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AWARDS WATCH ’08 | Back and Forth: Are the Fall Fests Telling Us Anything?

AWARDS WATCH '08 | Back and Forth: Are the Fall Fests Telling Us Anything?

Kicking off this year’s awards season coverage in indieWIRE, editor-in-chief Eugene Hernandez and assistant editor Peter Knegt chatted yesterday via instant message about the opening moments of awards race. Topics for this first installment include a look at what we’ve learned from the film festivals, and speculation about some of the season’s frontrunners and dark horse contenders.

Eugene Hernandez: It seems like this year’s awards season is off to a slower start, compared to recent years. There simply weren’t as many likely contenders out of the fall festivals — Telluride, Venice, Toronto — as in previous years. And with the New York Film Festival starting on Friday, I wonder how that might change?

Peter Knegt: I think we knew going into the late summer rush of fests that we weren’t going to know much coming out of it. And I don’t know if NYFF will change much. It could very well raise (or decrease) buzz for films like “The Wrestler” and “Changeling,” and give some of the foreign language entries some word of mouth, but otherwise, its going to be a slow build to any sort of understanding of what’s a contender and what’s not.

EH: I recently spoke with a number of industry-types who said that in the wake of so much money being spent to market awards contenders last year, companies were holding back a bit. We’ll have to see how that strategy plays out. But if you look at Fox Searchlight for example, they suddenly seem to have two contenders that they are positioning, both of which they acquired recently: “Slumdog Millionaire” (which they sneaked in Telluride and then debuted in Toronto) and “The Wrestler” which they quickly grabbed at TIFF.

But in any other year, I wonder how viable “Slumdog Millionaire” would have been coming out of Telluride and Toronto. It seems to have benefited from the lack of other clear contenders?

A scene from Gus Van Sant’s “Milk.” Image courtesy of Focus Features.

PK: That’s certainly an interesting point. It felt like after Toronto pundits were desperate to say something seemed like a best picture shortlist possibility. And “Slumdog” was pretty much the only thing to come out of Telluride or Toronto that had that air about it.

However, I still think it has a good shot. This is the type of film that needs that kind of festival buzz, so Searchlight really had no choice. Maybe they are just going to have an uphill battle maintaining their buzz when the lot of November/December films start showing their faces. Maybe not. I can’t remember a year where there was so much left to be seen by this point. And I don’t know if the fact that so many companies are holding back levels the playing field, or gives films like “Slumdog” a serious advantage.

EH: We can get back to other TIFF favorites in a sec, but since you mention what is unseen, we got a pretty good idea, from the Gurus o’Gold , which films are the most anticipated Oscar contenders. Interesting to see such a strong showing for “Milk,” which seems well-positioned, and we’ve all only seen that trailer (which I watched multiple times).

PK: Yeah, I was looking at Gurus o’Gold last night, including your picks. I was curious so I looked back at last year’s late September charts, and 6 of the top 10 best pictures had already played at a fest. This year its only 2.

It seems like this year the trailer buzz has replaced the festival buzz. “Milk,” “Doubt“, “Revolutionary Road,” “Frost/Nixon,” “The Soloist“.. all debuted trailers in the past few weeks, and I’ll admit, “Milk”‘s got me speculating… Even though its based on what is essentially marketing.

EH: There was that 20 minutes of footage of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” that some of us saw in Telluride a few weeks ago and based on that footage, and listening to David Fincher talk about what he is going for in the film, I feel like its a viable contender at this moment. But, it was also already in the running probably before anyone saw anything.

PK: Though its based entirely on speculation, I have a good feeling about “Benjamin Button.” And “Milk.” I’m a little more doubtful about films like, well, “Doubt.” Stage to screen translations – especially when directed by the person who brought it to the stage – are tricky territory. Meryl Streep looks amazing in the trailer, though.

EH: Notably, there wasn’t a “There Will Be Blood” moment out of Fantastic Fest, so we have to look at other opportunities for that. And a number of films seem to be lining up for later fall fest debuts. We just saw “The Soloist” take the opening spot for AFI Fest at the end of next month.

But, let’s talk about some other TIFF films that got a good boost out of the fest. Seems like Sony Classics generated some nice buzz for both “Rachel Getting Married” and “I’ve Loved You So Long” (which was also in Telluride). They weren’t on my personal radar as contenders prior to Labor Day weekend.

PK: Yeah, its strange how “Loved You” showed up all of a sudden, especially given it premiered in Berlin way back in February. Kristin Scott Thomas seems heavily favored for a nom, as does Elsa Zylberstein. “Rachel” surprised me a bit less, at least in terms of Anne Hathaway. Though it seems like her co-star Rosemarie DeWitt (who I loved so much on “Mad Men”), and the script by Jenny Lumet have definite shots too. But an acting nod for Hathaway is maybe the most certain thing we have this year, beyond Heath Ledger.

A scene from Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married.” Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

EH: Looking at your post-TiFF picks on your blog, you have a few films that started earlier ths year and seem even more likely now: Benicio Del Toro for “Che” (Cannes), Sally Hawkins for “Happy Go Lucky” (Berlin), Penelope Cruz in “Vicky Christina Barcelona” (Cannes). Those seem pretty solid at this moment, but again, are we reaching because there just isn’t enough to analyze at this very moment.

PK: We are reaching. But isn’t that what this is all about? I think Cruz is solid, and so far has no strong competition. I loved her performance, and would be entirely satisfied – at this point at least – if she won. Hawkins and Del Toro have a tougher shot. Both lead acting categories seem like they might get very crowded, very quickly. Already, look at actress: Hathaway, Scott Thomas, Hawkins, Melissa Leo for “Frozen River,” and – though having seen the film I highly doubt this will happen – Angelina Jolie in “Changeling.”

EH: Yes, you’re right, this whole exercise in awards prognostication is all about reaching and pulling predictions out of total thin air (remember last year when “Sweeney Todd” was a *guaranteed* best picture nominee months in advance).

It just feels like this year, whether we like it or not, we are going to have to sit tight a bit and let the season unfold a bit. Against the will of so many bloggers and prognosticators, there isn’t a lot of work from other than trailers we watch over and over online. Which also makes me wonder if that might bode well for some dark horse candidates like Michelle Williams (“Wendy and Lucy“), or Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor“)?

PK: It could. We’ve learned in the past few years that with the earlier voting dates, waiting to screen a film until late in the year is not always the best idea. Slow and steady definitely has worked, particularly for smaller films (see “La Vie En Rose,” and, er, “Crash“). I’m looking forward to seeing how Richard Jenkins works into it all. “The Visitor” is basically the lone spring contender, and will have long been on DVD. And though the lead actor race is tight, Jenkins is starring in a much lighter film that most other contenders and this contrast might be quite beneficial. He’s also a veteran character actor that has never been nominated.

And Michelle Williams is fantastic in “Wendy & Lucy” (which will be at the New York Film Festival this weekend). While the film won’t be released until December, its been playing at festivals since May, and buzz on the film doesn’t seemed to have peaked yet. Williams could be really primed to surprise, especially if supposed contenders like Meryl Steep or Kate Winslet don’t amount to much. And though it displeases me to note this darker side of awards politics, the fact that Heath Ledger is in the running will probably play significantly in her favor.

And hey, its kinda funny how Williams, Ledger and Hathaway are all strong contenders, and a big gay film is being called the frontrunner. Maybe Jim Sheridan‘s “Brothers” will actually get released in time and Jake Gyllenhaal will join the obviously bittersweet “Brokeback” redux.

(to be continued next week)

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