Oscar Circuit: Are We Setting Up for a ‘Universal’ Year?

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by-the-sea-jolie-pitt-pics-imagesAt the start of July, we’re looking at a summer movie season that hasn’t exactly offered its fair share of critically acclaimed work.  As noted in other Oscar Circuit pieces, as well as spoken on our last few podcasts, this is the time we should buckle down and really start assessing the slates ahead for the studios.  As always, we don’t anything, with many of these films not even being given a still as of yet, but speaking with publicists, studio reps, and fellow journalists, we can start making some semi-informed guesses at where the chips will be looking to fall this upcoming season.

Universal Pictures kicked up the discussion last week with the first full trailer for Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs.”  While we have no obvious frontrunner for Best Picture at the moment, if you’re looking for anything that resembles past films like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” or “War Horse,” (early crowned and heavily predicted Oscar-type films) then “Steve Jobs” may be it. 

Last year, Universal had a cloud surrounding Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” which came with mixed reviews following its first set of screenings in December.  Just three Oscar nominations later in the technical categories, the film was never able to bounce back. 

With Boyle’s film given a soft October 9 release, they’ll be able to gear the buzz and do any damage control if necessary.  Without anyone seeing the film yet, some have read the script by Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin and it’s been said that it’s a sure-fire contender. 

Universal will have other tricks up their sleeve this year with “Legend” starring Tom Hardy.  Playing identical twin gangsters Ronald and Reginald Kray, early word is that Hardy really gets into his dual roles as the trailer suggested a few weeks back.  There are other possibilities for the film in the forms of Cinematography, by recent nominee Dick Pope (“Mr. Turner”), Editing, Costumes, Production Design, and maybe even screenplay.

The early word for Angelina Jolie’s “By the Sea” is said to be promising for the writer/director/producer.  Starring alongside hubby and fellow producer Brad Pitt, the film has a terrific international cast that includes Melanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”), Niels Arestrup (“War Horse”), Melvil Poupaud (“Laurence Anyways”), and Richard Bohringer (1985’s “Subway”).  Set to bow on November 13, the film tells the story of an American writer and his wife, who arrive in a tranquil and picturesque seaside resort in 1970’s France, with their marriage in apparently in crisis.  Over the course of their stay, they begin to come to terms with unresolved issues in their own lives.  From the early word, in its style, and its treatment of the human experience, “By the Sea” is said to be inspired by European cinema and theater in the 60’s and 70’s.  Also said to be “very atmospheric, dramatic, and gorgeous” says one source who saw early footage.  Shot by Oscar-nominee Christian Berger (“The White Ribbon”), and scored by Oscar-winner Gabriel Yared (“The English Patient”), could Jolie’s film be the ace in the hole for Universal?

everest-trailer-movie_hRecently announced as the opening film of the Venice Film Festival, “Everest” from Baltasar Kormákur might be stronger than initially anticipated.  Last year, the eventual Oscar-winner “Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” (wow, I don’t miss typing all that out) was selected as the opening film where it went to Telluride and then as the closer of the New York Film Festival.  With a large cast that includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Keira Knightley, Josh Brolin, Robin Wright, Sam Worthington, Emily Watson, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly, and Elizabeth Debicki, this could be a hit with the acting branch. 

And there’s still “Black Mass” from Scott Cooper that could factor into all this.

It’s not all about Universal this year though.

Focus Features is feeling pretty confident about “The Danish Girl” from Tom Hooper and “Suffragette” from Sarah Gavron.  In the case of the former, recently crowned Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne will have a juicy part to sink his teeth into with co-star Alicia Vikander.  With the latter, it’s a timely tale that could be a strong force for acting nominations with stars Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, and Romola Garai all rumored to deliver strong work. 

The Weinstein Company have already declared a landing with Justin Kurzel’s “MacBeth” and Todd Haynes’ “Carol.”  The early reviews for “Southpaw” don’t suggest a strong awards possibility so the only other thing in their back pocket is Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” which is rumored to have a trailer “very soon.”  This doesn’t discount any distribution acquisitions they get along the way or their films “Tulip Fever,” and “Adam Jones” that could factor.  Stephen Frears’ “The Program” with Ben Foster is still looking for a home and after the success with “Philomena” and “The Queen,” I wouldn’t be surprised to see the film land in Harvey’s hands. 

