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Lacking Theaters, Indie Oscar Strategies Lean Into Links, Zoom, and Hope

Netflix, Apple, and Amazon now dominate conversation, but don't count out "Nomadland," "Minari," "The Father," and "Promising Young Woman."

"Minari"

“Minari”

A24

The 2020 award season is dominated by streamers and smaller indies hoping to gain purchase in the delayed Oscar race. The eager awards teams at Apple (“Cherry,” “Boys State,” “On the Rocks”), Amazon (“Sound of Metal,” “One Night in Miami”), and Netflix (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7”) are generating the most noise (and spending the most money) via FYC virtual screenings and Zoom interviews.

While the Academy portal screens about 100 Best Picture candidates for its members (distributors pay a $12,500 fee), awards marketers email screening links (and sometimes, mail DVDs) for assorted documentaries, animated, foreign-language, and low-budget titles from, so far, Magnolia (“Collective,” “The Fight”), Neon (“Gunda,” “Ammonite”), A24 (“Minari,” “On the Rocks”) and IFC Films (“The Nest,” “MLK/FBI”).

So where are the usual suspects? Don’t be fooled. While many major films pushed back, a few remain, including Paul Greengrass’s Tom Hanks vehicle “News of the World” (Universal, December 25), Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Paramount, 2021) starring Andra Day, and Warners’ day-and-date release of “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021), starring Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya.

Specialty subsidiaries that supply bread-and-butter Oscars titles may seem to be quiet, but they are pushing their titles forward.

After winning the Golden Lion in Venice and the People’s Choice Award at Toronto, Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” from awards perennial Searchlight, remains the Oscar frontrunner on Gold Derby. Zhao, who is in post on Marvel’s “Eternals,” is participating in select events: There was a September Telluride drive-in premiere at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and this month, a Film Independent virtual screening and panel and the SFFilm Awards. There, Zhao submitted to questions from local Academy members along with fellow honorees Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Glenn Close (“Hillbilly Elegy”), and the ensemble cast of “One Night in Miami.”

Frances McDormand in “Nomadland.”

Searchlight

Searchlight finally opted for a one-week qualifying virtual Oscar release via Film at Lincoln Center. That quickly sold out, but it can’t spread the same  enthusiastic word of mouth as a long-running platform release in New York and Los Angeles. That will have to wait. A24 and Lincoln Center had similar results with immigrant farm drama “Minari” starring Steven Yeun.

So why cap the number of people to a few thousand? Because: The distributors are invested in seeing an eventual theatrical return on their investment. In the meantime, they will send out screeners and show their films virtually to awards groups.

A24 opened “Minari” now because it wants to be considered by critics groups, a vital awards component for an emerging filmmaker like Lee Isaac Chung. It’s also priming various support demos, from faith groups to Asian Americans, for when “Minari” hits theaters in mid-January.

The holidays are when vacationing awards voters catch up with movies in their screener piles, but not this year. They’ll be pulling their hair out trying to make different screening protocols work on their TVs. “Aren’t we in the jump-ball era of home viewing?” asked one distributor. (Screeners are trickling in.)

“It’s like it’s October,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker. “Months ago, we were confident that we would open at Christmas. Guess what, we can’t. Theaters aren’t there. We adapt.” SPC’s Sundance debut “Charm City Kings” moved to HBO Max when it couldn’t open in April. “That was ideal for that movie in that moment,” said Barker. “It’s temporary in this pandemic. It’s not ironclad. We don’t know where we are going to be.”

Sony Pictures Classics

SPC is deeply invested in the theatrical model, so Barker and co-president Tom Bernard pushed back Sundance and fall festival fave “The Father” from December 18 to February 26, just ahead of the Academy eligibility deadline. Israeli political documentary “The Human Factor” is January 22; NYFF debut “French Exit,” February 12; non-fiction “The Truffle Hunters,” March 12, after an early under-the-radar qualifying run; and poignant Spanish-language gay romance “I Carry You with Me,” which failed in its bid to be the Mexican Oscar entry, is now moving to spring release (after qualifying). SPC is making sure all its contenders meet requirements for not only the Oscars but an array of critics and guild groups, all of which adopted new guidelines this year.

Bleecker is also bending to reality, with three releases opening before the end of March. (Sundance opener “The Assistant” was among the first early-year films to screen on the Academy portal.) “It’s a whole new ball game,” said Bleecker chief Andrew Karpen. “We’re trying to connect films with audiences. People are consuming movies in different ways.”

Opening on hundreds of screens this Friday is John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his 2014 Tony-nominated Broadway play, charming Irish romance “Wild Mountain Thyme,” starring Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan, which will also play on-demand at $20 a pop. “If you are comfortable in theaters, we want to give you that opportunity,” Karpen said. “If not, see it at home. That’s why we’re going as wide as we can. It will be seen by arthouses all over this country.”

Bleecker will take gay love story “Supernova,” starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci exclusively to theaters on January 29 (with VOD to follow), followed by another gay romance on February 12 (with VOD to follow)Venice breakout.

"Promising Young Woman"

“Promising Young Woman”

Focus Features

Universal specialty subsidiary Focus Features put early-year releases “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and “Emma” on the Academy portal, and is rolling out their awards campaigns. Before the pandemic, Focus bet on an April opening for Emerald Fennell’s rousing Sundance debut “Promising Young Woman,” starring Carey Mulligan as a depressed barista who acts out her anger on unsuspecting predatory men. While Focus has supported theatrical/PVOD releases like Diane Lane and Kevin Costner family drama “Let Him Go,” chairman Peter Kujawski is sticking to a theatrical December 25 opening for “Promising Young Woman,” followed by a January streaming premiere.

Roadside Attractions gave staffers a holiday movie to release with Matteo Garrone’s English-dubbed “Pinocchio,” starring Oscar-winner Roberto Benigni (“Life is Beautiful”). Co-presidents Eric D’Arbeloff and Howard Cohen will market the film to families hungry for new movies over Christmas, booking as many screens as possible, while also showing it to the craft branches of the Academy. The well-mounted period fantasy could score nods for Best Production or Costume Design and Hair & Makeup.

Julie Taymor’s unusual Gloria Steinem biopic “The Glorias” (September 25), starring Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore as the Ms. founder, is the perfect example of a well-publicized movie that needed intelligent older audiences in theaters in order to thrive, said Cohen: “It was not a streaming movie of the week.”

That’s the ongoing challenge, as distributors surf the waves looking for the smoothest ride that will deliver customers, industry buzz, and Oscar votes.

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