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).
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.