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Studios Step Back Into the Best Picture Spotlight

After a summer during which a controversy swelled over the possibility of a “popular film” honor being included in the Academy Awards mix, a funny thing happened on Hollywood’s annual trek to the Dolby Theater: the traditional studios are making something of a best picture comeback. Acclaim for Warner Bros.’ “A Star Is Born,” Universal Pictures’ “First Man” and “Green Book”; Walt Disney Studios’ “Black Panther” and “Mary Poppins Returns”; 20th Century Fox’s “Widows” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as well as Sony Pictures’ “The Front Runner” have given the old guard new life in a category the studios have won only four times this century (the last being “Argo” in 2013).

Yet, Donna Langley, chairman of Universal Pictures, preaches caution to anyone suggesting that this is somehow “their year.”

“If you look over the last few years, you’ve had movies like ‘Gravity,’ which is a big studio movie. You had ‘Lincoln,’ which was a big studio movie, very much in the conversation,” Langley says. “I think it’s sort of reductive to look at this year and say it’s going to boil down to ‘A Star Is Born’ and ‘First Man.’ I mean, look, I hope it does, in some ways, for our sake. I think every year now there’s a combination of what the studios have to offer and what the specialty divisions have to offer like Focus and Fox Searchlight.”

The longtime Fox mini took the best picture Oscar in March for Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” but Langley thinks there has been more diversity in the race than most are acknowledging. Last year, the studio’s own blockbuster “Get Out” landed four nominations including best picture and won original screenplay for writer and director Jordan Peele.

“I think we’re seeing that there’s a variety of different kinds of movies in the mix. It just does happen to be that there’s [a few] big studio movies with lovely movie stars,” Langley says. “Obviously, ‘Star Is Born’ is already off to a great start. ‘First Man’ is already off to a great start, critically, and in the awards conversation very much. I think it’s an obvious narrative to kind of grab hold of, but I don’t think it tells the full story, to be honest with you.”

Universal not only has Damien Chazelle’s pic about the life of Neil Armstrong orbiting Oscar, but also Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book,” which was financed by Participant Media, as a major contender. The period drama focuses on a real-life New York City bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who was hired to drive and protect a Jamaican-American pianist, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), on a tour of Southern cities in the early 1960s. The title refers to the guide they used to determine which hotels and restaurants Shirley could stay in when they traveled to segregated cities of the era. The drama has already proved to be a crowd-pleaser, winning the People’s Choice Award at the 2018 Toronto Intl. Film Festival over some stiff competition. Universal had the option to distribute the picture and said the studio was struck by an “absolute humanity” execs believe will help it strike a chord with audiences.

“What’s really nice about ‘Green Book’ and the reaction and the reception that it’s getting is that it is a movie about friendship. Yes, it tackles troubles in the civil-rights era and it tackles racism, but it does it through the prism of the friendship,” Langley says. “It felt like an ‘important movie.’ It was designed to be a movie that lots of people can go and see and can access. The fact that it actually is being received in this incredibly respectful way, it’s not surprising, but it is really heartening and really wonderful.”

David Linde, CEO of Participant Media, knew Farrelly had created something special after a multi-generational, diverse test screening outside of Long Beach. The executives were waiting in the theater lobby afterward and the excitement of the audience when they walked out was “palpable.”

“You could actually feel their enthusiasm,” he says. “We hadn’t seen the scores, we didn’t know really anything other than we loved watching the movie with them, and it was clear as day that they just loved it.

It also screened at the opening night of the Zurich Film Festival, which is a notoriously reserved audience and it got a standing ovation. It doesn’t matter if they speak German or if they speak English or they speak any other language. The film clearly touches people right at their hearts.”

Another film that unexpectedly touched viewers around the globe was Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther.”

It wasn’t that long ago that the best picture field expanded to 10 films, partially because Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” had been snubbed the year before. Still, even with a larger nomination class, a “superhero” film has yet to be nominated for the Academy’s top honor. “Panther” may break that glass ceiling, and not just because it’s as acclaimed as Nolan’s Batman thriller or for its historical stature as a pop-culture phenomenon. The African-set epic has been an emotional touchstone for people of color who have been able to see themselves on screen for the first time in such a heroic manner.

When Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, first read the script, he realized “Black Panther” was a movie with character and heart. Later, he’d learn director Ryan Coogler’s picture had an integrity that made it “very, very special.” He notes, “For every person [around the world] who happens to be black, this film has a special relevance and resonance. It’s a terribly important, prideful thing.”

“Black Panther” is now also the third-highest grossing film of all time in the United States right behind “Avatar,” a former best picture nominee. Horn says he doesn’t want to tell Academy voters what to do, but he’d hate for it be left out just because it happens to be a big-budget studio film.

“I think the audience of Academy members should be, and I know the word these days is agnostic, about the size, scope, scale [of potential nominees],” Horn says. “They should just talk about whether it’s a really good movie that touches them, that resonates with them, that impacts them, that is compelling.”

He adds: “I think that the Academy is aware that criticism has been leveled at [voters] for limiting their selections of contenders to those smaller films that represent the sort of quality films like ‘Academy worthy’ films and all of that. Over the course of several years there’s been an increasing understanding that, ‘Wait a minute, let’s not penalize a picture because it happens to be big. Let’s just look at the quality of the movie.’”

Over Tom Rothman’s career he’s been involved in the production of two of the highest-grossing films of all time, James Cameron’s “Avatar” and Cameron’s Oscar-winning “Titanic.” Now the chairman of Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group, Rothman has Jason Reitman’s “The Front Runner” with Hugh Jackman hoping for awards season recognition in the months ahead.

Like Horn, he’s noticed the increase in studio contenders the past few years, but disagrees on whether it will lead to a long-term balance among studio, independent and streaming fare. He thinks it’s simply cyclical and that people overestimate the significance of trends.

“There’s a certain randomness as to when pictures are finished and what they are,” Rothman says. “Let me put it to you that way. I think it’s a great thing. I think it shows that big studios are continuing to invest in original, diverse products. I hope like hell that next year there won’t just be one. I hope next year we’ll be talking about the Quentin Tarantino movie or the Greta Gerwig movie we have next year, any of those films, and that the other companies will as well. I hope that big studios will not abandon filmmaker-driven material. We’re not going to.”

The majors are going to have competition from their specialty divisions and established streaming players such as Netflix and Amazon Studios. Netflix hopes Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” can become the first foreign-language film winner from the streamers. Meanwhile, Fox Searchlight hopes to repeat with Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” Focus Features has Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” and “On the Basis of Sex” while Annapurna has two major contenders in Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” and Adam McKay’s “Vice.” Still, at this stage of the campaign, you could certainly make the argument that “A Star Is Born,” “Black Panther” and “Green Book” are seen as the current frontrunners to win it all.

As an early Miramax veteran, the co-founder of Focus Features and former co-chairman of Universal Pictures, Linde has been on both the studio and indie side of the awards-season game. In his opinion, the studios making their way to the front of the pack may be more than just a trend. In fact, it may be the result of strategic, creative work.

“I think the studios and all the distributors are hyper-focused on what they do well, and with whom they work well with,” Linde says. “And are proving that that combination can be really dynamic. And I think you’re seeing the results.”

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