What’s left for the Oscars? The telecast will proceed, two months late, on April 25, but as to what might qualify — the only definitive answer will come when we reach the February 28 submission deadline. As a canary in a coal mine, “Tenet” failed to reignite audiences; instead, it revealed the hazards of theatrical play. With theaters in New York and Los Angeles still closed, many North American moviegoers are not yet ready to support a wide, expensive indoor release.
Hollywood waits to hear the fate of the next James Bond movie (is the UK ready for a wide opening in November?), Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi epic “Dune” (December 18; it did some reshoots, but should be finished in time), and Paul Greengrass’ Tom Hanks Christmas movie “News of the World,” which has been compared to Oscar-contender “True Grit.”
And then there’s Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch.” The high-profile Searchlight title was noticeably absent from Disney’s latest announcement of releases postponed until 2021. That’s because Searchlight has not yet made a final decision on Anderson’s latest European period piece, which moved from its official Cannes 2020 selection to a July opening, and then to prime Oscar season in October, only to wind up undated in 2021.
In 2015, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” scored nine Oscar nominations and won four tech Oscars after playing the Berlin Film Festival, a possible February launchpad for “The French Dispatch.” Even more likely: Thierry Fremaux coaxes the Europe-based Anderson to return to Cannes in May. (Anderson shot the film in Angoulême, France.) Given that the filmmaker wants to open around the world day and date, this makes sense.
Many specialty releases, which rely on coastal cinephiles, are on hold. While Searchlight is committed to opening Venice and Toronto award-winner “Nomadland” on December 4, Searchlight is waiting to determine the fate of “Next Goal Wins,” which Oscar-winning writer-director Taika Waititi (Adapted Screenplay, “Jojo Rabbit”) adapted with Iain Morris from the 2014 British documentary. Michael Fassbender stars as a coach who takes the American Samoa national soccer team to face Australia in the 2001 World Cup. Costars are Elisabeth Moss and Armie Hammer. Could Sundance 2021, which pushed back to January 28, be the next Oscar launchpad for indie titles?
Also up in the air is “Stillwater” (Focus Features), from the Oscar-winning writer-director of “Spotlight,” Tom McCarthy. This drama (written by McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain & Noé Debré) stars Matt Damon as a father who flies from Oklahoma to France to help his daughter (Abigail Breslin) after she is charged with murder. Also still undated from Focus is Sundance hit “Promising Young Woman,” starring Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) as a woman trying to bury her past.
Focus is pushing Eliza Hittman’s Sundance and Berlin prize-winner “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” most likely in the Original Screenplay category, while feature rookie Autumn de Wilde’s “Emma” could score in a few categories as well.
Given that a platform release in New York and LA is impossible, Focus is releasing Miranda July’s well-reviewed Sundance family dramedy “Kajillionaire,” which was originally scheduled for a June opening, on September 25 in “the same 500 theaters we would normally take an arthouse specialty breakout movie,” said Focus distribution chief Lisa Bunnell, including Landmark and Alamo chains. “It’s a beautiful, hopeful film. People need that right now. The only way theaters can open properly is to give them product.”
Oscar hopes hang in the balance for writer-director July and her cast, Oscar contenders Debra Winger (“Terms of Endearment”) and Richard Jenkins (“The Shape of Water”), and TV stars Evan Rachel Wood and Gina Rodriguez. If the movie isn’t holding well, Universal-owned Focus will keep it in theaters as it pivots to PVOD.
On September 18, Focus gave a qualifying run to the Dawn Porter documentary “The Way I See It,” about Obama White House photographer Pete Souza. Otherwise, upcoming releases “Come Play” (October 30) and the commercial crime thriller “Let Him Go” (November 6) starring Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, will likely head quickly to PVOD.
Sony Pictures Classics, per usual, is committed to the theatrical experience as they roll out Sundance documentary “The Truffle Hunters” (December 25) at the fall festivals and close NYFF with Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle “French Exit” (February 12, 2021). Another Oscar hopeful: SPC regular Pedro Almodovar’s sumptuous Tilda Swinton short, “The Human Voice,” the director’s English-language debut.
Neon is pushing through with fall festival entry “Ammonite” (November 13), whose star Kate Winslet is favored in the Best Actress race. “It’s real,” said Neon CEO Tom Quinn. “We’re intending to do it. But we all have to be able to play 3D chess with four plans in place at any moment depending on what is happening. All four are viable. We’re working together with our filmmakers and producers, confident that this is the right way to work. But we have to be able to adjust.”
Neon is also releasing a bevy of documentaries including Berlin and NYFF title “Gunda” and Alex Gibney’s “Totally Under Control” (October, pre-election) and recent Venice festival pickup, Ivory Coast Oscar submission “Night of Kings.” “We’re putting plans together,” said Quinn, who reminds that critics’ lists are still coming at year’s end.
Courtesy of Apple
Also in the Oscar hunt is Sofia Coppola’s affable father-daughter comedy “On the Rocks,” which debuted at the New York Film Festival before its limited A24 theatrical release October 2 (followed by digital streaming on Apple TV+). Its most likely Oscar option is Bill Murray as Supporting Actor; his only prior nomination was for Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.”
A24 will qualify “Minari,” which won the audience and dramatic jury awards at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The autobiographical drama from Korean-American Lee Isaac Chung stars Steven Yeun as a heartland farmer and Korean star Yuh-Jung Youn as his challenging mother-in-law. Already on Apple TV+ without any theatrical play is the popular Sundance non-fiction entry “Boys State,” which played one night only at a drive-in.
In an ordinary year, A24 would be jumping to follow up Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar win for “Joker” with Mike Mills’ “C’mon, C’mon.” The Oscar-nominated writer-director (Original Screenplay, “20th Century Women”) committed Phoenix to star in this American road movie before he won Best Actor. He plays an artist shepherding his nephew (Woody Norman) on a cross-country trip. But this is no ordinary year, so A24 is waiting, along with everyone else.
“We anticipated we would be in a better place in September and October,” said Quinn. “The missing pieces are New York and LA, which are crucial. We’re surprised New York is not open now. What happens next is anyone’s guess.”