashioned coming in and winning the whole she-bang. I’m looking at you, The King’s Speech.

'Mad Max: Fury Road'
‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

So where does that leave us? Right now most of the major Oscar players have been seen, save Joy, The Hateful Eight and The Revenant and Bridge of Spies. But will they fail and fall like so many have this season or will they rise above and be among the eventual winners as many of us have predicted? Right now, all eyes are on the films that not only weathered the brutal Canadian summer but came out shining. Right now, it seems as if Black Mass is Warner Brothers‘ best shot at major nominations. Johnny Deep in Best Actor, Joel Edgerton in Supporting Actor both seem very possible. If the film is a box office success you can probably pencil in a good shot in Best Picture. But what of Mad Max: Fury Road? It has all of the markings of a genre hit that makes it all the way to the Dolby. Giant box office success, a 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating, it even won the FIPRESCI prize as Best Film of 2015, beating out more “high-minded” fare like Son of Saul, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin and Jafar Panahi’s Taxi. Even bigger than all that, it was a crowdpleaser. That element can’t be underestimated. The film is already a strong contender in the tech categories: Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Makeup & Hairstyling but is also a contender in Costume Design, Production Design and Film Editing. It’s not a stretch to think that if it receives broad support among multiple branches that it could find itself in Best Picture and George Miller in the running for a Best Director nomination. This feels like the kind of film the expansion of the Best Picture field was made for and if Warner Brothers wants to it could push it all the way.

'The Martian'
‘The Martian’

Same goes for 20th Century Fox‘s The Martian from Ridley Scott. A rapturous reception at Toronto boosted the film from a possible fall hit to a major player, including Matt Damon in Best Actor and like Mad Max, is also likely to be a huge crowdpleaser. Opening on the same weekend that put Gravity on the map (and on the way to an Oscar haul of eight wins), The Martian is at a very strong 95% on RT and puts itself squarely in the place of Fox’s fall-back if David O. Russell’s Joy fails to perform. Universal‘s Steve Jobs is looking at a 90% rating after excellent reviews for its stars Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet, both of whom seem assured nominations. Thomas McCarthy’s All the President’s Men meets The Paper true story Spotlight is enjoying a 94% rating and Open Road Films, not the most successful Oscar player, has a chance to go far. Then there’s Beasts of No Nation. Heaps and heaps of praise, a 100% rating and everything possible going for it. If Netflix can overcome the perceived stigma of its streaming/theatrical release it could end up being a top 5 film. They did it with television, reaping dozens of Emmy nominations in just two years so there’s no reason to think they’re success will stop there. For the record, all RT are subject to change, even dramatically, as these are from the first handful of reviews to come in.

One of the more interesting things about all of this shakeup is that it made a category like Best Actress a lot more fluid. With Sandra Bullock and Julianne Moore presumably out, it’s going to make room for performances that might have been on the cusp or at least weren’t locked in yet. Brooklyn‘s Saiorse Ronan feels solid now. Carey Mulligan still feels a bit wobbly to me but should be able to make it through, especially if Streep continues her campaign for the film. But then we have Brie Larson in A24‘s Room (hugely successful Toronto screening), Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years (Berlin Best Actress winner, strong support from Sundance Selects), Lily Tomlin (SPC’s best shot) in Grandma, which is enjoying a very healthy box office run could join Cate Blanchett in Carol and (again, presumably) Jennifer Lawrence in Joy.

Either way, it’s going to be an exciting season.



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