The awards picture is now a muddle, but in a month it'll be a lot clearer. The reason: film festivals.
The Venice International Film Festival begins on Wednesday, and continues through Sept. 10. The Telluride Film Festival starts on Friday and runs through Sunday.
And the Toronto Film Festival kicks off on Thursday, Sept. 8 and runs through Sept. 18.
These three festivals (plus a slightly smaller player, the Deauville Festival du Cinema Americain) paves the way for the New York Film Festival (Sept. 30-Oct. 16), the Aspen Filmfest (Sept. 21-25), the AFI Fest (Nov. 3-10) and the other festivals that litter the fall movie season.
But we won't have to wait for those other fests to have some answers about this year's contenders. By the time the smoke clears in mid-September, we should have a sense of the following pressing questions:
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More than 250 films will screen in Toronto, 50 in Venice and another 30 to 40 in Telluride. A festival rundown:
The oldest of the three film festivals is also the most old world, both in its setting and in the fact that its jury clearly isn't exactly representative of Academy voters. Last year's winner, for example, was Sofia Coppola's austere and European-style "Somewhere," which was completely overlooked by the Academy.
Toronto, on the other hand, has an audience award rather than a jury, and last year the top prize went to "The King's Speech."
Venice has booked a few films that aren’t making it to Toronto, most notably Roman Polanski's "Carnage," Tomas Alfredson's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and Soderbergh's "Contagion," plus a lot that will screen in Italy and then immediately head for Canada (perhaps with a detour through Telluride along the way): "The Ides of March," "A Dangerous Method," "Coriolanus" and Madonna's take on the Wallis Simpson story, "W.E."
Most of those Venice films are scheduled for the first half of the festival, conveniently giving filmmakers and media a chance to get to Toronto. Darren Aronofsky, whose "Black Swan" premiered in Venice last year, heads the jury.
The Colorado festival is the smallest and quirkiest: it doesn't announce its lineup ahead of time and doesn't give media or professional passes. Most everybody pays $780 for three days of moviegoing, and the money's due before they tell you what you'll be seeing.
Telluride's advantages: The small-town atmosphere makes it easygoing; the steep prices ensure committed filmgoers; and it can book films that might otherwise be withheld if announcing them meant that Toronto would lose its ability to advertise world premieres.
For example, Toronto is billing Alexander Payne's "The Descendants" as a world premiere — and if the film makes a quick stop in Telluride on its way to Toronto, everybody in Canada will look the other way and pretend it never happened.
"The Descendants" is one of the films deemed likely to show up in Colorado this weekend; David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method," Steve McQueen's "Shame" and Michel Hazavanicus' "The Artist" are among the others.
The lineup will be announced on Friday.
For the industry, and for Oscar-watchers, Toronto is by far the biggest and brashest of the festivals. It's an 11-day overload of films, the unofficial kickoff to awards season and the crucial showcase for many Academy hopefuls anxious for the kind of launch that "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The King's Speech" got in years past.
And for 250 other films, the huge contingent of TIFF buyers and media provides an irresistible target as well.
To take advantage of that media, TIFF also serves as a massive press junket, most of it centered in the Yorkville section of town; you won't find this many notables in one spot until Golden Globes weekend at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.
This year's key Toronto films include Sony's Friday night gala double bill of "The Ides of March" and "Moneyball," along with "The Descendants," "The Artist," Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive," Drake Doremus' "Like Crazy," Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter," Oren Moverman's "Rampart," Fernando Meirelles' "360" and Andrea Arnold's "Wuthering Heights."
Even Lars von Trier will be back with "Melancholia," presumably not to cause as much of a fuss as he did at Cannes four months ago.
And while the festival reception afforded all of those films will be enlightening, a good number of questions will still be left unanswered at the end of this blitz of fall festivals.
That's because a good number of potentially major players are skipping the festivals. Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar Hoover's biopic "J. Edgar," Steven Spielberg's "War Horse," Jason Reitman's "Young Adult," Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo" and Phyllida Lloyd's "The Iron Lady," with Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, will all be MIA over the next three weeks.
Until those movies are finally unveiled, this first blast of fall festivals will give us plenty to chew on.