After missing the mark with “Gone Girl” last year, 20th Century Fox looks to have a healthy slate on the horizon with Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “The Revenant,” David O. Russell’s “Joy,” and (dare I say it…) Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.”  All three have big shoes to fill and will be anticipated like no other.  Hopefully they live up to the expectations.

Walt Disney Pictures has “Bridge of Spies,” fresh off a new trailer that had many buzzing while Pixar will handle both “Inside Out” and “The Good Dinosaur” for Animated Feature and other key categories.  Both are well-believed in by the studio.

Fox Searchlight Pictures has some decisions to make as “Brooklyn” from John Crowley has serious expectations surrounding it following its Sundance bow.  They also have the indie hit “Me & Earl & the Dying Girl,” Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth,” which was received positively at Cannes, and Jean Marc Vallee’s “Demolition,” an emotional drama that could do wonders for its stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts.  They also have “A Bigger Splash” with Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, and Matthias Schoenaerts that could shake things up.

I have to say, after just taking a glance at some of the upcoming films, I love the looks of the smaller studios this year. 

Lionsgate in particular looks to have quite a few interesting things.  “Genius” from Michael Grandage looks to have Oscar-pedigree written all over it with stars Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Dominic West, Jude Law, and Guy Pearce, sitting in the middle of it.  “Sicario” from Denis Villenueve was also received with open arms at Cannes and may be a vehicle for star Emily Blunt, and once again, DP Roger Deakins.  Their seemingly big player looks to be “Freeheld” from Peter Sollett and starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page, a film that looks to be coming out at time when our country is making steps forward for equality.

Open Road looks to have an arsenal if they can live up to the hype and handle it all.  The recent teaser for Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” has people talking about what it could look like.  Are we in store for another “W.” or maybe a new decade’s “JFK?”  Ben Younger’s upcoming “Bleed for This” with Miles Teller may have a “Cinderella Man” vibe to it based on its premise but in the middle of what is going to be three boxing movies this year, will it simply be genre overkill?  And finally, Thomas McCarthy is back, with a script co-written by Josh Singer titled “Spotlight.”  Starring Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, and Mark Ruffalo, the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese looks all types of fascinating. 

They’ll be much more to chew on over the year.  For now, we’ll settle with what we know and what we hope to achieve in the cold, dark room of a movie theater this fall.

There are some slight updates to the Oscar Predictions for you to maul over.  Make sure to include your thoughts on the race in the comments.

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  • it’s already a Universal year with them topping the yearly box office with Fast & Furious and Jurassic World.

  • “At the start of July, we’re looking at a summer movie season that hasn’t exactly offered its fair share of critically acclaimed work.”

    What exactly convinced you that this is true? Maybe you and I have very different interpretations of what “fair share” means, but we’re only halfway into the summer and have already seen not one but two major studio wide releases score a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, which did not happen in summer 2014, 2013, or 2012. More critics enjoyed Spy (95% RT/75 Metacritic) than last year’s comedies Neighbors (73% RT/76 MC), 22 Jump Street (85% RT/71 MC) and Obvious Child (90% RT/76 MC). Okay, maybe we haven’t seen a clear Best Picture contender like Boyhood emerge yet, though that’s as much a function of industry politics and perception than critical consensus.

    It just seems like you’re selling this summer movie season awfully short considering how many good films have emerged out of it so far. Forgive me for focusing on just one statement out of your whole article.

  • Aaron Engel G. Peixoto

    Rookie question, but still…

    How the big studios work with competition from the inside (i.e. arthouse branches)? Is there any interference from, let’s say, 20th Century Fox on the Fox Searchlight slate for the year?

  • Ause Ekel

    Well, I agree to a certain extent. Weinstein isn’t crazy to buy The Program, which wrapped almost two years ago and still hasn’t attracted any US distributor with a stellar cast and Stephen Frears directing. This film smells flop, perhaps it will have a VOD release later this year or in 2016. I wouldn’t discard Tom Hiddleston, Saoirse Ronan and 45 Years either. Better wait for Venice reactions to have a better idea of the competition. Cannes already revealed strong contenders as Macbeth, Carol, Youth and Sicario, Everest might be a surprise after opening Venice. We still have Demolition, Hateful Eight and Three Generations coming…it will be an interesting race.

  • alan

    don’t forget about warner bros; in the heart of the sea and our brand is crisis with Sandra bullock