The pandemic heated up the long-simmering romance between January’s Sundance Film Festival and the Academy Awards: For the first time, the Oscar race showcases four Best Picture contenders that were Sundance premieres. Lee Isaac Chung’s rural family auto-fiction “Minari,” Florian Zeller’s play-to-film “The Father,” and Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” all premiered in 2020; the virtual Sundance 2021 presented a late-inning surprise with Shaka King’s studio-financed “Judas and the Black Messiah” two weeks before Warner Bros. released the film day and date on HBO Max.
Sundance is known for delivering high-profile documentary Oscar winners like “American Dream,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Searching for Sugar Man,” “The Times Of Harvey Milk,” “The Cove,” “Man on Wire,” and “20 Feet From Stardom.” This year’s Documentary Feature Oscar nominees included three Sundance 2020 non-fiction world premieres: Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s “Crip Camp,” Garrett Bradley’s “Time,” and Maite Alberdi’s “The Mole Agent.” A fourth, Alexander Nanau’s “Collective,” which debuted at the fall 2019 festivals, screened in the Sundance 2021 Spotlight selection.
Most of these films debuted at one of the last live, in-person festivals before the global lockdown in mid-March. The Academy and guild members who attend Sundance pay attention to the awards bubble that follows; other films didn’t get the same benefit of live-audience and media buzz.
These low-budget Sundance features might have been Best Picture also-rans in another year, but they broke through the dullness and clutter to become must-sees. “Maybe it’s because this year isn’t about glitz and glamour and parties and big spends and glad-handing,” said one specialty publicist. “It’s coming down to the movies.”
Here’s how the distributors built identifiable titles and audience affection in their Sundance breakouts.
Sony Pictures Classics
Release: After playing the virtual fall 2020 festivals, with Zeller, Anthony Hopkins, and Olivia Colman doing select press, the film bowed in New York and Los Angeles theaters on February 26, later than most Oscar contenders. Only “The Father” earned its nominations without having played on a streamer. “We had to do it,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard. “They had to see the movie, rather than convince them that it was the movie to vote for. Theaters are coming back.”
The movie went wide to 865 theaters on March 12; by March 26, it was available for $19.99 on PVOD. SPC sent “The Father” screeners to BAFTA voters as well as The Academy. According to Bernard, “Our timing will get votes and get the movie seen at the right time. The Academy has access to the movie on DVD and on their site.” The film grossed $1.3 million domestic, $1.4 million foreign.
Awards: The film won three British Independent Film Awards for Screenplay, Hopkins and Editing, nabbed four Golden Globe, four Critics Choice, and six BAFTA nominations; earned SAG nominations for Hopkins and Colman; a DGA nod for Zeller; and six Oscar nominations, including Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actress, Production Design, and Editing.
Bottom Line: Competing against “Nomadland,” this stylishly European mood puzzle is a long shot for Adapted Screenplay and Editing Oscars. It might not win any Academy Awards: Despite Hopkins’ powerful King Lear performance as a man with dementia trying to hang on to a semblance of reality, it’s tough to counter Chadwick Boseman’s posthumous award narrative.
Josh Ethan Johnson
Release: A24 brought the ensemble cast to Sundance, where they saw the film for the first time. A24 debated whether to follow the summer release model of “The Farewell” for Chung’s finely tuned Arkansas family portrait, but he pandemic scotched that. After checking out how the subtitled film played at a Memphis drive-in, the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” distributor continued to build consumer awareness at regional fall festivals, playing the film at drive-ins and virtual screenings, and winning audience awards. Without in-person festivals, A24 mounted strong Eventive Q&As that they could repurpose for media and awards campaigns. The film engaged audiences with its aspirational quest to build a family farm and word of mouth spread like kudzu.
At the guilds and the Academy, A24 could measure how many people watched Zoom Q&As with Chung, Plan B producer Christina Oh, and Steven Yeun (an established star, thanks to “Walking Dead,” and with arthouse cred from “Burning”). It also sent screeners to members with DVD players.
The distributor kept a close eye on theater availability, withholding the film from public consumption until they had the awards support and patina A24 wanted. It finally decided to book “MInari” at Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema in time for critics’ group voting, followed by select theaters and virtual cinemas, with support from high-profile press including a New York Times Magazine cover on Yeun. PVOD availability followed on February 26. Domestic box office was $1.4 million; foreign, $6.6 million.
