There has to be a reason why Telluride often calls the Best Picture winner. This trend, like all trends, is destined to be broken at some point. Every year we think this is the year. Every year at the mountaintop festival, we see a good movie like Spotlight or 12 Years a Slave or Argo, and we think that was really good but it might not be able to compete with the big movies coming up in October and November. Yet somehow, with the preferential ballot still a factor, that Telluride launch seems to have become more important than ever.
But Telluride doesn’t happen until the end of summer. Right before that, a number of major premieres hit Venice, sometimes launching a winner (Birdman) or a near-winner (Gravity). But lately, those Venice sensations have to hit Telluride next before bringing home the gold.
Cannes is somewhat different because it really does come early early. The festival is set to launch May 11, in fact. As far as Oscar goes, although an occasional winner launches at Cannes (The Artist, No Country for Old Men), or a contender can get a showcase putting it closer to the Oscar race (Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out), more often Cannes is able to give a film a major push, only to see its momentum slow as the later fall festivals roll out (Carol, Foxcatcher).
Toronto happens right on the heels of Telluride and, like Cannes, it almost seems too big to matter in terms of the Oscar race. The Martian, however, did launch from there, as did Silver Linings Playbook. Room winning the audience award last year was a big deal for sure. Toronto has in recent years taken a back seat to the earlier festivals because it seems to come too late in the game — with so much jockeying for position at the gate, there seems to be a sense of “what’s left” for TIFF in recent years. Last year there were nominees that seemed to come from every festival and even traditional theatrical release platforms. But it’s the winners that seem to come from Telluride.
There are other festivals and awards groups that also can matter in terms of the Oscar race — both the Gothams and the Spirit Awards now have significant crossover, with the Gothams and the Spirits matching Best Picture two years in a row. The New York Film Festival is still a great launchpad for contenders. The AFI Film Fest launched The Big Short last year, and Selma and American Sniper the year before. Sundance launched Brooklyn last year, and Boyhood the year before, not to mention Beasts of the Southern Wild. But really, at least lately, it’s hard to match the recent preeminence of Telluride, or the Venice to Telluride hop, and the rare Cannes sensation with great legs.
Let’s look at the big three, to see what they’re designed to do and what they accomplish.
Held in early May, Cannes is when Oscar season really begins for most of us. With films flooding in from all over the world, it’s the rare chance to see what happens in countries where profit isn’t necessarily on everyone’s mind. Because our American film industry has mostly choked the life out of small, personal dramas (which half the time now end up on cable or VOD), the films presented at Cannes are a fine reminder that filmmakers worldwide still want to tell real stories about real people struggling with real problems. There are the occasional lavish films that trip the light fantastic, but many of the films picked, at least from what I’ve observed the many years I’ve been attending, do seem to focus more on personal stories. And what a delight to see so many from all over the world.
Of course, there are always the big splashy studio pics that can show up and screen for the first time at Cannes. This past year, it was all about Inside Out and Mad Max. Then there can be the occasional American Oscar-caliber films, like Carol last year and Foxcatcher the year before. Unless you’re talking about a movie like The Artist which is going to win over audiences no matter where it plays, no matter for whom, it’s not the easiest thing to launch a film to mad acclaim in May and expect that enthusiasm to carry through the next many months. This was especially difficult with Carol, which did manage a respectable number of Oscar nominations but missed out on Best Picture and Best Director. Many of the same people who cover the film awards race, like me, have already had our moment with a movie like that way back in May, which makes it hard to keep up that level of coverage. Some can do it better than others. It always seems to hold true, though, that critics and bloggers tend to keep their focus on what’s right in front of them.
Cannes can also sink your movie way too soon if it plays badly there. Though I’ve seen the occasional movie recover, I’ve seen too many sink. There is also that strange kind of thing that can happen if Cannes critics are too into a movie. That early hype can leave it nowhere to go but down as it heads into Oscar season, which is sort of what happened with Blue Is the Warmest Color. A wide variety of people head into Cannes, immediately tweeting and reviewing what was seen and how it played. Youth seemed to play pretty well last year, though it had its detractors. Despite a vigorous campaign by the studio, it failed to pick up any Oscar heat.
The reason for a film lover to go to Cannes is not to find Oscar contenders but to appreciate cinema at its absolute best. When you watch films there, you can forget, for a minute, that success is too often measured now by how much profit can potentially be made. You don’t think about star power or broad appeal. These are the films that are still being made for the sake of art and truth.
Venice has become prominent in the Oscar race because it is a great place for a big international launch closer to prime Oscar season. Anyone who can afford it can attend Cannes, but not everyone goes to Venice, especially not that many critics. Thus, the buzz tends to be a little more focused in terms of the kinds of films that generally launch from there. For whatever reason, the reactions to successful films in Venice seem to boom loudly into the ether. Or as in the case with Cannes, have a lot of competing noise. But Venice can be hit and miss.
It’s not easy putting into words what makes Telluride the most important festival during Oscar season. I tend to like blaming Kris Tapley, who was the first among the Oscar coverage people to really start attending. Then we all followed his lead. Actually, though, I think it has more to do with the way the Oscar season has been shortened due to the date changes, and with that, the preferential ballot.
One of the best things about Telluride is that it is the Happy People’s Festival. Unlike the other fests I’ve attended, there isn’t a lot of complaining going on. You could try, I suppose, but you’re dwarfed by the most beautiful mountains you’ve ever seen. People are paying a lot of coin to attend, including the participants, and unlike Cannes and Venice it is not populated, necessarily, with buyers and distributors, but rather with film lovers. This is an easily-pleased crowd of people that really do fit the Academy’s demographic. They are older, mostly white, fairly well-off, liberal-ish, and they love films. Many of them have been coming to this festival for years. Because of that, it has a continually happy and familial vibe. I suppose that’s why even the worst films can play pretty well at the festival — or not bomb quite as hard as they might in the hyper-intense hothouse of Cannes, most of all, but Venice or New York, as well.
All of the major Oscar players are there, of course, ushering in talent for Q&As, testing out how they will play with this crowd. Films that launched into the season last year from Telluride include Room and the Best Picture winner, Spotlight. Other films had the American premieres there after Cannes, like Carol. Suffragette launched there but didn’t ultimately get traction. Really, it was about the two Lisa Taback movies, Room and Spotlight last year. The year before, it was The Imitation Game and Birdman (straight after Venice). The year before it was 12 Years a Slave and Gravity (straight after Venice). The year before that, it was Argo. Before that, I think it was The Descendants. The King’s Speech hit Telluride in 2010.
With No Country for Old Men debuting at Cannes and The Hurt Locker debuting at Toronto, you have to go back to 2006’s The Departed to find a Best Picture winner that did not launch at Telluride or at least be screened there.
The reason I think a Best Picture winner is more likely to be shown at Telluride is that with so little time to assess the race, and with so many competing films, voters tend to rely on the sure bet with very little baggage. With Telluride’s early September bow, there’s enough time for any controversies to bubble up and then be explained away or wither on their own. Many films take some time getting used to, so that the hype and the backlash don’t interfere with a film’s winning sheen. Spotlight turned out to be the film most people could agree on and one that had the least amount of negatives against it. The characters were honorable. The story was traditional. You felt as though you were doing a good deed by voting for it. No one was going to walk away feeling aggro about that pick. Was it the best film of 2015? It wasn’t. That isn’t how the Oscars decide Best Picture of the Year. It’s about the film that thousands of people can agree on is best.
Still, the Telluride run of Oscar success does seem destined for an upset. Many were predicting it might end last year. Might this be the year? We’ll have to wait and see.