In February, on the same weekend as the 89th Oscars, a little $4.5 million horror movie called Get Out opened and immediately struck a nerve, capturing the top spot at the box office with $33 million on its way to a worldwide gross of $253.4 million — not that Academy members necessarily noticed at the time. Then, in late July — as Hollywood folks were fleeing town for far-flung summer vacations — a much bigger movie, the $100 million Dunkirk, hit theaters with a $50.5 million bow and ultimately garnered $525 million worldwide.
Both films debuted to critical cheers. Get Out scored a nearly unanimous 99 percent positive score on Rotten Tomatoes, and Dunkirk checked in at 92 percent. And both now are angling for best picture Oscar noms. But they face a potential roadblock. Between now and the Christmas holidays, about two dozen new films will be making bids for awards attention. And because the Academy tends to favor shiny new objects — seven of last season’s nine best picture nominees were released in November and December — Get Out and Dunkirk are in danger of feeling like old news. And so, the filmmakers behind both are now out on the hustings.
To be sure, even before Get Out — a satirical look at the pernicious racism that lurks behind the facade of even seemingly enlightened white liberals — could make a serious best picture run, it first had to establish its bona fides as a “serious” movie. So way back in May, when Universal held a party on its lot to mark the film’s home entertainment release, that routine promotional event was used as an excuse to invite awards bloggers and Academy members to get the conversation started. In June, the film’s cred got a big boost when its writer-director, Jordan Peele, appeared at the PGA’s Produced By Conference, where he was interviewed by none other than Norman Lear, who testified, “I lose words when I think about how much this man’s film affected me.”
Since then, Peele and his team, including producer Jason Blum and actor Daniel Kaluuya, have been making nonstop appearances. There they were shaking hands at the Nov. 11 Governors Awards. Writer-producer Damon Lindelof hosted a screening to which DGA, WGA and Academy members were invited. Peele delivered a keynote at the Film Independent Forum on Oct. 22 and dropped by AFI Fest for a Nov. 10 conversation about 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? — to which his own film owes a debt. And on Nov. 17, Universal threw yet another reception, featuring an exhibit of fan art inspired by the movie, to toast Get Out, which already has picked up four Gotham Awards noms.
Dunkirk faced a different challenge: Once Christopher Nolan’s film roared into theaters, no one could deny the film rose to the challenge of re-creating the fabled World War II British military retreat. But Nolan has never been an Academy favorite. He has received only one best picture nomination (for 2010’s Inception), two screenplay noms and no directing noms. So while Nolan usually prefers to have his films speak for themselves, this time he’s also working the room.
In an unusual move, the film crashed the Toronto Film Festival — “Haven’t you all seen this already?” TIFF director Piers Handling joked before the screening, which ostensibly marked Imax’s 50th anniversary — and artistic director Cameron Bailey hosted a chat with Nolan afterward. The director is now fronting a series of L.A. screenings — one of which was moderated by writer-producer John Wells. He also made the requisite pit stop at the Governors Awards and, as an ardent proponent of celluloid, visited the Library of Congress on Nov. 2 to speak about film preservation, one of his pet causes.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing Dunkirk is that the film will lose a lot of its power if Academy members simply watch it on screeners, and so Warners has jumped into the breach, announcing it will be rereleased Dec. 1 in 34 markets, where it will play in 50 Imax and 70mm theaters. It’s the studio’s way of insisting that attention must be paid.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.