Why Studio Films Still Have a Shot at Oscars Despite the Pandemic (Column)

At first glance, it seems that the upcoming awards season is designed to take streamers by storm. Netflix appears to have at least 16 award players in different categories, while Amazon ranks half a dozen. Apple TV Plus and Hulu are also facing a big boost. When Walt Disney's "Soul" switches to Disney Plus this Christmas, one has to wonder whether more big studio films will premiere via streaming. And studios have been severely hampered in their ability to release their greatest films due to pandemic theater closings.
But it is not that simple. Talking to some voters and industry awards insiders, there is real conversation going on about which films are and should be rewarded this year - and this isn't always beneficial for the streamers. Which films slated for theatrical release could benefit from efforts by voters or management to keep streamers from dominating?
Searchlight Pictures is going into the fire this year with “The Personal History of David Copperfield” and the already lively “Nomadland”, which could well be one of the best picture frontrunners. The independent studio could add diversity to the prize talk if Chloé Zhao becomes the first Asian woman to be nominated for best director. She could become the most nominated woman in a single ceremony if she receives nominations for directing, producing, adapted screenplay, and editing. In the case of The Personal Story of David Copperfield, the company was founded at TIFF in 2019 and could take the artisan category, especially production design and costumes, heavily into account. Former Academy Award nominee Dev Patel could make progress on becoming the best actor, especially if the Golden Globes get tough for the film entered in the comedy / music race.
Universal Pictures may look down, but it's definitely not over. Paul Greengrass' News of the World has been in full swing for weeks and the studio is very confident about the West’s chances. A Christmas appointment is currently planned. Tom Hanks was the first celebrity to sign COVID and is popular in Hollywood. It could be the classic “old school” academy player who will grab the attention of older voters. The studio also deals with "The Invisible Man," a symbol of former normalcy as it was likely one of the last films audiences and voters saw before the lockdowns in a theater. Elisabeth Moss delivers a terrific performance, and while horror is usually ignored, a combined year that includes neon “Shirley” could bring her close to a nomination. "Shirley" could also get attention for its sound team and composer, both of which are worthy.
Sony Pictures Classics may have two strong contenders with Anthony Hopkins ("The Father") and Michelle Pfeiffer ("French Exit"), while the division will also announce one of the few Latinx films this year, "I Carry You Mit mir." Other contenders for diversity come with Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz, who received great announcements from Sundance for “Nine Days.” Both will receive a price boost and a qualified release is planned.
Warner Bros. has been grappling with the devastating news of layoffs and a tepid financial return from Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" lately. Despite the narrative, the film scored points in several categories. With “Tenet” you can easily achieve sound and image effects, while cinematography, editing and score are within reach. The jury is still undecided if we will see "Wonder Woman 1984" despite the current December 25th date, but when it does come there will be a passionate urge to undo the wrong if for the predecessor after the standout Box no nominations follow office and reception. Ben Affleck is still gushing for "The Way Back" and could be a dark horse in the actor race. After all, he's a two-time Oscar winner. And then there's "Judas and the Black Messiah," which seems intense and grainy in the right way, but still needs a firm date before we can convince the world that Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield and director Shaka King are absolute Oscar players are.
United Artists Releasing is thrilled with "Respect" and what it can bring with Jennifer Hudson at the top of the world, and a possible outstanding achievement for co-star Marlon Wayans, who has already delivered on "On the Rocks". First-time director Liesl Tommy will be getting noticed and the DGA First Feature race will be a high priority.
Paramount Pictures is starring Lee Daniels' "The United States vs. Billie Holiday," and while he's still editing the early word looks particularly promising for Andra Day in the lead role. Trevante Rhodes, which was roughly left out for "Moonlight", can also flow into one of the acting races if a category is established.
A24 has the soul with "Minari" and the indie distributor has committed to introduce it to viewers during the sponsorship year. Writer and director Lee Isaac Chung and star Steven Yeun are going to be dangerous on the racetrack (in a good way), and we've been able to see them really blossom as the months go by. A24 also has "First Cow" and ensures that voters don't forget Kelly Reichardt or the stars John Magaro and Orion Lee.
Focus Features finally dated "Promising Young Woman" and the holidays are going to be great with Carey Mulligan and writer and director Emerald Fennell on the awards circuit. "Never Seldom Sometimes Always" looks at an original screenplay slot, while "Kajillionaire" hopes for the same kind of love. "Emma" will be competitive in the tech races and there is still a chance another movie or two like Paul Schrader's "The Card Counter" starring Oscar Isaac will take to battle.
And finally, there's Neon, which helped give Bong Joon-ho and "Parasite" a moment on stage at the Dolby Theater when it won Best Picture earlier this year (probably the best moment of 2020). Possible accolades for Neon include "Ammonite" and its stars Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, while it shares "Palm Springs" with Hulu.
There are more studios to discuss and many more weeks. The glass is half full and there is still a lot to consider.
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