Every studio is juggling: When will their movies be finished, and when can theaters reopen? If we are to believe the National Association of Theater Owners spokesman John Fithian, this moving, 3D jigsaw puzzle will come together as early as June. Movies intended for the spring and early summer schedule will move forward, and unfinished movies will push back to the already-crowded 2021.
However, that doesn’t even begin to touch the complex matrix that would-be Oscar nominees face in 2020: How are buyers going to find these films in the face of an uncertain festival environment — and, once theaters can open, how will they find screens amidst a glut of delayed blockbusters?
One thing is certain: None of this will be easy, and no one has the time to mess with anything that isn’t actually up to snuff. As Fithian finished a Friday online meeting with some 700 global exhibitors, vendors, and press, Disney dropped its revised release schedule. Its first theatrical movie to go straight to Disney+ will be the bad-buzz title “Artemis Fowl.” Even Exhibitor Relations tweeted: “As expected, Disney’s ‘Artemis Fowl’ will debut exclusively on Disney+… where it always belonged.”
As expected, Disney’s ARTEMIS FOWL will debut exclusively on Disney+…where it always belonged.
Release date: TBD.
— Exhibitor Relations Co. 2: Box Office Boogaloo (@ERCboxoffice) April 3, 2020
Likely to change is Disney’s next release, Pixar’s “Soul,” on June 19. Even NATO doesn’t believe most movies will be able to open nationwide until July, where Warner Bros.’ Christopher Nolan tentpole “Tenet” still sits on July 18. Nolan is the heartfelt champion of exhibitors, even penning an op-ed in The Washington Post at Fithian’s behest.
Most movies shifting their dates are mainstream pictures and unlikely Oscar contenders in the best of times (except for animated features): Live-action remake “Mulan” is now July 24 and Marvel’s “Black Widow” is November 6. As for those titles more likely to be considered — well, currently it looks a little lean.
Optimistically, Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel,” starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (which interrupted its production schedule) is now set for limited release December 25. That suggests Disney label Twentieth Century holds out hope for Oscar consideration.
On the studio side, Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda musical “In the Heights” remains undated for Warner Bros. — the director promises a theatrical release — while Steven Spielberg’s musical “West Side Story” should easily complete post-production in time for its December 18 opening opposite Warners’ “Dune,” directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalamet. MGM’s Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson is now set for limited release on December 25. All four are likely Oscar contenders.
Also undated is the oft-postponed Fox title “Woman in the Window,” a Scott Rudin thriller starring Amy Adams. Could that head for Hulu? Or will the studio wait for the fall festivals — that is, if the festivals can proceed as usual?
Festivals play an enormous and vital role in establishing and vetting award-season contenders. How will foreign films become viable awards candidates without them? When will films open in their countries and build some kind of following? Of course, we do not know where the world will be in late August (Venice) or Labor Day (will sleepy Telluride, Colo. welcome intruders from the coasts?) or September (will industryites be willing to fly to Toronto or New York?) or October (the Hamptons, London?).
It’s easier to imagine local festivals playing to their home audiences than pulling in buyers and sellers from around the world — although that’s an urgent necessity for the global film market, especially without Cannes. (Buyers have yet to find a virtual substitute for seeing movies play for audiences and critics first hand.) Paul Verhoeven, for one, needs to find a home for his “Elle” follow-up, Charlotte Rampling lesbian nun thriller “Benedetta.” Ditto Rebecca Hall, who is making her feature-directing debut with Film Four-backed memoir adaptation “Passing,” which star Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson, and Alexander Skarsgard.
Oscar-season perennial Searchlight moved Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” from a likely Cannes debut followed by a July opening, to prime Oscar season in October. The specialty distributor scooped up Armando Ianucci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield” right before its Toronto premiere last year, but while it opened October’s London Film Festival and played around the world, Searchlight held it for 2020 release, signaling a lack of confidence in its awards prospects. The still-undated movie is old news at this point: Ranked at a respectable 75 on Metacritic, expect the Dev Patel-starrer to go to Hulu.
What’s possible or likely for the Oscars? As usual, there’s not much going on at the start of the year. Sundance yielded some strong documentaries (Netflix’s “Crip Camp” leads the field, but did not fulfill its theatrical booking) as well as critics’ favorites such as A24’s “First Cow” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (Focus Features) that might have flourished with theatrical support but would be likelier Gotham or Indie Spirit candidates. (“First Cow” will reopen later, while “Never Rarely” just hit VOD, with hopes that the Academy will qualify it despite its three-day run.) Focus’ more accessible and branded Jane Austen movie, “Emma,” started strong and could become an eventual Oscar contender, with production and costume design nominations in the bag and possible acting nods for Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn.
That leaves a gaggle of fall titles in limbo. Presuming theaters reopen in the near future, indies are looking at the grim prospect of landing the best screens as the studios muscle them out of the way. Netflix, on the other hand, can book New York’s Paris Theatre to qualify candidates such as David Fincher’s return to two-hour movies: “Mank” stars Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried in the biopic of “Citizen Kane” writer Herman J. Mankiewicz. It has all the bells and whistles to make it a must-see in the Oscar race, as does Ron Howard’s Appalachian adaptation “Hillbilly Elegy,” starring overdue Oscar contenders Amy Adams and Glenn Close (13 total nominations between them). But what about Netflix’s Ramin Bahrani literary title “The White Tiger,” starring Priyanka Chopra? That would need festival attention.
What will happen to undated Sundance hits like rural immigrant drama “Minari” (A24) starring Steven Yeun, or Focus Features’ Carey Mulligan vehicle “Promising Young Woman,” a thriller from “Killing Eve” showrunner Emerald Fennell? Both need special handling. So will Searchlight’s “Nomadland,” from director Chloe Zhao (Marvel’s “Eternals”), starring Frances McDormand as a woman wandering the west in her van, as well as “The Big Sick” director Michael Showalter’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” starring Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain as televangelists Jim and thick-lashed Tammy Faye Baker.
Only the strongest will survive this winnowing; many will push back to 2021. Meanwhile, the Academy Board of Governors, which held a special Zoom meeting this week to vote for $6 million in aid to cinema workers, will meet virtually again April 14 to weigh a long list of issues that must be decided in these extraordinary times.
While Sony Pictures Classics has vocally supported sticking to a strict theatrical definition of what’s eligible to qualify for Oscar contention — in other words, anyone that missed a booking has to come back and get one after theaters reopen — there are many inside the Academy advocating for helping those who are most in need via a one-time-only dispensation for indies that went straight to VOD when theaters were closed.
Some would suggest the Oscars are frivolous, hardly crucial in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that could kill hundreds of thousands of people. But most of us are watching movies at home. We need them more than ever. And the Oscars, come February 28 (assuming the Academy and ABC keep that date), could provide a rallying, unifying beacon for cinema lovers around the world to celebrate and support this most beloved medium, and the theaters that keep it vital.