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How Major Film Festivals Launched This Year’s Biggest Oscar Contenders, from ‘Dune’ to ‘The Power of the Dog’

Six of the 10 Best Picture nominees were festival premieres, and it's hard to imagine their successes without those launchpads.

Zendaya poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Dune' during the 78th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Friday, Sep, 3, 2021. (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

Zendaya at the premiere of “Dune” in Venice

Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

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While the pandemic destabilized many aspects of the film industry, one crucial element of Oscar season didn’t take long to find its footing. After the onslaught of shutdowns forced major festivals from Cannes to Telluride to cancel their 2020 editions, they returned in 2021 to reclaim roles as critical launchpads for many leading contenders. Six of the 10 nominees for Best Picture premiered on the festival circuit last year, and it’s hard to imagine that they could have clawed their way to that slot without those initial boosts. 

To better understand the role of the festival calendar and its impact across the calendar year, consider the contrast between the past two years of Best Picture nominees. Last year’s big winner, “Nomadland,” began its successful run by winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the only large-scale international festival to take place in 2020. A whopping four other Best Picture contenders — “Promising Young Woman, “Minari,” “Judas the Black Messiah,” and “The Father” — began their life cycles at Sundance, which took place just two months before the March 2020 shutdowns.

This time, Sundance has one nominee (“CODA”), while others launched throughout the year at Cannes (“Drive My Car”), Venice (“Dune,” “The Power of the Dog”), and Telluride (“Belfast,” “King Richard”), with some making additional high-profile stops at TIFF and NYFF. 

Each movie benefited from the unique conditions of their festival launches. These films were well-suited for the specific audiences the festivals attracted, and often allowed stars and directors to interface with the scene in ways that helped establish a foundation for the campaigns to come. In some cases, these were acquisition titles that had to be relaunched later on, but their initial festival presence still created the first stage of their awards season paths.

To that end, none of the Best Picture nominees had a slow drum roll quite like “CODA,” which was the ultimate opening night Sundance crowdpleaser, even in the festival’s virtual form — an accessible coming-of-age story with a huge representational win in its distinctive look at the hearing teen (Emilia Jones) in a family of deaf adults. Its historic $25 million distribution deal with Apple may have been a drop in the bucket for the biggest company in the world, but it certainly got a return on investment from a marketing standpoint once awards season kicked in and the movie was able to receive standing ovations at Academy screenings with its talent in tow.

Having swept the Sundance jury prizes in January in addition to its acquisition news, the movie had an elevated profile that dovetailed into an effective campaign strategy. “CODA” had the better part of the year to make an impact with voters, which helped catapult the film to Best Picture in tandem with its surprise Best Supporting Actor nomination for Troy Kotsur, the first deaf actor land in the category, as well as a Best Adapted Screenplay nod. 

“CODA”

Meanwhile, Cannes was able to regain its footing as a major platform for international cinema two years after Palme d’Or winner “Parasite” made its own bit of history as the first non-English language movie to win Best Picture. Though its Oscar trajectory wasn’t as obvious at last year’s festival, which took place for the first time in July, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s slow-burn “Drive My Car” won a screenplay award at the festival and received unanimous critical praise. That helped elevate its profile as a major arthouse release well ahead of its successful theatrical rollout in the fall, after Janus Films and new theatrical entity Sideshow came onboard.

Another Cannes competition, Joachim Trier’s dry comedy “The Worst Person in the World,” took off with critics and secured distribution with Neon ahead of a strong festival run in the fall that led to widespread appreciation for Trier’s work; the movie wound up not only in the Best International Film category but also secured a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Trier and Eskil Vogt.

Then came that fall corridor. Telluride didn’t miss a beat, regaining its influence as an exclusive launchpad for conventional Academy-friendly movies. Neither “Belfast,” Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white ode to his childhood in the Troubles, or “King Richard,” the Will Smith charmer about Venus and Serena Williams’ protective dad, would have sustained momentum in a busy season if they didn’t stand out as the biggest world premieres in Telluride, where other major contenders showed up already showered in praise from Venice. 

