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Fox Searchlight Rebounds From ‘Birth of a Nation’ and Returns as a Major Oscar Player

One year after "The Birth of a Nation" disaster, the indie distributor returned to dominate Venice, Telluride, and TIFF.

TIFF

It hasn’t been easy for Fox Searchlight Pictures over the last several years. The studio’s reputation has struggled in the wake of box office disappointments like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Demolition,” “Table 19,” and this year’s “Patti Cake$,” plus increased competition from growing rivals like Netflix, Amazon, and A24. What was once a studio destined to be an Oscar power player has now become just another indie distributor fighting to get its movies seen. We’re a long way from the back-to-back Best Picture success of “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman,” plus Oscar favorites like “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and “The Descendants.”

One year ago, Fox Searchlight hit rock bottom with “The Birth of a Nation.” Nate Parker’s slavery drama was the darling of Sundance 2016, winning the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, a double whammy that propelled the likes of “Precious” and “Fruitvale Station” into the Oscar race in years prior. The studio turned heads when it picked up the actor’s directorial debut for a record-breaking $18.5 million deal, but their clear-cut plan to turn “The Birth of a Nation” into their next Oscar powerhouse was derailed after Parker’s college rape allegations and subsequent trial resurfaced just ahead of the film’s fall festival launch.

Searchlight tried to save face with a press conference at last year’s TIFF, but the damage had already been done. The movie grossed just over $15 million and received not a single Oscar nomination.

But Fox Searchlight is back in a big way this year. The studio is now the undisputed winner of the fall film festival season, thanks to Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” and Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” The former won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, while the latter shocked mostly everyone in the industry by winning the Audience Award at TIFF. Fox Searchlight is coming off the festivals with the two big award winners, a complete turn of events from last year. Given these wins, the studio’s Oscar prospects look bright this year.

In previous years, the TIFF Audience Award has gone to “Room,” “The Imitation Game,” “12 Years a Slave,” “The King’s Speech,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” and “La La Land.” All of these films went on to be nominated for Best Picture, with “12 Years A Slave” and “Slumdog Millionaire” proving victorious. This news bodes well for “Three Billboards,” which also has a Best Actress contender in Francis McDormand and an Original Screenplay candidate in McDonagh. IndieWire gave the film an A- review and called McDormand an “absolute force of nature” in the lead role.

“The Shape of Water’s” Golden Lion win isn’t as much of a slam dunk prognosticator as the TIFF Audience Award, but del Toro’s fairy tale does join “Somewhere,” “The Wrestler,” and Brokeback Mountain” as recent American productions to win top honors at Venice. The latter two went on to receive multiple nominations, and “The Shape of Water” found more acclaim in Telluride and TIFF to suggest its Oscar chances seem bright, especially for Sally Hawkins in the Best Actress race.

IndieWire’s Anne Thompson says Hawkins “will be nominated for her sensual, powerful performance” and the film could be a big success story in below the line categories. “Pan’s Labyrinth” took home honors for cinematography, makeup, and art direction in 2007.

Fox Searchlight also premiered a third film to positive reviews at the festivals, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “Battle of the Sexes.” The fact-based feature, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carrell, didn’t have much awards luck in TIFF, but it did earn fans and every review singled out Stone’s triumphant work as tennis icon Billie Jean King. At this point it seems safe to say Fox Searchlight has at least two bonafide contenders with “Water” and “Billboards,” so “Battle of the Sexes” could just be a third cherry on top for a studio that desperately needed a comeback this year.

“Battle of the Sexes” opens September 22, while “The Shape of Water” arrives December 8 and “Three Billboards” debuts November 10.

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