Thursday, May 23, 2024

“Dune: Part Two” And The Modern Q1 Best Picture Contender

As we enter the second quarter of the year in film, awards season experts and Oscar fanatics are undoubtedly relieved to have a bit of a break from thinking about the awards circuit. By this point, the wounds we endured from inevitably busted ballots in early March have healed a little bit, and we can now look in earnest at the year to come. In doing so, one often has to look quite far into the future to find the germinating season’s major contenders; the lion’s share of Oscar nominations perennially go to late-season releases, and the crystal ball from where we stand in the spring is often material for a laugh in hindsight.

The January-March “Quarter One” (or Q1) release outlook is often fairly bleak, especially regarding films that will successfully make the months-long trek to the Oscars stage. This is obviously no disrespect to the many amazing filmmakers and workers who work tirelessly to create films of all kinds. While much has been discussed in the last couple of years about “awards fare” vs. genre films, indies, and populist blockbusters – mainly due to the resounding success of films like recent Best Picture winners “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “CODA,” and “Oppenheimer,” – this divide makes itself quite relevant in the early months of the year.

While Q1 is a bit of a dead zone for Oscar contenders—and the correlation goes both directions, as Q1 films don’t end up being huge Oscar players, and those forecasted to be huge Oscar players don’t usually release in Q1—it is not entirely that way. There are a handful of films that have bucked this trend and carried a strong early-season release to Oscar gold, especially recently.

As this discussion starts, the elephant in the room is “Dune: Part Two,” which premiered in the U.S. on March 1st of this year. After being scratched by Warner Brothers from the 2023 release roster amid the strikes last summer, “Dune: Part Two” opted for an early-season release date, where it has largely had the spring box office to itself. At present, it is holding firm atop the 2024 domestic box office charts, a whole $100 million ahead of the number two film, “Kung Fu Panda 4.” The sequel to 2021’s “Dune” has been extremely well-received by both critics and audiences alike and seems to, at the very least, pick up where the first one left off when it comes to acclaim. Even though most of us haven’t forgotten, remember that “Dune” took home six Oscars – the most of that year’s ceremony – out of its ten nominations. Simply put, the first “Dune” film was an Oscar heavyweight, and there seems to be no real indication that “Dune: Part Two” won’t replicate that kind of success.

It isn’t exactly a hot take to say that “Dune: Part Two” is essentially a lock for a Best Picture nomination in January 2025. There are outstanding questions as to whether the Academy will jump on this like they did with “Dune,” especially with the assumption that another film in the franchise is probably coming. However, no matter how the rest of the season unfolds, “Dune: Part Two” will be one of the biggest films of 2024, and the merits of the film stand incredibly strong against any crop of contenders. Simply put, we have already seen one of the premier Oscar contenders of the year in Q1 of 2024, and one of the ten Best Picture slots is essentially locked up for “Dune: Part Two.”

If this prediction turns out to be true, this will put “Dune: Part Two” in rarified company next to other January to March releases that have found their way into the Best Picture lineup (An obvious but perhaps necessary clarification: this classification is looking at dates of wide theatrical release in the United States – i.e., a Sundance premiere that releases theatrically in November does not count). At the top of people’s minds on this subject is, no doubt, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the Best Picture winner from the 2022 season that masterfully converted a buzzy South by Southwest premiere/late March US release combination into an awards-season snowball that left it with seven Oscars when all was said and done – a full calendar year (and one day) later. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” made this all look easy, which this kind of thing certainly isn’t: since 2000, only five films have pulled off the Q1-release-to-Best-Picture-nominee gambit.
Before “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” 2018’s “Black Panther” was the most recent Q1 Best Picture nominee. This stat logically ignores the release date/Oscar calendar mess of 2020-2021. Films like “Nomadland,” “The Father,” and others were released in the early months of 2021 but were, by every other marker, late-breakers in the extended Oscar season. “Black Panther” was released to American audiences on February 16th, the earliest release date for a Best Picture nominee in the 21st century. It quickly became a nationwide (and global) phenomenon, shown notably in its acknowledgment during the March 2018 Oscars telecast when its popularity was at a fever pitch. Even by that point, it was clear that “Black Panther” was on the path towards some sort of awards run unique for a superhero movie. According to GoldDerby’s archived odds, even in March 2018, folks had “Black Panther” predicted ninth in the Best Picture odds.

