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What Sundance Means To The Oscars, And Which Films From This Year’s Fest Could Be Awards Season Players

What Sundance Means To The Oscars, And Which Films From This Year's Fest Could Be Awards Season Players

Though it began as a more alternative festival than it perhaps is now, Sundance has, almost from the very beginning, been tied up with the Oscars. The 1986 festival saw Woody Allen’s “Hannah And Her Sisters” play ahead of its release a few months later: the film went on to win multiple Oscar nods, including Best Picture, and pick up trophies for Best Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress.

The film wasn’t an “official” Sundance picture, but it wasn’t long before films in competition at the festival were making an impact on the Oscar race; the following year, Edward James Olmos received a Best Actor nod for Sundance premiere “Stand And Deliver.” Two years later, “Sex Lies & Videotape” got a Screenplay nomination, while international movies “Four Weddings & A Funeral,” “Shine” and “The Full Monty” all screened at the festival before getting a Best Picture nod.

In the last decade, however, things have really picked up: “In The Bedroom” was the first Dramatic Selection nominee to earn a Best Picture nomination, while in recent years, four of the six Grand Jury Prize nominees have gone on to Best Picture nods (“Precious,” “Winter’s Bone,” “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” and “Whiplash”), with other Sundance pics like “An Education” and “The Kids Are All Right” also managed the feat. And if Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” manages to take the big Oscar prize this year, it will be the first Best Picture winner that premiered at Sundance.

It’s partly a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more big awards season players come out of Park City, the more buyers and critics will return the next year looking for another picture along those lines. It’s also partly a reflection of the changing face of Academy tastes, and of the business; independent movies are increasingly powerful at Oscar time, with the studios making fewer and fewer of the kind of films that voters respond to. But could it also be an indicator of something else?

For the first time in memory, three of this year’s eight Best Picture nominees had already premiered by the time the previous Oscar ceremony had taken place: “Whiplash” and “Boyhood” at Sundance in January, and “Grand Budapest Hotel” at Berlin in February before hitting theaters in early March, just days after the 2014 Academy Awards took place. 

Over the last few decades, the standard playbook followed that “awards season movies” were released in the last few months of the year, as distributors wanted their pictures fresh in the minds of voters as ballots are sent out. Before ‘Budapest,’ the last March movie to be nominated for Best Picture was “Erin Brockovich” in 2001, and it’s the earliest-released film in the category since “Silence Of The Lambs” (released February 14th, 1991).

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, obviously, but there is a general trend emerging for Best Picture nominees being spread further across the year, rather than packed into the fall months, hastened by the extension of the category. In 2009, only four of the nominees hadn’t been screened prior to the fall festivals, and most years have seen three or four movies from the summer, or early-year fests, make the cut (though 2013 was a notable exception: only “Nebraska,” which premiered at Cannes, was seen by anyone before August).

This is actually something of a reflection of what’s going on all over, as traditional release seasons are steadily crumbling. The last few decades usually saw blockbusters hitting only in the summer months, but now things like “The Lego Movie,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” or “Gravity” can make massive hauls in the once-slow months of February, April or October, respectively. Similarly, “Grand Budapest Hotel” landed in early March, and was the biggest indie release of 2014 (though it’s since been lapped by “The Imitation Game,” thanks to its early January grosses), while “American Sniper,” aided no doubt by its Oscar nods, is currently doing superhero-movie numbers in the January doldrums.

Combine that with July’s release for “Boyhood,” and impressive numbers for other indie fare in the spring or summer, and we could be looking at something of a sea change. Older audiences are increasingly crucial for the box office (even Marvel movies are dominated by over-twenty-five cinemagoers), and yet are starved of films for three-quarters of the year. All it takes is one big hit (Focus are following the lead of “Grand Budapest Hotel,” slating the Coen Brothers’ “Hail Caesar for a similar slot in 2016), and a few awards runs, to start seeing awards prospects spread throughout the year, rather than crammed between November 1st and Christmas Day.

It helps that Sundance has a prime slot in the calendar, right at the start of the year. It’s easy for a film to get lost in the mix at the fall festivals, four or five insane weeks that take place in Venice, Telluride, TIFF and the NYFF. But crucially, it’s also tricky for a movie without distribution to enter the Oscar race that late in the game, when their competitors have been laying the groundwork for campaigns for months, and already bagged the prime release slots.

It does happen (“Still Alice” was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics out of TIFF this year, and will almost certainly win an Oscar for Julianne Moore), but it’s hard to get the machinery up and running in that time to have any real impact. Recent movies with Oscar success premiering at fall festivals were either long set for fall release dates by their distributors — like “Crash” and “The Hurt Locker” — or not released until the following calendar year, reaching the Academy Awards stage almost eighteen months after their premieres.

Whereas a movie acquired out of Sundance, especially if it isn’t released until well into the fall like “Whiplash” (which stopped by Cannes, TIFF and NYFF along the way to keep the buzz going), has virtually a whole year to plan its campaign, avoiding problems like screener availability, which partly crippled “Selma” this year. As such, producers and financiers are increasingly keen for indies with awards potential to bow at Sundance, rather than at, say, TIFF, if they want to be picked up by a prime distributor (it also helps that it’s a slightly more focused fest than the Canadian behemoth).

