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The State of the Race: Onward to New York and Billy Lynn

With Toronto, Telluride, and Venice now in the rear-view mirror, there are only two major festivals outstanding before we head into the first phase of handing out awards. The New York Film Festival will fold two films into the mix, Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women. Both are currently being predicted to have some kind of impact on the Oscar race. We’ll soon see whether they will be as strong the current frontrunners: La La Land, Loving, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Sully and Arrival.

The New York Film Festival has a tradition of pushing films into the Best Picture race, but has so far it has not produced a winning film. Last year, Bridge of Spies and The Walk were the two films that earned notice, but only Bridge of Spies hung on strong until the end of the year, landing a Best Picture nomination and an Oscar victory for Mark Rylance. The year prior, it was Gone Girl and Inherent Vice. Before that, Captain Phillips, Her, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were shown, and two of them went on to a Best Picture nomination.

In 2012, Flight and Life of Pi were the big gets. Life of Pi went on to score 11 nominations and won four Oscars, including Best Director. Flight did not get a Best Picture nomination (though it, like Gone Girl, absolutely deserved one). The NYFF absolutely has the kind of prominence and publicity to launch a film. It also has the potential to deliver a somewhat misleading first take.

Here is how it goes, festival by festival, in terms of reach and impact.

Cannes Film Festival – Reporters come from all over the world. They get a credential for free and only have to pay for lodging and food, or their outlet pays their way. Cannes is a worldwide marketplace to sell films to distributors. It is primarily designed as a showcase and a marketplace and the idea of any movie screened there making a play for Oscar seems ludicrous to everyone but the Americans.

Venice Film Festival – Free credential but expensive stay. Reporters and filmmakers come from all over the world to attend. It is less focused on American product and more focused on international product but it seems to be a great place to launch a presumed Oscar contender, since many of the critics who attend are often doing double duty for Oscar coverage. Venice has become quite important lately as several prominent Oscar winners have sprung from there and Telluride at the same time (the one-two punch).

Telluride Film Festival – A much smaller selection of reporters and bloggers cover. Credential is paid for at around $800, which is often too pricey for just anyone to attend. Outlets may pay to send a representative or else individuals like me pay their own way to attend. Telluride is attended mostly by patrons, people who happily pay to attend every year for the sheer satisfaction of enjoying a first look at films in a stunning stetting. It is less a marketplace for movies to find distributors as it is a way to introduce movies to a specific audience. Unlike Cannes, where participants can be grumpy and venues overcrowded, Telluride is a lovely way to spend Labor Day weekend and is designed more of less for the kinds of people who will eventually be voting on the Oscars — upper-middle-class folks who can shell out thousands for a four-day stay.

Toronto Film Festival – Free credential and a prime marketplace. Films and press come from all over the world to see films. It used to be more of an Oscar launching pad before the date change pushed everything back a month. Now Toronto seems almost too big to really achieve the kind of curated launch that Telluride can offer. On the other hand, it can help to launch major crowd-pleasers like last year’s The Martian. It can often test a film that did well at the much smaller Telluride film fest to see if it plays with larger more varied crowds.

New York Film Festival – Free credential but expensive stay. Many of the films featured have premiered prior to screening for the New York crowd but each year a couple of major films debut there. The fest draws many of the elites of film criticism and bloggers.

AFI Film Festival – Designed almost exclusively to introduce major Oscar contenders to a top-tier LA audience, whether or not the films have been seen at other festivals. Their gala events and screenings draw all the top Hollywood talent and become major photo ops. AFI has also become a crucial stop in awards season because with things happening so fast, these gala screenings offer major publicity opportunities just before the awards start coming down.

When I first started this website in 1999, Cannes took place way too early to matter at all in the Oscar race — so much so that hardly anyone even reported on it in terms of films headed for the Best Picture race. Toronto was the only festival back then that mattered. In fact, other than Toronto, no one really paid much attention at all to film festivals. They mostly functioned as a private marketplace to sell movies. But several forces all at once changed the game significantly. The internet birthed online Oscar coverage which quickly became a year round event; the Academy pushed their date ahead one month, making the Oscar race more about coverage and less about audience reaction; and evolving platforms of distribution that impacted the film industry overall.

New York has sometimes led to misleading reactions for a couple of movies. Life of Pi was considered by some to be a non-starter out of New York. But that take turned out to be wrong. Les Miserables received a rapturous reaction from the New York crowd, but that turned out to be wrong too. Perhaps something about the type of authoritative voices that attend the fest can sometimes lead them to prematurely predict the ascent or demise of a movie.

Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk will be seen for the first time on October 14th, and we’ll get our first test of the 120 frames-per-second process. Each time there is an advance in technology there is always the question of whether the older voters in the Academy will be able to deal with it. We have no way of knowing what we’ll be seeing. What I do know is that Ang Lee is a magnificent filmmaker, among my own top five favorite directors currently working. Thus, I’m more excited about seeing an Ang Lee film than I am about the 120 FPS. But I’m also curious to see what it will look like.

Billy Lynn won’t be seen for another four weeks. As it stands, that feels like a lot of time between now and then. Nevertheless, it’s still the next major stop on the road towards Best Picture.