There’s no official date to mark the start of awards season, but for most Oscar obsessives, it begins with the opening night of the Venice Film Festival in late August or early September. Traditionally, this kicks off a wave of major fall film festivals, which slides right into the busiest time of precursor campaigning and high-profile releases in October and November. This year, Venice kicks off on August 30th, and the other three big film festivals follow shortly after that – the Telluride Film Festival on August 31st, the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7th, and the New York Film Festival on September 29th. All eyes are on these festivals’ lineups to provide clues as to what will be the major contenders for the upcoming awards season, eventually leading to the Academy Awards. In fact, it’s not only conspicuous when movies with awards buzz skip certain festivals, but many pundits take it as a sign of a lack of quality or confidence in a film if it shows up at only one or two festivals or, even more noticeably, none at all. But is there any actual correlation between the number of film festivals a movie plays and its eventual awards chances? Let’s take a look at some cold, hard numbers to get to the bottom of this.
For simplicity’s sake, this article will only focus on the Oscar years after the expansion of the Best Picture lineup for the 2009 awards.
Let’s start with the films that actually achieved what every movie aims for – winning Best Picture. Of the 14 films that have won the top prize from the Academy since 2009, all but two of them attended at least one of the four major fall film festivals, and they just so happen to be our two most recent winners – “CODA” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” It’s important to note that both films had already been released in theaters, making their appearance at fall film festivals unnecessary. “CODA” was released in mid-August after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” opened all the way back in March following a South by Southwest Film Festival debut, making it one of the earliest releases to win Best Picture in decades. Both of their victories seem to indicate a more expansive thinking on the part of the huge new voting block of the Academy; they seemingly aren’t as beholden to traditions that have affected Oscar voting for the better part of a century.
Even more notably, nearly all of the expanded era Best Picture winners played the all-important Toronto International Film Festival. The only ones to skip it were “Birdman” (which attended all three other festivals) and the aforementioned “CODA” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Thanks to their famous People’s Choice Award, Toronto (or “TIFF”) is arguably the most important bellwether of early Best Picture heat for yet-to-be-released films. The winners and runners-up for this award have a fantastic statistical likelihood of going on to be nominated or even win Best Picture. In fact, seven future Best Picture winners in the expanded era have been at least a runner-up for the People’s Choice Award (“The King’s Speech,” “Argo,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Spotlight,” “Green Book,” “Parasite,” “Nomadland“) with four of them (“The King’s Speech,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Green Book,” “Nomadland“) winning at TIFF. And a whopping 22 films have at least placed for the People’s Choice Award and gone on to receive a Best Picture nomination. Long story short, it’s very apparent that doing well at TIFF is a fast lane to garnering Best Picture attention.
After TIFF, the numbers indicate that Telluride is the most important stop for future Best Picture winners. In fact, of the expanded era winners, the only ones not to make an appearance at Telluride are “The Hurt Locker,” “Green Book,” and, of course, “CODA” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” New York (or “NYFF”) and Venice are both practically equal when it comes to featuring eventual Best Picture winners. NYFF has hosted six of them (“The Artist,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman,” “Moonlight,” “Parasite,” and “Nomadland“) while Venice has showcased five (“The Hurt Locker,” “Birdman,” “Spotlight,” “The Shape of Water,” and “Nomadland“) with only the latter two films winning Venice’s top prize – the Golden Lion. Interestingly, four winning films even skipped Venice before playing all three of the other major fall festivals (“The Artist,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Moonlight,” and “Parasite“). Also of note, the only film to premiere at Venice, not play any other major fall festival, and still receive a Best Picture nomination is 2016’s “Hacksaw Ridge.”
It might feel obvious to look for films that were part of all four film festivals as being obvious Oscar contenders. On the contrary, it’s a rather rare occurrence. Netflix is fond of this strategy, with three of their future Best Picture losers (“Roma,” “Marriage Story,” and “The Power of the Dog“) popping up at all four festivals. Only one other film has done this quadruple festival run – the Oscar favorite “Nomadland.” However, it must be noted that this film played at the COVID-affected 2020 festivals. While Venice still had a limited in-person festival, Telluride was canceled (although they still announced their lineup), TIFF was held primarily online with limited in-person screenings (with a noticeably smaller lineup than usual), and NYFF took place via online and outdoor screenings.
So, it’s clear that attending some, but not all, film festivals is often a sign of strength for a future Oscar contender. On the flip side, is skipping all 4 of these major festivals a sign of weakness? As previously mentioned, “CODA” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” are the only films to do just that and win Best Picture. Looking at the numbers, a small handful of Best Picture nominees every year don’t screen at the fall festivals – 55 total in the expanded era, to be exact. This averages out to about three or four films each year. Nearly all these films had already been released in the spring or summer or, such as with both “Avatar” films, “True Grit,” “1917,” and others, didn’t premiere until December, meaning the films may not have even been ready for the fall film fests.
What about the films that did attend the fall film festivals but only some of them? The number of future Best Picture nominees that attended only one, two, or three of the fests is all close enough to indicate very little pattern at all. Twenty-four eventual nominees have been present at just one of the festivals, with “Green Book” being the only future Best Picture winner. Twenty-three hit up two of the festivals; among them were Best Picture winners “The Hurt Locker,” “The King’s Speech,” and “Argo.” And 19 movies could be found at three, with an impressive seven of them going on to win Oscar’s top prize (“The Artist,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman,” “Spotlight,” “Moonlight,” “The Shape of Water,” and “Parasite“).
If this is all starting to feel a bit red-string-conspiracy-theory, don’t worry because it all leads to a conclusion. And that conclusion is…that there is very little correlation between the number of festivals a film screens at and that film’s future Best Picture chances, so long as the film screens at one of them. Sure, the most common number of fall film festivals for a Best Picture nominee to attend is zero. Still, the trajectory of Academy history indicates that playing at least one is essential to winning the Academy’s top prize. That is unless the two most recent winners are indicating a swing away from this mindset, which only time will tell.
This year’s two highest-profile awards hopefuls – “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” – will obviously not play any of these festivals as they have already been released to overwhelming box office success. If either were to win Best Picture, they would be the first ever in the expanded era to do so without playing at any film festivals at all. Many of this year’s other big contenders will not be present at the fall festivals (although Telluride has yet to announce their lineup, which they only do the day before the festival begins, so that may change). “Past Lives” premiered at Sundance and has already had its general release. “Killers of the Flower Moon” premiered at Cannes and opens in limited release in early October. “The Color Purple” currently has no festival plans ahead of its Christmas Day release. Of course, the fall festivals still have announced a handful of films that already have Oscar buzz, including the following:
A few films are expected to play at three of the four fall film festivals (though no film is playing at all four this year), including Justin Triet’s Palme d’Or winning “Anatomy of a Fall,” Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Evil Does Not Exist,” Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things,” and Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest.” And as with any year, Oscar contenders can come out of nowhere and surprise everyone. One only needs to look to our two most recent winners and fall festival skippers, “CODA” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Both seemed to have unlikely paths to even a Best Picture nomination after first premiering. Awards season remains, as always, a thrilling mystery.
Which fall film festival lineup do you think is the best? Are you attending any this year? Which festival do you think will produce Best Picture nominees this year? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and please check out our latest Oscar predictions here.