But the Lido worked wonders for Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” ahead of the film’s Telluride tribute, and added an aura of prestige to “Dune” ahead of a TIFF tribute to Canadian filmmaking hero Denis Villeneuve, allowing it to become the biggest commercial title to score a Best Picture nomination.

Dune

“Dune”

Legendary/Warner Bros.

Meanwhile, the Golden Lion went to Audrey Diwan’s “Happening,” which may have been an awards player if France hadn’t instead chosen the edgier “Titane” as its Oscar submission. The movie that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes just a few months earlier ended up snubbed by the Academy’s shortlist and left out of the awards conversation altogether — though Cannes was quick to move past that, with a release celebrating the “Drive My Car” success on nomination morning. Yet this jockeying of awards contenders for shortlist consideration is itself indicative of the festival circuit effect: The loudest festivals create market expectations for prestige titles, and, with them, awards season finds its narrative form. 

Beyond “Dune,” TIFF helped push along several major fall contenders, including “Belfast,” which won the coveted audience prize. Then came NYFF, where Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” opened the festival (launching a successful campaign, again by Apple, for eventual Best Actor nominee Denzel Washington). “The Power of the Dog” took the centerpiece slot as the Campion entourage continued its world tour. 

As for the other major categories, Sundance still leads the pack as it premiered not only “CODA,” but also three Best Documentary Feature nominees: “Flee,” “Summer of Soul,” and “Writing With Fire” (“Flee” was also part of the official Cannes selection in 2020, when the festival was canceled). Sundance also helped raise the profile for “Worst Person in the World” by programming it in the Spotlight section of the festival, ensuring that it continued to receive attention with festival support just a few weeks before voting closed. 

PARALLEL MOTHERS, (aka MADRES PARALELAS), from left: Milena Smit, Penelope Cruz, 2021. ph: Iglesias Mas / © Sony Pictures Classics /Courtesy Everett Collection

“Parallel Mothers”

©Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

It’s also worth noting that even though none of the Best Actress nominees star in films nominated for Best Picture, all but one of them star in titles well-received on the circuit. “Spencer” star Kristen Stewart worked the Venice-Telluride-TIFF track, while Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers” opened Venice and closed NYFF, helping to secure a nomination for Penélope Cruz even though Spain decided not to select it as its official Oscar submission.

Olivia Colman returned to the category for “The Lost Daughter,” after riding the Venice-Telluride-TIFF-NYFF wave. And Jessica Chastain, another TIFF honoree, managed to secure the sole nomination for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a movie that received a mixed reception but undeniably benefited from a buzzy launchpad for its star. Reviews told one story; those in attendance for the TIFF response to Chastain at the premiere saw the enthusiasm in the room. 

Still, there were four Best Picture nominees that skipped the festival circuit altogether: “Don’t Look Up,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Nightmare Alley,” and “West Side Story.” However, only “Don’t Look Up” — with its formidable Netflix awards machine in play — seemed to benefit from that placement, if only because director Adam McKay’s apocalyptic satire wasn’t quite ready in time. Comedies tend to have a rough time in awards season, and it’s possible that the instant response of a single festival launch might have made it harder for this tonally ambitious skewering of climate change deniers and media stupidity to find the level of support it did.

The momentum of “Licorice Pizza,” meanwhile, exists in a category of its own epitomized by three unassailable letters in Oscar season: PTA. As with “Phantom Thread” in 2017, Paul Thomas Anderson and his movie didn’t need to the festival infrastructure to stand out in the season, given the level of respect for his work wherever it surfaces. 

The other two nominees had to find unique workarounds. Both “West Side Story” and “Nightmare Alley” secured highbrow stamps of approval with their Lincoln Center world premieres that had talent in tow, and more than one attendee at those events said they felt like NYFF premiere events. They were festival movies that required festival launches, even if the festivals weren’t available when they were. 

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