The Race for the 2020 Academy Awards Has Already Begun

With the Cannes Film Festival in full swing, and the highly anticipated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood making its debut at the festival Tuesday, journalists, critics, and professional prognosticators are buzzing about potential frontrunners for next year’s Oscars–even though that’s almost a year from now.

It’s not unusual for Hollywood studios to lay the groundwork for an Academy Awards campaign far in advance, sometimes before a film has even started production. But this year, because the Oscar telecast will air two weeks earlier than usual, the so-called “awards season” is compressed–and therefore, more intense than usual.

“I subscribe to the 365-day-a-year awards season. It’s never too early to start predicting Oscars,” says Erik Anderson, founder of Awardswatch, a website devoted to entertainment awards predictions. “But this year feels different. When I look at my list of Best Picture predictions, there’s nothing on that list that has come out yet, which is unusual.”

The Oscar buzz for the following year generally begins even before the current year’s Academy Award ceremony has aired.

The Sundance Film Festival, which takes place in early January, unleashes a number of prestige films that end up earning Academy nods. In recent years, the festival has served as an unofficial launching pad for Best Picture nominees such as Get Out, Call Me By Your Name, and Boyhood.

At this year’s Sundance, The Report, a taut political thriller with a star-studded cast picked up by Amazon, earned strong reviews and early buzz.

The Report might be a contender for Amazon,” says Anne Thompson, editor-at-large, IndieWire. “Starring Oscar-nominated Annette Bening and Adam Driver, if it continues its momentum into the fall festivals, it has a shot.” Thompson should know–last year she topped all experts, with a 78% rate of accurately predicting the 2019 Oscar nominations.

Amazon’s Oscar Bid

Amazon purchased The Report at Sundance for a reported $14 million in hopes that it would rack up awards like the company’s previous Sundance purchases, Manchester by the Sea and The Big Sick. While at Sundance, Amazon also purchased another potential nominee, the comedy Late Night, written by star Mindy Kaling.

Late Night has Emma Thompson in a great role and she’s an Oscar perennial. If Late Night does well and gets good reviews and really plays, then Emma Thompson is always a factor,” says Thompson.

Another film that premiered at Sundance, Lulu Wong’s The Farewell, starring Crazy Rich Asians breakout actress Awkwafina “has a great shot at Oscars,” says Anderson. He also points to a number of documentaries that premiered at Sundance and could end up in the Oscar conversation, including American Factory, The Biggest Little Farm, Apollo 11, and Knock Down the House. In 2018, four out of five of the Academy Award-nominated documentaries initially premiered at Sundance.

Though buzz can begin at Sundance, awards season generally begins in earnest in September. That’s when studios begin to release their “Oscar bait,” movies that are designed with awards prospects in mind. In early fall, top tier film festivals in Telluride, Venice, Toronto, and New York help to generate Oscar chatter.

Cannes Buzz

The Cannes Film Festival, which kicked off May 14, is premiering several titles that are already being talked about as Oscar contenders, including Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie. Set in Los Angeles in the late 1960s when Charles Manson and his “family” were striking terror, the film features DiCaprio as a fading television actor and Pitt as his stunt double. Robbie plays DiCaprio’s neighbor, the ill-fated Sharon Tate.

“I’m most excited about Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He’s got a great track record with Oscars and there’s a lot of anticipation about it,” says Pete Hammond, Deadline awards columnist and chief film critic.

Once Upon a Time hits Cannes exactly 25 years after Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction premiered there. That film went on to win the Palme d’or and was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Tarantino, who was nominated for Best Director, won Best Original Screenplay along with Roger Avary. Will his latest film repeat history come Oscar season?

Meanwhile, the much-anticipated Elton John biopic, Rocketman, premiered in Cannes late last week to a standing ovation and strong reviews likely to propel it towards awards season.

The film has been on Oscar’s radar since the last Academy Awards. That’s when the film’s star Taron Egerton, joined John onstage for a duet of “Tiny Dancer” during the legendary singer’s Oscar viewing party. Since then, John–and the film–seem to everywhere. The musician and fashion icon was the inspiration behind a recent Project Runway challenge, and the final five contestants on American Idol competed for the finale by singing Elton John songs.

At Cannes, Egerton and Taron performed the title song to an enthralled crowd, a performance they’ll likely repeat many times before Oscar nominations are announced on Jan. 13.

Rocketman could turn out to a contender. Taron Egerton does his own singing,” says Hammond. “We saw what happened with Bohemian Rhapsody and Rami Malek [who won Best Actor for his role] didn’t even do his own singing.”

Egerton may have received standing ovations after the film’s Cannes premiere, but the real test will involve seeing if audiences respond to it when it hits theaters on May 31.

New Oscar Date

With the date of the 92nd Oscars telecast bumped two weeks earlier to Feb. 9 (from the previously announced Feb. 23), Oscar season will be more abbreviated than usual. “It’s going to be intense. It’s going to be the shortest Oscar season we’ve ever had,” says Thompson.

As a result, studios will likely release their most promising films earlier than usual.

The prevailing wisdom has been that films released later in the calendar year tend to have a better shot at Oscars. But if a film is released too late in the year, Academy voters–and audiences–won’t have a chance to see it and it won’t have time to gain awards-season momentum.

Christmas was once seen as the ideal time to release a potential Oscar contender, but November seems to be the new sweet spot.

Last year’s Best Picture winner, Green Book, premiered in November, as did fellow nominees Bohemian Rhapsody, Roma, and The Favourite.

Netflix Seeks Oscar Gold

Among the films Hammond’s got high hopes for are two Netflix projects: Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, starring Oscar perennial Robert DeNiro, and the star-studded The Laundromat from Steven Soderbergh.

Netflix, which earned its first Best Picture nomination with Roma last year, reportedly sees The Irishman as its best shot at bringing home gold. The gangster film features a cast of Scorsese regulars, including De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel with a script by Academy Award-winning Schindler’s List screenwriter Steve Zaillian. Netflix plans a big theatrical awards-friendly release for The Irishman in the fall, but hasn’t yet set a specific date. There’s no release date set for The Laundromat, which features Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman.

Other Oscar possibilities due in theaters in the fall include: Marielle Heller’s It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a fictional take on Fred Rogers’ life featuring Oscar-winner Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers and two-time Oscar winner (The Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain) Ang Lee’s latest film, Gemini Man, starring Will Smith.

Hammond says he’s looking out for several big screen adaptations of acclaimed novels, including a new adaptation of Little Women, directed by Academy Award-nominated Greta Gerwig and featuring a star-studded cast led by none other than multiple Oscar winner Meryl Streep.

Of course, there’s no such thing as a sure bet. There are plenty of examples of films that got early Oscar buzz after impressive reviews at fall festivals and then fizzled out long before Oscar nomination time.

“It’s all a guessing game at this point because we haven’t seen most of these movies,” says Hammond.

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