Awards: “Minari” scored both the Sundance dramatic audience and jury prizes, landed on the National Board of Review, AFI, and PGA Top 10s, and earned multiple Golden Globes (winning foreign language), Critics Choice (winning Best Young Actor), Independent Spirit, and BAFTA nods, plus DGA, WGA and Eddie nominations. Yeun, who received SAG Ensemble and acting nods, went on to become the first Asian American nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. Canny Korean movie star Youn Yuh-jung won the Los Angeles Film Critics, National Board of Review, and SAG Awards. The film scored a total of six Oscar nominations including Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Score and the two actors.
Bottom Line: Youn, the breakout hit at the SAG Awards on TBS/TNT, is the likeliest Oscar win for this movie.
“Promising Young Woman”
Release: The film was a hit at Sundance, but Focus Features held it back until Christmas Day. It earned $6.1 million domestic in select theaters and another $5.4 million international. Since its January 15 Premium VOD release, the film placed repeatedly in the top 10. Focus smartly positioned the movie as a fresh, candy-colored entertainment packed with surprises. The film captures the gender zeitgeist, putting a mirror up to society and pulling audiences into a twisty narrative that ricochets through multiple genres: thriller, #MeToo message drama, and romantic comedy. “It’s a reckoning for everyone, not just for men but for women,” said one Focus marketing executive.
Awards: The Los Angeles Film Critics gave Best Actress to Carey Mulligan and Screenplay to Emerald Fennell; Mulligan also won the National Board of Review. The film landed nominations for four Golden Globes, three Independent Spirits, six Critics Choice (winning for Mulligan and Fennell’s Original Screenplay), and six BAFTA nods — but nothing for Mulligan, who lost SAG to Viola Davis. The film won the WGA for Original Screenplay and landed on the PGA and National Board of Review top 10 as well as nabbing guild nominations for Directing, Comedy Editing, and Contemporary Production Design, Set Decoration, Costume Design, and Makeup and Hair. Oscar voters gave the film five nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actress, Editing, and Original Screenplay.
Bottom Line: Likeliest wins: Original Screenplay for Fennell, with a long-shot chance for Mulligan to prevail over SAG winner Davis and Globe-winner Andra Day.
“Judas and the Black Messiah”
Release: Warners saw that this biopic about the injustice of the U.S. government gunning down a 21-year-old Black Panther would play well in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests; Black History Month was a perfect time to open the movie. As awareness grew, it hit theaters just as they reopened in New York and LA, where most Academy voters live. As a very late release, “Judas” didn’t qualify for voting by many critics’ groups — but that timing also created the benefit of recency bias. Two weeks after “Judas” premiered at Sundance 2021, it debuted on HBO Max and in 1,888 U.S. theaters.
Awards: Daniel Kaluuya and in a surprise, LaKeith Stanfield, both landed nominations for Best Supporting Actor. Kaluuya won Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama, at the Golden Globes, Critics Choice, and SAG Awards, with BAFTA and an inevitable Oscar still to come. The movie landed WGA and PGA nominations, as well as six Oscars, including Picture, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Song, and both of its leads in the Supporting Actor race.
Bottom line: While this slice of 1968 history pits an individual against systemic forces, it is not a star vehicle. “Judas” fits neatly into the Academy’s penchant for police procedurals and thrillers (see “Chinatown,” “The Departed,” “The French Connection”). Kaluuya is a lock to sweep all the precursors and the Oscars, with an outside chance that “Fight For You” could beat Leslie Odom Jr.’s “Speak Now” from “One Night in Miami.”
Will Sundance 2021 offer options for Oscar voters next year? Several movies earned rave reviews and have the right stuff for Oscar contention, including Sian Heder’s moving deaf-family drama “CODA,” starring British singer-actress Emilia Jones; it will get full support from Apple Studios, which paid $25 million for worldwide rights. Netflix bought actress-turned-director Rebecca Hall’s “Passing,” a taut black-and-white period drama about an unhappy New York woman (Ruth Negga) who passes for white. Tessa Thompson, Andre Holland and Alexander Skarsgard co-star. And veteran actor Clifton Collins Jr. gives the performance of his career as a man afraid he is aging out of his life’s work in “Jockey” (Sony Pictures Classics).
Among the docs, “Summer of Soul” (Searchlight/Hulu) and audacious animated Afghan refugee documentary “Flee” (Participant/Neon) are on the list of awards possibles. Onward.