Bong Joon Ho’s twisty thriller “Parasite” premiered at Cannes last year, winning the Palme d’Or, before heading to the Telluride Film Festival and then Toronto, where the ticket line snaked around the Ryerson Theatre, the air thick with the smell of pot and the kind of heady anticipation that draws movie lovers to festivals.
Could “Parasite” have gone on to win the best picture Oscar without first building buzz on the festival circuit? And “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’ delicate, introspective portrait of a young Black male at three stages in his life, which built word of mouth shuttling from Telluride to Toronto to New York?
Eight months from now, when (if?) the Oscars are presented at a ceremony that has been pushed back two months by the motion picture academy because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we might have the answers to those questions.
The pandemic wiped out Cannes and Telluride this year. The Venice festival is underway with temperature checks, physical distancing, designer face masks and a reduced lineup of mostly European films. Toronto began Thursday, a mostly virtual event that includes 50 movies, down from the 333 in 2019.
“With the festivals diminished, it’s going to be an odd Oscar year,” says veteran awards consultant Cynthia Swartz, whose firm, Strategy PR, worked on the 2019 campaigns for “Joker,” “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and “Little Women.”
High-profile, star-driven pictures like those three titles will be absent from this year’s festivals, as studios monitor the performance of Christopher Nolan’s big-budget brain-teaser “Tenet,” which opened in the U.S. on Friday after doing well overseas.
If moviegoers return to cinemas to see Nolan’s film and if theaters open soon in Los Angeles and New York and if the pandemic eases during winter, we could see contenders like Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story” and Denis Villeneuve’s take on “Dune” open by year’s end.
“Right now, it’s “after ‘Tenet’ opens,” says a longtime Oscar campaigner. “Spielberg isn’t going to open unless theaters stay open and people decide it’s safe to attend.”
That leaves space this year for more indie films (“It’s going to be an indie Oscars,” predicts one consultant) – a space that Searchlight Pictures has leaped into with Chloe Zhao’s drama “Nomadland,” which will premiere at Venice and play at Toronto and the New York Film Festival and screen at the Rose Bowl on Friday as a Telluride From Los Angeles drive-in experience.
The movie stars two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand as a woman traveling the country in a van along with other casualties of the 2008 recession looking for work.
Zhao has been holed up for the last month on the Disney lot finishing post-production on “Nomadland” and “The Eternals,” a Marvel Studios superhero movie slated for next year. The Beijing-born filmmaker has just two other movies on her resume: indie efforts “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider,” the latter a 2018 western drama that won the National Society of Film Critics’ best picture prize.
Because she’s unknown to most audiences, Searchlight decided to go big with “Nomadland,” putting it at the four fall festivals and slotting it at regional and international events in coming months.
“Chloe’s on the cusp,” says Searchlight’s executive vice president of marketing, Michelle Hooper, “and these festivals will be a good way to get her on the world’s collective radar.”
Conversely, everyone knows Regina King, who won an Oscar for Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” and this month might win her fourth Emmy, having been nominated for her lead turn on the HBO limited series “Watchmen.”
But after several years directing episodic television, King is moving into new territory, bringing her feature directorial debut, “One Night in Miami,” to Venice and Toronto.
It’s a fly-on-the-wall, fictional depiction of a real event – the night Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown met in a motel room after Clay (shortly before he took the name Muhammad Ali) beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title. Amazon Studios bought the movie in July.
“It’s very exciting and affirming,” King says by phone. The movie finished shooting in February, with King returning to film two final scenes in late spring, then push through post-production. “It’s set in 1964, but these men are talking about what it’s like to be Black in America right now.”
Toronto also will premiere “Bruised,” Halle Berry’s directorial debut, a sports movie in which she plays an MMA fighter.
Other titles include “Ammonite,” a period love story starring Oscar winner Kate Winslet and four-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan. “On the Rocks,” reuniting Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray 17 years after “Lost in Translation,” will premiere at New York.
Netflix, which released Spike Lee’s acclaimed drama “Da 5 Bloods” this year, will release movies directed by David Fincher (“Mank”), Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”), Ryan Murphy (“The Prom”), Ron Howard (“Hillbilly Elegy”) and George Clooney (“The Midnight Sky”), along with an adaptation of August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman.
None of these titles will be playing at festivals, though, with Netflix co-chief executive Ted Sarandos saying he didn’t want filmmakers to rush through post-production during a pandemic.
The biggest beneficiaries of this year’s pared-down festivals might be movies looking for buyers. As Swartz notes, the delayed Oscar calendar gives studios and streamers an additional two months to pick up a film and get it up and running for awards season.
“The Oscars are still eight months away,” she says. “That’s an eternity.”
Two promising titles are “Pieces of a Woman,” Hungarian filmmaker Kornel Mundruczo’s first English-language feature, starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf and Ellyn Burstyn, and “Concrete Cowboy,” a father-son drama set in north Philadelphia’s Black urban horsemanship community starring Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin (“Stranger Things”).
Endeavor Content is hosting a drive-in double feature for buyers at the Hotel Figueroa in Los Angeles next week screening “Concrete Cowboy” with the horror movie “Shadow in the Cloud” and the Naomi Watts drama “Penguin Bloom.” “Concrete Cowboy” will then premiere at Toronto, minus the red carpet, though the movie is just one of four titles to have a virtual news conference at the festival.
“All the normal things you dream about as a first-time filmmaker – walking a red carpet with your cast and crew, experiencing your movie with an audience – aren’t going to be there … but also, I got to make a movie with Idris Elba,” says “Concrete Cowboy” director Ricky Staub. “These days, it’s all about choosing to be grateful.”
Mundruczo, reached by phone an hour after he arrived at Venice, expressed similar feelings of thankfulness. “Pieces of a Woman,” written by Mundruczo’s partner, Kata Weber, showcases an extraordinary performance by Kirby, playing a character trying to heal from an immeasurable loss.
Martin Scorsese signed on as an executive producer after seeing the film, saying: “You feel as if you’ve been dropped into the vortex of a family crisis and moral conflict with all its nuances drawn out with care and compassion but without judgment.”
Mundruczo describes Venice right now as “melancholic,” the streets largely empty. “It feels like winter even though it’s summer,” he says. He’s happy there will be an audience for his film even at a reduced capacity.
“I could not make a more honest movie, a more personal movie, a more emotional movie,” he says. “In a strange way, it speaks to our current times of COVID, asking how you can stay positive and move on when confronted with darkness.”
“The way this year has gone, it’s exciting to feel excited about something,” Staub says. He laughs. “I don’t know. You can see I’ve hashed out all my gratitude pieces these past few weeks. But I am optimistic that right now there may be a hunger for special movies like this.”
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