Pete Hammond

The major studios have finally caught on to what the indies have known for years: There’s a definite trend brewing between success on the film-festival circuit and winning at the Oscars. In fact, the past seven Best Picture victories were born somewhere on the fest circuit — a place where buzz, particularly online, is becoming too loud to ignore. Since No Country For Old Men, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, every Best Picture winner has debuted at fests: Slumdog Millionaire (Telluride Film Festival, 2008), The Hurt Locker (Venice Film Festival, 2008), The King’s Speech (Telluride, 2010), The Artist (Cannes, 2011) and Argo (Toronto International Film Festival, 2012).

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What really stands out is that the only film on that list that came from a major studio is Warner Bros’ Argo. That’s because early in this century, Hollywood was playing by the old rules, opening movies in the fall or Christmas, ignoring film festivals and still winning Best Picture statuettes at the Academy Awards. Between 2000 and 2006, only one Best Picture winner— 2005’s Toronto pickup Crash — had even played a festival. Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby and The Departed all used a different path to gold.

But things changed last year with Argo, whose festival debut created buzz that carried the story about the rescue of six diplomats amid the Iran hostage crisis all the way to an Oscar. Prior to that, Warner Bros had achieved its most recent Oscar success with off-the-circuit Best Picture winners like The Departed and Million Dollar Baby. The Argo strategy allowed the studio — which was dying to stop Harvey Weinstein from grabbing a third Best Picture trophy in a row — to grow the buzz from two important fall fests and build Argo as a legitimate contender.

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After last year’s win, Warner Bros clearly has warmed to the strategy, and this year it launched Gravity at three fall fests — Venice, Telluride and Toronto — landing squarely in the middle of the conversation again. The studio’s upcoming December contender, Spike Jonze’s Her, used the closing-night slot at the New York Film Festival to create buzz for the romantic drama starring Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams. The studio even tried to grab press attention at Toronto by bringing in Jonze for a Q&A with clips and a reception.

However, Warner Bros isn’t the only major that’s seeing things with an indie sensibility. Sony came back to the prestige of opening night of the New York fest to launch Captain Phillips, which also played the London Film Festival. It’s a strategy that worked for Sony on The Social Network, another Scott Rudin production.

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Disney, also not waiting until Christmas to launch an Oscar campaign, debuted Saving Mr. Banks, its feel-good story about the making of Mary Poppins, in October at the London Film Festival and then again this month as the opener of the Los Angeles-based AFI Film Festival. Universal flew all of its executives to Toronto for the debut of Ron Howard’s Rush, a launchpad so important the studio delayed announcing the axing of its chairman Adam Fogelson (who was present and seemingly unaware) until his plane landed back in L.A. the next day.

And then there’s the case of Nebraska. Paramount was so eager to get the Alexander Payne film into Cannes — despite Payne’s desire to spend more time in postproduction — that execs convinced the director to take it to Paris at the last minute and show it to festival honcho Thierry Fremaux just under the wire to make the cut. Bruce Dern won the Best Actor award in Cannes, and the film was successfully launched. Of course, the pressure of getting a film ready in time to meet a festival’s deadline is daunting. Payne returned after Cannes, tweaked the film and took it to the Telluride and New York fests, where it played exceptionally well in a slightly different version than was seen on the Cote d’Azur.

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After finding success at the NYFF with last year’s Life of Pi, for which Ang Lee won the Best Director Oscar, 20th Century Fox decided to see if lightning could strike twice and world-premiered Ben Stiller’s Oscar hopeful The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, even though it doesn’t open until Christmas Day. On the same weekend, Fox hopped to the West Coast and used the Mill Valley Film Festival to world-premiere is lesser-known contender The Book Thief, which opened this month.

As one top studio executive told me: “The Oscar race has changed, and we have to change with it. If you’re not out there at film festivals and other venues making noise, the perception is that you may not have the goods. We can’t wait until Christmas to open some of these packages.”

However, that’s not necessarily true. Year-end films like Paramount’s The Wolf Of Wall Street  and Sony’s American Hustle won’t make any fest debuts, but the studios clearly have discovered the value of film festivals to an Oscar campaign, an area the independents once had virtually to themselves.

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So who scored the biggest at this year’s fests? Out of Cannes in May it was the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, which also included Telluride, New York and AFI in its fest plans. There was the aforementioned Nebraska as well as the Palme d’Or-winning French sensation Blue Is The Warmest Color, which, despite being ineligible for the Best Foreign-Language Film race (it opened too late in France to qualify under Academy rules), has been a tireless traveler on the fest circuit this fall. And the drumbeat really got going in France for Robert Redford and his tour de force work in J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost. Out of Venice, there is no question that opener Gravity and the Judi Dench-starring Philomena firmly planted their flags in the race, while Parkland got ruled out. In Telluride, Fox Searchlight instantly became the presumed front-runner with 12 Years A Slave (which it also did in Toronto and New York), while Nebraska, All Is Lost and Gravity added to their buzz from their European debuts.

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In Toronto, DreamWorks’ opener The Fifth Estate got burned by some and probably hurt its cause, while the Weinstein Co.’s strategy of using Toronto to launch virtually all of its  contenders was an interesting move and resulted in an enthusiastic reception for August: Osage County, Philomena, the feel-good One Chance and the Gandhi-like epic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Critical response, however, was mixed on some of those. Focus launched Dallas Buyers Club in Toronto to good response and Oscar talk for stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. New York increased its profile with several world premieres, including opener Captain Phillips, closer Her and midfest Walter Mitty, all from the majors.

There’s no question that film festivals and Oscar strategies are steady dating. It’s a trend that, after this year, is only bound to continue.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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