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Oscar Buzz Begins With Studios Showing Off Awards Possibilities At CinemaCon

Deadline logo Deadline 3/31/2017 Pete Hammond
© Provided by Deadline

If, as Deadline reported exclusively yesterday, it’s not too early to name next year’s Oscar show producers (Mike De Luca and Jennifer Todd will return, with Jimmy Kimmel eyed to host again), then it’s not too early to speculate on just who might be nominated. I am talking specifically about what I see as awards and Oscar possibilities coming out of the week I just spent at CinemaCon in Las Vegas, where eight studios showed off their product reels to the theatrical exhibition community. Granted, most of the movies on view here fall into more of a commercial category than necessarily award-sy (don’t look for The Fate of the Furious at the Oscars unless they establish a stunts category) but, just one month after the infamous 2017 Oscar show, I say let’s get the ball rolling with what looks promising out of CinemaCon and all those studio presentations Deadline exhaustively covered.

Starting with 20th Century Fox — the studio that displayed the most showmanship by far with a song-and-dance show bookending star appearances and clips — Hugh Jackman starring in the big, brassy original musical on the life of P.T. Barnum called The Greatest Showman would seem to have enormous potential both above and below the line, at least based on the snappy, impressive footage shown. With songs by the Oscar-winning La La Land team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who also are strong Tony possibilities for Dear Evan Hansen, this looks like the kind of movie that easily could rack up several nominations including lead actor for Jackman, whose most recent nom was for another musical, Les Miserables. Or perhaps a supporting player such as Keala Settle, who plays the Bearded Lady in the film. The Broadway stalwart, most recently in Waitress,has her first big movie role and gets to deliver what I hear is a Jennifer Hudson-like Dreamgirls moment. In introducing the clips for the Christmas Day release, Jackman was raving about her.

Also from Fox throw in the highly dramatic survival film The Mountain Between Us, which stars award magnets Kate Winslet and Idris Elba, is based on a best seller and is set for an October 20 release. Peter Chernin and Jenno Topping, who produced this year’s Fox 2000 Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures, are back with this one. And then there is director-star Kenneth Branagh’s all-star take on Agatha  Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which has a cast including Dame Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and many more. Back in 1974, Sidney Lumet rode the Orient Express to six Oscar noms and a Supporting win for Ingrid Bergman. It has the awards-friendly date of November 22.

Not only was the Fox show fun, the slate had real variety — and it all came in under 90 minutes. This is the way it should be done. Also impressive, particularly because no one trumpeted the fact, is that it was shepherded on stage by 20th’s powerhouse all-female executive team led by Chairman Stacey Snider, Co-Chairman Emma Watts, Fox 2000 President Elizabeth Gabler and Fox Animation President Vanessa Morrison. The times they are a-changin’. Nice. Not to be left out, of course, is Fox Distribution President Chris Aronson, who did his usual splashy opening and got the supremo event off to a great start.

Another clear Oscar possibility came from Tuesday’s Paramount slot, where 10 minutes of Alexander Payne’s Downsizing was shown. The very smart -looking and pertinent comedy is about a couple (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) trying to survive financially and live a decent life who decide to literally “downsize” by having surgery that miniaturizes them. A brilliantly absurb premise with an Academy favorite as director would seem to be a slam dunk for consideration, along with its December 22 release date. I hear it also has a nice role for two-time Supporting winner Christoph Waltz. George Clooney’s long-gestating filmization of an older Coen brothers script, Suburbicon, might be a longer shot due to its Coen-style quirkiness but still has to be one to watch. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of these or maybe both head to Cannes if their directors deem they are ready. Annihilation, from Ex-Machina director Alex Garland, is another one to watch closely based on the sensational footage of the thriller starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac.

Universal devoted all of its four-hour (!) slot on Wednesday morning to summer popcorn fare, but its specialty division Focus Features celebrated its 15th anniversary directly after at a massive lunch in which clear Oscar bait was previewed including Gary Oldman almost unrecognizable (always a plus with the Academy) as Winston Churchill in November’s Darkest Hour from director Joe Wright. If the movie lives up to the promise of this performance, it will be formidable and land Oldman his second Best Actor nomination. A gushing host interviewing Oldman onstage suggested exactly that, but the veteran star brushed it off. The combination of Stephen Frears and Judi Dench (again) looks irresistable in the period drama Victoria and Abdul, in which Dench could land more awards talk for again playing a British queen.

As for Warner Bros’ no-nonsense presentation, there wasn’t much on the 2017 slate to suggest obvious Oscar fodder with the distinct exception of Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic Dunkirk. Some stunning footage introduced by the director elicited strong buzz in Vegas. Warners also shares distribution duties with Sony (for international) on Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which could score some attention, especially since Villeneuve is just coming off the Oscar-nominated Arrival breaking the sci-fi curse at the Oscars. Sony also made a big deal of the film at its opening Monday presentation, even bringing out star Ryan Gosling. We’ll see if it can break through in October, but it got a very big play at CinemaCon from two studios.

Disney’s brief rundown preceding its screening of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales was mostly about how much money the studio makes, but obviously their its entries will command attention. The presentation was not about creating Oscar buzz, as it already haa Beauty and the Beast likely to score some technical noms at the very least. STX’s Molly’s Game, starring Jessica Chastain as the notorious poker madam and representing Oscar winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s directing debut, looked very good in early footage shown and at the very least should put its star in contention when it opens in the fall. It was well received.

Finally, upstart Amazon came to CinemaCon for the second year in a row, hosting Thursday’s lunch and showing off real awards potential with Kumail Nanjiani’s Sundance hit, The Big Sick (June) and a hilarious riff by the star and his wife Emily V. Gordon talking about this true-life movie version of their own courtship. Mideast-set war drama The Wall, a May 12 release through Roadside, promises a tour de force turn from Aaron Taylor Johnson that could connect with voters for the Nocturnal Animals Golden Globe winner if the movie gets any traction. Ben Stiller’s performance in the currently shooting Mike White film Brad’s Status was touted by Marketing and Distribution head Bob Berney, and the footage shown confirmed the promise. Early footage from Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying with Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne was extremely well received, but it is too early to see if the Boyhood director has another Oscar contender with this fall entry.

Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams are seen to good advantage in Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, another title definitely heading to Cannes (we know these things even if Amazon is coy about it). There’s so much Oscar cred in this one, and Haynes is coming off six nominations for 2015’s Carol. It looked really strong. Amazon has lots of possibilities, but at this early date it is hard to tell on some of the others until we see the goods.

That is probably true of all of what we saw in Vegas this week, but isn’t fun to speculate? Giving us an early peek at some Oscar fodder, CinemaCon proved it is not only about money (well, mostly), even if I hear the words “billion” and “record breaking” again, it will be too soon.

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