Watch Out, Oscar: Awards Season Gets Jump Start With Fall Film Festivals

Venice, Telluride and Toronto festivals should help define what is currently a wide-open Oscar race

The Danish Girl, Trumbo and Black Mass
"The Danish Girl," "Trumbo" and "Black Mass"; photos courtesy of TIFF

Most years, awards watchers can take it for granted that however confused the awards landscape may appear in late August, things will be much clearer by mid September.

Year after year, the one-two-three punch of the Venice International Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival introduce the majority of the films that will end up competing for the Academy Awards and other film honors. Last year’s winner, “Birdman,” premiered in Venice and also played Telluride; it was the first winner in a decade not to appear in Toronto, but it too did the festival dance.

A bevy of contenders will screen along the canals in Venice beginning on Wednesday, and then in the mountains of Colorado beginning on Friday, and then in downtown Toronto beginning on Sept. 10.

And by the time TIFF comes to a close on Sept. 20, we’ll have seen “The Danish Girl,” “Spotlight,” “Black Mass,” “Beasts of No Nation,” “Steve Jobs,” “Trumbo,” “I Saw the Light,” “Freeheld,” “The Martian,” “The Program” and other films that could cast a long shadow over awards season.

But will the Best Picture winner come from that group? It might, but the early-September festivals have been facing some strong competition in recent years from the New York Film Festival, which has aggressively pursued world premieres for awards contenders like “The Social Network,” “Lincoln” and, this year, Robert Zemeckis‘ “The Walk.”

And this year is so backloaded as to make September prognostications inherently risky. For instance, there are four films, all potential awards heavyweights from Oscar-nominated directors (and, admittedly, all potential awards flops as well), that are currently slated to be released on Christmas Day: Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “The Revenant,” Quentin Tarantino‘s “The Hateful Eight,” David O. Russell‘s “Joy” and Oliver Stone‘s “Snowden.”

So a large number of question marks will still hang over awards season after Toronto, and almost as many even after the New York Film Festival ends in early October. Still, we’ll likely know the identities of a good number of contenders after these three festivals — which will be particularly valuable this year, since we’re going into September with the Best Picture race almost a blank slate.

That’s unusual. Most years, the first nine months of the year will have seen the release of one or two films that end up with Best Picture nominations. Last year it was “Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and in the years before that it was “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Midnight in Paris,” “The Tree of Life,” “The Help” and more.

But this year, if you just go by what’s had a theatrical run in theaters, I count one film with any realistic chance of landing a Best Picture nomination – and that film, Pixar’s “Inside Out,” is a long shot because it’s hard for an animated film to break into the top category. Another long-shot contender, “Straight Outta Compton,” is even more unlikely since the Academy has never shown any inclination to honor hip-hop movies outside the song category. (Just ask newly-named Honorary Oscar winner Spike Lee.)

If you extend the search to films that have played previous festivals, though, you can add one serious player to the list: Todd Haynes‘ exquisite “Carol,” which premiered at Cannes, will certainly be a major contender in the acting categories and will likely figure in the Best Picture race as well.

But to fill out a prognosticator’s ballot any further than that, we’ll need Venice, Telluride and Toronto. The first of those festivals, which opens on Wednesday, will give us “The Danish Girl,” which seems tailor-made for Oscar with director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), reigning Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne and the hot-button topic of transgenderism; “Spotlight,” Tom McCarthy’s film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, which mixes “All the President’s Men” with another hot-button theme; “Black Mass,” a Scott Cooper drama with Johnny Depp as fugitive mobster Whitey Bulger; and “Beasts of No Nation,” a film about child soldiers in Africa from Cary Fukanaga, best known for directing the season of “True Detective” that everybody loved.

Venice opens with Baltasar Kormakur‘s “Everest,” the story of an ill-fated 1996 attempt to climb the world’s highest mountain that could be the rare action-based movie to attract awards voters. The Italian festival also includes Charlie Kaufman‘s animated “Anomalisa,” the first film in seven years from the daring screenwriter who was nominated for Oscars for “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich” and won for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

Telluride kicks off on Friday, and it won’t officially unveil its schedule until shortly before screenings begin. But industry chatter and a close reading of the Toronto schedule (where films slated to play the Colorado festival are billed as Canadian premieres rather than world or North American premieres) will tell you that “The Danish Girl,” “Spotlight,” “Beasts of No Nation,” “Black Mass” and “Anomalisa” will almost certainly screen in Telluride first.

So will Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” with Brie Larson, and while the high-profile awards contenders rumored to be going to Telluride but not Toronto include Danny Boyle‘s “Steve Jobs,” with Michael Fassbender playing the Apple co-creator from a script by Aaron Sorkin, and “Suffragette,” with Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep in a story of the early days of the women’s movement in Great Britain.

Telluride only last for three days, ending on Labor Day – and three days later, Toronto will kick into high gear for 11 days and more than 300 features and short films. By far the biggest of the festivals, and the only one with an active sales and acquisitions market, it will present most of the marquee films that have screened in Venice and Telluride, and add a number of premieres of its own.

Those include “Trumbo,” in which director Jay Roach turns from comedies and HBO political movies to tell the story of blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, played by Bryan Cranston (it’s about show business, which voters love); “Freeheld,” with Julianne Moore and Ellen Page as a real-life lesbian couple fighting for partnership benefits (another real hot-button topic in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision); “I Saw the Light,” with British actor Tom Hiddleston as country music icon Hank Williams (voters love biopics); Roland Emmerich‘s “Stonewall,” about the late-’60s riots that helped launch the gay-rights movement in New York (see: “Freeheld”); Stephen Frears‘ “The Program,” with Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong (see: “I See the Light”); “Truth,” starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as his producer, Mary Mapes, in the story of Rather’s disputed reporting on George W. Bush’s Vietnam War record (shades of the Oscar-nominated “The Insider”?);  Ridley Scott‘s “The Martian,” with Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain (it seems like a popcorn movie rather than an awards movie, but so did Scott’s Best Picture winner “Gladiator”); and Michael Moore‘s first documentary in six years, “Where to Invade Next” (if any documentarian can muscle his way into the Best Picture race, it’s probably Moore).

That list only scratches the surface, but all of those films have the potential to walk away from Toronto as legitimate awards contenders — just as some of them could well crash and burn near the Venice canals, or in the Rocky Mountains, or on the Canadian streets. (Just ask Gus Van Sant, whose “Sea of Trees” went into Cannes with high hopes and emerged dead in the water.)

But crucially, the first wave of fall festivals won’t be showcasing such high-profile films as Steven Spielberg‘s “Bridge of Spies,” or Angelina Jolie‘s “By the Sea,” or Ron Howard‘s “In the Heart of the Sea,” or Ryan Coogler‘s “Rocky” reboot “Creed,” or Peter Landesman‘s “Concussion” or many more.

So check back in mid September. We’ll know a lot more at that point, but we won’t know it all.