It started long ago, the love affair between Oscar and Laurel. Of course, we know Oscar as the shiny gold statue presented to Academy Award Winners, and we’ve come to recognize film festival laurels as a symbol of excellence. Even as far back as the first major film festival, the Venice Film Festival (1932) presented Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which then went on to win an Oscar for the lead actor Fredric March.
But that was way back then, and the marriage has evolved to become more about the prestige picture. Back in the 1930’s, a Time magazine writer used the term “prestige picture” to describe movies made by studios to please major critics, rather than to make money. Many such movies have come from literary classics, and most of them fall into the Cause Cinema genre, as socially relevant themes are a constant.
From a studio standpoint, many of their Award winners played top film fests, a number of them recognized on AFI’s 100 Years 100 Movies list. On the Waterfront (Venice), To Kill a Mockingbird (Cannes) and Apocalypse Now (Cannes), just to name a few.
In more recent years, this relationship has really thrived. Without studio muscle, indie films really score from this connection and Park City is often the first dance. A few years ago, we were treated with Whiplash (2015), as this little indie film, made for under 4 million, premiered at Sundance and then sold to Sony Pictures Classics. The movie later scored a handful of nominations, including Best Picture.
In that same year, Sundance also played Citizenfour, which went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary, along with dozens of other festival awards. The subject is pervasive global surveillance, Ronnie Scheib of Variety wrote “No amount of familiarity with whistleblower Edward Snowden and his shocking revelations of the U.S. government’s wholesale spying on its own citizens can prepare one for the impact of Laura Poitras’s extraordinary documentary Citizenfour."
The following year, a few more festival darlings rocked the Academy Awards, two of them anchored by themes of music. Amy, an expose on the troubled life of musician Amy Winehouse, played in Cannes and many others before taking home the Best Documentary Oscar. Nominee What Happened Miss Simone, presents Nina as a civil rights activist.
The biggest winner that year was a little film called Room, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. A24 acquired the movie, which went on to secure a Best Picture nomination and a win for star Brie Larson in the Best Actress category.
Last year, we reached another level, with a number of cause movies being recognized. Two of the highlights were indie films without a home when they started their festival run, both earning Best Picture nominations. Manchester by the Sea was acquired by Amazon, who was determined to make a new splash distribution space. Moonlight was acquired by A24 and went on to win Best Picture. Each film earned awards in their respective screenplay and acting categories as well.
In the Documentary section, we had three extraordinary festival films competing for the Oscar (13th, Life Animated and I am Not Your Negro), ultimately, losing to OJ Simpson. Each of these projects demonstrated a command of their craft, shedding new light on important social issues in uniquely cinematic fashion.
Cut to 2018. Oscar nominations were just announced and a number of festival standouts are once again being recognized. Ladybird (Telluride), Three Billboards (Toronto) and Mudbound (Sundance) are all competing in multiple categories.
As this year’s dance in Park City winds down, here’s to hoping the connection between Oscar and Laurel continues. A majority of these indie projects raise awareness on important issues. The fact that more of these films are being made, earning critical acclaim and generating heat at the box office, should tell us something. We are embracing entertainment as vehicle for change, mass communication in the best light.
To see any of the films mentioned in this post, click on thumbnails below.