Award Festival Season is upon Us

Telluride Film Festival
Telluride Film Festival

As far as big film festivals go, there is what a lot in the industry refer to as the September Four — Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York — which regularly debut the bulk of films that typically carry the Awards spotlight into the fall, followed by various Guild Awards, Golden Globes, Spirit Awards and the Academy Awards. Three of these key festivals, Venice, Toronto and New York, have revealed their opening night selections in recent weeks, signaling possible early Awards contenders. It’s a long road most certainly, and there’s a lot of money spent by distributors along the way. Plumb spots in Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals are coveted for their early press attention and consistent correlation to finding Awards success.

Telluride, which takes place over Labor Day weekend, is an anomaly in that its organizers don’t reveal its lineup until the Thursday before the festival begins. Nevertheless, it is typically packed with films that will head to Toronto and New York before heading to other fall festivals that are also important stops for Awards attention including Hamptons in Long Island, NY, Mill Valley in California, AFI Fest in Los Angeles and Palm Springs as well as Santa Barbara after the start of the year.

Opening Venice this year is the World Premiere of Damien Chazelle’s anticipated La La Land starring Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend and J.K. Simmons, while Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven starring Denzel Washington will have its World Premiere launching the Toronto International Film Festival after Labor Day weekend. At the end of September, the World Premiere of Ava DuVernay’s The 13th will open the New York Film Festival.

Alejandro González Iñárritu with the cast of Birdman 2014
Alejandro González Iñárritu with the cast of Birdman 2014

Damien Chazelle received two Oscar-nominations in 2014 for his previous film, Whiplash, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. J.K. Simmons won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and Tom Cross won Best Film Editing. La La Land is being tipped as a strong Awards contender about a jazz pianist who falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.
Denzel Washington has two Oscar wins for Glory (1989) and Training Day (2001) in addition to four nominations, so Toronto’s opener this year, which also starring Haley Bennett and Chris Pratt, is sure to be on the watch list for the hordes of press who annually descend on Canada’s largest city for North America’s biggest film festival. The film centers on seven gun men in the old west who gradually come together to help a poor village against savage thieves.

The New York Film Festival’s opening film is a first in its 54 years. The event, known for its high-end curation, spotlighting international and American auteurs, is launching with a documentary September 29th. Ava DuVernay’s The 13th, which has been filmed mostly off the radar of insiders, investigates the high-rate of incarceration in the U.S. of particularly African Americans. The film is timely, in light of the recent shootings of police and black suspects, which have in turn fueled the political debate as the general election gets into full swing. DuVernay had been expected to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director for her previous film, Selma, though it did get a nomination for Best Picture and a win for Best Original Song from John Legend.

This decade in particular, the New York Film Festival has upped its Awards season cache. Its opening 2010 title, David Fincher’s The Social Network, was considered a watershed debut which put the festival in the center of the early fall Awards race. The film received eight nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Jesse Eisenberg, but ended up with three wins for Adapted Screenplay (Aaron Sorkin), Film Editing and Original Score. More importantly for the bottom-line, The Social Network ended up grossing $215M worldwide, not bad for a release that doesn’t include superheroes.

Since then, NYFF’s key Opening, Centerpiece and Closing slots have been coveted real estate for distributors hoping to flex their Award-hopefuls’ chops. In 2011, the festival screened My Week with Marilyn by Simon Curtis as its Centerpiece, receiving two Oscar nominations including Best Actress and Best actor for Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh. That year’s Closing feature, The Descendants, included a win for Best Adapted Screenplay for Alexander Payne and four additional Oscar nominations. NYFF’s 2012 opener, Life of Pi, took four Oscars including Best Director for Ang Lee (his second) and gold statues for Cinematography, Original Score and Visual Effects. It also received seven additional nominations. In 2013, the Opening Film, Captain Phillips by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks didn’t win an Oscar, though it did land a half dozen nominations.

In 2014, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) received an onslaught of attention following its screening as the Closing Night selection, winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Original Screenplay and Cinematography in addition to five other nominations. Incidentally, the film screened in competition that year in Venice, though that festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, went to German-Swedish produced A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Red carpet at TIFF
Red carpet at TIFF

Unlike NYFF and Toronto, Venice gives a jury names the top prize winner, though in this decade, the Golden Lion has not presaged big time Oscar attention. Still, the festival has had heavy-hitters in its midst and the fest, the world’s oldest, has consistently debuted titles that go on to receive attention at international awards. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, for example, had its World Premiere in Venice out of competition before going on to Telluride and Toronto. Impressively, the film received seven Oscars in 2014 including Best Director, Cinematography and Editing. It also had a Best Picture nomination.

Danny Boyle with Freida Pinto and Dev Patel
Danny Boyle with Freida Pinto and Dev Patel

Toronto is still considered the starting line of the year’s Awards race, but with a huge festival that features three hundred or so titles, statistically it would seem there has to be some Oscar pics in the mix. The Toronto International Film Festival (or TIFF) is known for its enthusiastic audiences. Those same audiences have also proven quite savvy at picking films for the festival’s People’s Choice Award that go on to have success later down the Awards Circuit.

Back in 2008, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire won the People’s Choice Award, setting it on a course to a host of international awards in addition to eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. The following year, Lee Daniel’s Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire won in Toronto, again sweeping a number of subsequent critical and festival nods en route to the Academy Awards where it received altogether six nominations and two wins for Best Supporting Actress for Mo’Nique and Best Adapted Screenplay for Geoffrey Fletcher. TIFF audiences continued to find the Oscar champ the following year with Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, also winning the People’s Choice Award. It went on to receive a dozen Academy Award nominations, winning four including Best Picture, Best Actor for Colin Firth and Best Director.

In more recent years, People’s Choice Award winners have included other Awards winners such as David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game (2014) and Lenny Abrahamsson’s Room (2015).

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