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A Brutally Honest Festival Breakdown: Winners, Losers, and Oscar Frontrunners

Some movies advanced at the trifecta of fall festivals, Venice, Telluride and Toronto, while others took a step back.

Anne Hathaway


Brightlight Pictures

Three weeks of film festivals and hundreds of movies later, one stands as the clear winner. Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” won a prize for Emma Stone in Venice, wowed Telluride, and walked away with the Audience Award in Toronto —and by the end of that festival, people paid “Hamilton”-premiums for tickets to the last screening,

Now, that’s word of mouth.

Of course, “La La Land” isn’t alone in its accolades. Here’s how the players came out at the end of the three festivals.

Queen of Katwe

“Queen of Katwe”




Established studio players like Sony Pictures Classics aim their sights at the loyal theatergoers who tend to be older; getting younger cinephiles to come to a theater is harder than ever. Nevertheless, A24 seems to have figured out a way. They acquire movies like excoriated Cannes entry “The Sea of Trees” to go out via their deal with DirectTV and iTunes, market them via less-costly social media, and pick up others that pop with strong reviews and a unique director’s stamp. Last year, three films wound up with Oscars: Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” starring Best Actress Brie Larson, and Asif Kapadi’s doc winner “Amy.”

At this year’s festivals, from “American Honey” to “Moonlight,” A24 continued to build its reputation as the cool cat in the room.

The "Moonlight" team at Telluride.

The “Moonlight” team at Telluride.

Amy Adams

She scored in two fest hits, Paramount’s “Arrival,” from Denis Villeneuve, a smart sci-fi movie co-starring Jeremy Renner that should do well commercially and during awards season, as well as ably carrying (with Jake Gyllenhaal) Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals.” an exercise in style that polarized movie critics. After five Oscar nominations, she’s due. But she’s up against an unusually strong field this year.

"Nocturnal Animals"

“Nocturnal Animals”

Focus Features


This disruptive, deep-resourced streaming and shopping site has opted to stay in the theatrical game (via indie-film pros Ted Hope and Bob Berney) with Oscar contenders like Kenneth Lonergan’s fest hit “Manchester by the Sea,” starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams. By following a theatrical calendar, Amazon keeps its spending to a reasonable level, unlike rival Netflix. But making movies hits is not their ultimate goal: it’s eyeballs on the site. Many in the industry wonder what is Amazon’s ultimate measure of success.

"A Monster Calls"

“A Monster Calls”

Focus Features

J.A. Bayona

The Spanish director (“The Orphanage,” “The Impossible”) scored with festival audiences with edgy four-hankie drama  “A Monster Calls,” starring likely second-time Oscar nominee Felicity Jones (“The  Theory of Everything”) as a mother fighting cancer; her son (Lewis MacDougall) turns to a fantastic giant (Liam Neeson) to cope. Next up: a “Jurassic” sequel.


The 2016 slate will yield an Oscars Less White. While Searchlight’s “The Birth of a Nation” is not the surefire contender suggested by its $17.5 million Sundance acquisition, there’s a wide selection of diverse subjects to choose from. Chief among them are Focus Features’ Cannes biopic, “Loving,” starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as a biracial couple fighting to express their love freely. At Telluride and Toronto, A24 debuted Barry Jenkins’ critically hailed “Moonlight,” about a vulnerable young boy who turns into an angry teenager and later a beautiful black ex-con still hungry for love. Emmy nominee Mahershala Ali (“House of Cards”) breaks out of the ensemble as a drug dealer who mentors the young boy.

The two runners up for the TIFF audience award (considered a prelude to serious Best Picture Oscar contention) feature non-white leads: Disney’s moving female-empowerment drama, Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe,” stars David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o, and Weinstein Co.’s “Lion” stars Dev Patel as a man searching via Google Earth for his long-lost family. Both are tearjerkers based on true stories of poor parents and their children, designed to pull mainstream heartstrings.

Twentieth Century Fox introduced footage from “Hidden Figures,” a movie starring Taraji P. Henson of “Empire” as a mathematician working with NASA on the space race in the ’60s, which could figure in the Oscar race. And later there’s Denzel Washington’s film version of August Wilson’s “Fences” starring Viola Davis — and, possibly, “Marshall,” starring Chadwick Boseman and Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown, about eventual Supreme Court judge Thurgood Marshall.

Tom Hanks Aaron Eckhart Sully


Clint Eastwood

Telluride introduced Warner Bros.’ release “Sully,” a straight-down-the-middle true hero story starring Tom Hanks, is working well with audiences, and will play well for Academy voters as well. They love their Clint, still going strong at 86.

Fox Searchlight

The distributor screened “The Birth of a Nation” to friendly audiences who were clearly unaware of the inside-the-beltway noise around writer-director-star Nate Parker’s college rape scandal, and sold the movie to the black press, among others. They also nabbed high-profile buy “Jackie” starring Natalie Portman, perhaps diverting some of the former movie’s marketing dollars to the latter’s Oscar campaign.

Isabelle Huppert and Pablo Larrain

Isabelle Huppert and Pablo Larrain

Anne Thompson

Isabelle Huppert

The Meryl Streep of France, who once starred in Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” and never found another Hollywood foothold, reveals her chops in two of the year’s festival hits, Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Things to Come” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” the more likely vehicle, with Sony Pictures Classics behind it, for a Best Actress nomination. But IFC is just as eager for Huppert to achieve that goal. If Marion Cotillard, Juliette Binoche, and Emmanuelle Riva found Academy love, why not Huppert?

jackie natalie portman


Pablo Larraín

He’s hot. Chile submitted his film “Neruda” as its official foreign-language submission, and he nabbed raves for his first English-language film, “Jackie.”