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There are also, in theory at least, more buyers at play. This year saw a return to the Park City boom years of the 1990s, with more pick-ups, and more big-money acquisitions (with Fox Searchlight spending near-record sums on “Brooklyn” and “Me & Earl & The Dying Girl“). Part of that is because there are more potential suitors out there. This isn’t the market it was a decade ago: Focus aren’t the force they were in terms of acquisitions, Paramount Classics are long gone, and The Weinstein Company interestingly sat out this year at Sundance. This leaves Fox Searchlight, and Sony Pictures Classics as the only big players from a decade ago who were aggressively pursuing Sundance films this time around (though Magnolia, IFC, Sundance Selects et al are still around too, obviously). 

But in their place are a host of new folks on the ground, like hot young upstarts A24, who picked up three films from the festival, alongside brand new faces like Bleecker Street, Broad Green and The Orchard. Most of these companies have no real Oscar track record to speak of, and many of them are purely in the market for commercial fare (like Open Road, who paid big money for “Dope,” and have already set it for a late-summer counter-programming slot), but now IFC Films have proven that the size of your company isn’t an obstacle to getting your film to the Academy Awards. Smart campaigns could well end up seeing some of their films cropping up on the circuit later in the year. And let’s not forget streaming giants Netflix and Amazon, who are racing to build up libraries of exclusive content. They were both reportedly on the ground this year in Park City, but didn’t make any buys.

As such, it’ll be interesting to see how the Oscar-hopeful crop of movies from Park City land this year, whether they follow the path of the summer release for “Boyhood,” or go for a more traditional “Whiplash”-style berth. Given the recent run of success for the Grand Jury Prize winners, one of the biggest prospects has to be the buzziest film of the festival, “Me & Earl & The Dying Girl.”

A quirky, wise-ass weepie about the friendship between a pair of cinephiles and their cancer-stricken neighbor, it’s not necessarily the kind of movie that automatically leaps to mind when you think “Oscar.” But then people (and we’re including ourselves in this) were cautious about “Boyhood” and “Whiplash” last year as well, dismissing the former as an IFC Films picture (a distributor who many thought wouldn’t be able to fund a real Oscar campaign), while some believed the latter was too dark, or too small, to contend for much.

‘Me & Earl’ doesn’t have much in the way of name recognition: the director has an Emmy nod, but is best known for TV fare, while the writer is a novelist up for his first time at bat for a screenplay, and Connie Britton and Nick Offerman are the most famous names in the film. But Fox Searchlight are reaching ’90s-Miramax levels of Oscar game, picking up twenty nods this year, 90% of which were spread between two movies, “Birdman” and “Grand Budapest Hotel.” And let’s not forget that in a year as rich with cinema as 2007, they got “Juno” a Best Picture nomination. If they release the movie in the summer (as is said to be under consideration), it may be that they see it as a more commercial play, but as the 800-odd words above suggested, that may also not matter as much these days…

The company also picked up Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America (delightful, but not necessarily an awards player), and more importantly “Brooklyn.” The latter, directed by John Crowley and based on Colm Toibin’s novel, is more in what we’d think of as the Academy’s traditional wheelhouse: a lush, romantic period drama that happens to be extremely well-executed, and especially acted. The film would appear to be, from a distance, a strong contender for Oscar recognition. At least from this far off, Saoirse Ronan is likely to be in the Best Actress mix, too.

There doesn’t appear to be many other Best Picture possibilities beyond those two, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t see nominees elsewhere. A24 have yet to make a serious awards run, but given the biopic nature of the film, plus the funnyman-made-good narrative, we could see Jason Segel’s performance as David Foster Wallace in The End Of The Tour get a campaign (and possibly co-star Jesse Eisenberg, and the screenplay), though it may be an uphill battle to get elderly Academy members to vote for a film about Gen-X touchstone Wallace.

Easier sells might be Best Actress possibilities Lily Tomlin and Blythe Danner, respectively, the former for Paul Weitz’s “Grandma,” the latter for I’ll See You In My Dreams.” “Grandma” is with Sony Pictures Classics, old hands at this awards thing, while ‘Dreams’ is with Bleecker Street, and both seem like they’re in the “Cake”/”Still Alice” bracket — performance showcases rather than awards juggernauts. Tomlin will be visible this year, thanks to her new Netflix comedy series, alongside Jane Fonda, while Danner is Hollywood royalty (she’s the mother of Gwyneth Paltrow), but both are stalwart, late-in-life actresses with rare showcases, exactly the kind of thing that the Academy loves rewarding. We’ll see if they can last the distance, but there’s a definite possibility here.

Look out for Diary Of A Teenage Girl too: the film was a touch more divisive than some of the other big buzz titles, but it was well-liked, and the biggest buy from “Whiplash” and “An Education” distributor Sony Pictures Classics, so the film, or young star Bel Powley, could end up gathering some steam. As ever, look for some of the documentaries to make an impact, too, with Jury Prize winner The Wolfpack and Audience Award winner “Meru,” along with Cartel Land,”Best Of Enemies,” Prophet’s Prey,” The Russian Woodpecker,” Welcome To Leith,” Finders Keepers and Going Clear potentially setting the stage for success at the Academy.

Or it could turn out to be a year like 2012, with little-to-no impact by Sundance movies on the Oscar race. “Whiplash” and “Boyhood” were the undoubted beneficiaries when potential swinging-dicks like “Unbroken” failed to deliver. Yes, “Brooklyn” and ‘Me & Earl,’ and Jason Segel and Blythe Danner, are all potential contenders, but it’s hard to say what sort of Oscar year 2016 will be. If presumptive heavyweights like “The Revenant,” “Silence,” “Joy,” “Carol” and the like perform as expected, then there may not be room for the little indies. But if, like “Unbroken” or “Interstellar,” they fall away, then slots start to open up, and Sundance will once again prove what a valuable awards launching pad it can be…

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