Oscars: Do Awards-Season Latecomers Like 'The Father' and 'French Exit' Have an Advantage?

Is There an Advantage in Coming Late to the Party?
Sean Cleason/Sony Pictures Classic; Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

While other awards hopefuls have been streaming for months, Sony Pictures Classics is betting its two films can still get plenty of attention with their eleventh-hour bids.

It seems as if the year's extended awards season has been going on forever. But for Sony Pictures Classics' entries — including The Father, starring Anthony Hopkins, and French Exit, showcasing Michelle Pfeiffer — the quest is just beginning in earnest. The question is whether making such a late bid amid this season's prolonged marathon can prove a winning strategy or if it puts the films at a disadvantage when so many others are already widely available.

After all, some of the most prominent contenders have been on streamers for months, viewable with just a click of the remote: Da 5 Bloods surfaced on Netflix way back in June, with the service then offering The Trial of the Chicago 7 in October and Mank in December. Rival Amazon served up Sound of Metal in December and One Night in Miami in January.

With many theaters across the nation still closed, specialty film distributors like Focus Features have supplemented limited theater bookings with premium VOD, where its Promising Young Woman has been playing since Jan. 15, while Feb. 19, the Disney-owned Searchlight ushered its Nomadland onto Hulu, part of the Disney empire, after limited showings on Imax screens.

Meanwhile, SPC, whose co-presidents, Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, have long cultivated slow and careful theatrical rollouts for their films, has kept its powder dry. They originally planned to open The Father, which they acquired just before its Sundance debut in January 2020, on Dec. 18. But when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it was pushing the entire Oscar calendar by two months — instead of Dec. 31, its qualifying deadline would be Feb. 28, while the awards ceremony itself moved from Feb. 28 to April 25 — they scrubbed that plan. Essentially they decided to treat this January and February as if they were the November and December of a more traditional Oscar year, shifting the release profiles of their 2020 hopefuls into 2021.

Similar late-in-the-season openings have worked for SPC in the past: In 2017, SPC introduced Call Me by Your Name toward the end of November before going wide in January and scored four nominations and a best adapted screenplay win. In the case of 2014's Still Alice, which earned Julianne Moore a best actress Oscar for her portrayal of a woman struggling with dementia, SPC gave that film an Oscar-qualifying one-week run in December but didn't begin its actual theatrical engagement until mid-January.

The distributor is now betting that it can adapt the same last-to-the-party strategy for its current contenders, and that even if other movies have been more visible for months, theirs will step forth as fresh alternatives.

The Father, in which first-time director Florian Zeller guides Hopkins through a maze of dementia-induced confusion, began a limited Oscar-qualifying run Feb. 26 (in L.A., where theaters are closed, it played at the Vineland Drive-In) and will go wide March 15. As luck would have it, that gambit is benefiting from the fact that New York City intends to reopen theaters March 5 at 25 percent capacity. That has allowed SPC to book The Father on an estimated 800-plus screens nationwide. And while SPC normally doesn't offer its films on VOD until 90 days after their theatrical release, it plans to make The Father (booked in theaters through May) available on premium VOD as a $19.99 rental on March 26 — a first for the distributor.

SPC's other entries will follow suit. Azazel Jacobs' French Exit, which finds Pfeiffer playing a suddenly impecunious grand dame who flees to Paris to contemplate her life, had a limited debut Feb. 12 and will break nationwide April 2. The Oscar-shortlisted documentary The Truffle Hunters, about scavengers who search out the precious delicacy in the woods of Piedmont, Italy, is scheduled for March 5, and the shortlisted short film The Human Voice, Pedro Almodóvar's adaptation of the Jean Cocteau play starring Tilda Swinton, is set for March 12.

The Father got a boost at the Golden Globes, where it received four noms, including best picture, though Hopkins and co-star Olivia Colman were overshadowed by the winners in their respective categories, Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) and Jodie Foster (The Mauritanian). Pfeiffer was nominated for French Exit but lost out to I Care for You's Rosamund Pike.

But while the two films are only now getting mainstream play, SPC hasn't exactly been hiding them under a bushel, either. The films are on the Academy's Screening Room site. Screeners and links have been sent to voters in other awards groups. And to establish their awards potential, The Father played virtual film festivals from Toronto to the Hamptons, while French Exit was prominently featured at the New York Film Festival. Hopkins and Colman also have scored SAG and Critics Choice noms.

SPC's movies may be only now making a bid for the attention that other competitors have been enjoying for months, but, says Barker, "Tom and I are both confident that Academy members will see the films."

This story first appeared in the March 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.