Tim League and Tom Quinn

Backed by a mysterious Chinese investor, the distribution duo that launched prematurely with Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next?” (it was basically released by League’s Alamo Drafthouse) is now ready to proceed with their new combine, acquiring TIFF title “Colossal,” starring Anne Hathaway.


The beleaguered studio came into the festivals with a raft of titles. Mel Gibson’s World War II actioner “Hacksaw Ridge” played well in Venice, while “La La Land” was the toast of all three festivals and has taken over Oscar frontrunner status, along with its stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It remains to be seen if Lionsgate, with Rob Friedman and distribution exec Richard Fay on the way out, can turn Peter Berg’s disaster flick “Deepwater Horizon” (September 30), which is at 62% on Metacritic, into an audience hit.

Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids

“Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids”



Most festival entries won’t land wide release—and are more likely to be bought by the industry’s looming 500-pound gorilla, Netflix. They can outbid their competitors, many of whom cap what they’re willing to spend for a theatrical release and are playing a waiting game, hoping to keep prices low. If the buyers want more money, they may turn to Netflix.

The global streaming service has bottomless pockets and doesn’t care about the challenges of the theatrical marketplace, with a focus on algorithms and luring new subscribers with sexy original content. Netflix likes to buy all worldwide rights to movies like “Beasts of No Nation” for a flat fee with no back-end, and they will do a limited release to please filmmakers, but their heart isn’t in it. Going in, Netflix had rights to several docs likely to figure into the Oscar race, including “The Ivory Game,” “Amanda Knox,” and Werner Herzog’s “Into the Inferno.”

Netflix also acquired Adam Leon’s “Tramps” for a reported $2 million, well-reviewed Barack Obama biopic “Barry,” Fabrice Du Weisz’s drama “Message from the King,” starring Chadwick Boseman, and global rights to Jonathan Demme’s concert film “Justin Timberlake + the Tennessee Kids.” They also grabbed sci-fi actioner “What Happened to Monday?” after an industry screening, and SVOD rights to the Venice/Toronto title from Ana Lily Amirpour, “The Bad Batch.”

Natalie Portman

Fresh off her directorial debut, the actress also boasted two movies at TIFF. She scored big-time in Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie,” which was scooped up by Fox Searchlight for December awards season release, and did well in the lower-profile “Planetarium” opposite Lily-Rose Depp.

Mike Goodridge

Mike Goodridge


The British foreign sales company run by ex-critic and Screen editor Mike Goodridge has been on a tear. They take on international rights on films and also invest, working with agencies on the domestic side. They got involved with “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (The Orchard), “Maggie’s Plan” (SPC) and “The Lobster” (A24)—which was an unexpected success all over the world—as well as Whit Stillman’s Amazon/Roadside Attractions hit “Love & Friendship.” “We’ve grown into our profile,” said Goodridge. “We’re the cool filmmaker brand.”

They came to TIFF with six films, including Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” (A24), Michael Fassbender vehicle “Trespass Against Us” (A24), Ben Wheatley’s midnight entry “Free Fire” (A24), and made two high-profile sales, Roadside Attractions’ “Lady Macbeth” (2017), introducing new star Florence Pugh, and Eleanor Coppola’s delightful escapist romance “Paris Can Wait,” about a married woman (Diane Lane) who is wined and dined all the way from Cannes to Paris by an attentive Frenchman. Expect Sony Pictures Classics to make that a big hit on the arthouse circuit.

Next up: Protagonist is finishing shooting their first co-financed film with Endgame, Charlie MacDowell’s sophomore effort  “The Discovery,” starring Robert Redford, Jason Segal, Rooney Mara, and Riley Keough. “It’s a high-concept romantic thriller, about a world where a discovery has been made of scientific proof of an after-life, and all the ramifications,” said Goodridge. Netflix has already bought all rights, and will release the film theatrically.


Ewan McGregor in American Pastoral

“American Pastoral”


Ewan McGregor

Give the intrepid Scotsman credit for bravery and confidence: he chose a difficult classic novel by Philip Roth for his directing debut and miscast himself in the starring role as golden Jewish football star turned glovemaker The Swede. “American Pastoral” would be challenging for anyone, but McGregor couldn’t quite make it work. Once that word gets out, you’re toast.

"Bleed For This"

“Bleed For This”

Open Road Films

Open Road

It’s hard to follow up a major Oscar-winning smash like “Spotlight,” which a year ago was the darling of the fall festivals. This year, after the studios took a pass on Oliver Stone’s fascinating portrait of a whistleblower, “Snowden,” Open Road picked up the U.S. rights and took the film to Toronto. It scored favorable to mixed reviews, but when it opened, did not connect with audiences. Also not scoring a win at the festivals was “Bleed for This,” Ben Younger’s boxing biopic starring Miles Teller, which is far better than TWC’s awful summer release “Hands of Stone” but adds no narrative twist to distinguish it from every other competent fight picture. Aaron Eckhart popped in the supportive coach role.


Nate Parker 

Fox Searchlight took the writer-director-star to Toronto to face the press at their own press junket (not the official TIFF press conference). But some of the press who turned up felt stymied by their inability to ask him questions directly—the controlling moderator clearly had a let’s-sell-the-movie agenda. So far, Parker appears to not be winning people over with his charm, which he could stand to do going forward.

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