While undeniably unique in a lot of ways, the trajectory of “Black Panther” toward a Best Picture nomination was similar to a film that came out just the year before: Jordan Peele’s 2017 debut, “Get Out.” As another February release (and the only other one of the aforementioned five from the 21st century) and a film from a genre historically ignored by the Academy and awards bodies at large, the awards success of “Get Out” can be argued to have paved the way (in some part) for that of “Black Panther” Similarly, even shortly after it premiered, it was clear that “Get Out” was one of the biggest – if not the biggest, in hindsight – stories of 2017 in film, and that a Best Picture nomination felt imminent. To use the same metric, the GoldDerby odds a month after release had “Get Out” ranked seventh for Best Picture.

The last semi-recent example of a Q1 release translating to a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars was 2014’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which was released in the first week of March. As it would seem, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” followed a path not too dissimilar to “Everything Everywhere All at Once” – a surprise hit whose profile only grew throughout the months as the studio became more aware of its awards chances thanks to hugely positive reactions from audiences and critics alike. Much has been written about “The Grand Budapest Hotel” as a “surprise” early-season Oscar heavyweight; it seems like no one could have been prepared for the huge awards-season step forward Wes Anderson was about to take with his follow-up to the still-not-insubstantially-awarded “Moonrise Kingdom.” 

At this point in the discussion, it may seem like the Q1-to-Best-Picture path is quite respectable, especially when you look at the movies that accomplished this in several ways. This attitude is sobered quite a bit, though, in realizing that the most recent time this happened before “The Grand Budapest Hotel” in 2014 was all the way back at the turn of the century, when “Erin Brokovich” managed a Best Picture nomination (when the field was set at five) from a March 17th release date. Clearly, the odds shift greatly when talking about the five-nominee era, but the gap still has meaning. It is easy to view the history of the Academy Awards in eras, and this 1990s to early 2010s era was the zenith of an Oscars culture dominated by Weinstein, massive studio films, and (almost without fail) very late-season release dates. In 2015, Deadline Hollywood’s Pete Hammond wondered how the early-release Oscars success of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” might “turn awards season on its head.” He seemed to be in some ways correct, considering the examples laid out here. Clearly, this kind of path has had much more of a legitimate track record in the last decade or so and appears to be only heating up in the most recent timeframe.

Obviously, “Dune: Part Two” is something of an outlier in that it was a massive awards player initially slated for October of 2023 but pushed into the following spring by historic strikes that shook Hollywood’s calendar in a significant way. The other recent examples roughly fit into two categories to which “Dune: Part Two” clearly does not belong: lower-profile films like “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” whose awards profiles were largely ignited by positive reception and were not originally slated as the studios’ main awards players; and groundbreaking films like “Get Out” and “Black Panther,” whose near-instant icon statuses within their respective genres elevated them beyond their historically underappreciated parts. But, the financial and critical success of “Dune: Part Two” undoubtedly sends a message to studios: that there is money to be made in the first few months of the year and that the early spring holds fertile grounds for a genuine and orchestrated awards season launch from a major studio. The tides definitely seem to be shifting in favor of a more evenly spread release calendar when it comes to Oscar hopefuls, and everyone wins in this scenario. That is obviously an even bigger conversation, but it seems certain that “Dune: Part Two” positioning itself well for a Best Picture nomination at the 2025 Oscars will continue to change the relationship Q1 and the Best Picture lineup have had up until now.

Do you believe “Dune: Part Two” will be nominated for Best Picture? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account.

You can follow Cole and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @CurtissOnFilm

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