The stranglehold that autumn prestige films have on Oscar season just might be wilting in the summer sun.
Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic Dunkirk hits theaters Friday, but the overflowing reviews have made it abundantly clear: It’s a major Oscar contender and a best-picture front-runner, even in July.
And Dunkirk, which analysts expect to debut this weekend with $60 million-plus in domestic ticket sales, might not be the only box-office hit to crash this year’s awards season. The zeitgeist-grabbing sensations Get Out and Wonder Woman could also be players come Academy Awards time.
Handicapping the Oscars
It is, of course, exceptionally early to handicap the Oscars. And it’s far from uncommon for early breakouts to recede once the fall film festivals start firing out heavily anticipated releases from Hollywood’s most acclaimed directors. Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson and Alexander Payne are just some of those waiting in the wings this year.
But any influx from the rest of the calendar year would be a welcome change of pace for an awards season that has in recent years only further solidified as a predominantly September-December affair. Last year, August’s Hell or High Water was the earliest best-picture nominee.
Aside from spreading out what are potentially some of the year’s best movies, any awards love for the likes of Dunkirk, Get Out or Wonder Woman would give the Oscars something it has often lacked in recent years: major release crowd-pleasers.
“It’s not really a factor for us, the awards thing,” says Emma Thomas, producer of Dunkirk. “This film we primarily thought of as an entertainment. For us, we make films for audiences. My feeling is always: If your film works and people engage with it, anything that comes later is a huge bonus.”
Summer movie spectacle
Dunkirk may bear the look and seriousness of an Oscar season film, right down to the wool coats. But shot in 70mm IMAX, it also has much of the visceral spectacle of a summer movie. Thomas and Nolan have also previously had success July. It’s when they released Inception (which earned eight Oscar nods and won four awards) and The Dark Knight. The Oscar oversight of the latter, released in 2008, was seen as a major motivation for the expansion of the best-picture category the next year from five nominees to up to 10.
“We’ve had very good luck in July in the past and we like this date. It’s an accessible movie,” said Thomas. “When you put movies at the end of the year, you’re sort of saying something about it. You’re almost limiting it, in a way, and we don’t want to limit the film.”
The Oscars haven’t been without crowd-pleasers. La La Land made more than $440 million globally. Hidden Figures charmed North American audiences to $230 million. The year before, the May-released Mad Max: Fury Road crashed the Academy Awards with 10 nominations and six wins.
Dunkirk may be a similar force in craft categories. Its ensemble nature may leave less room for acting attention, though recent Oscar-winner Mark Rylance is a standout. More notably, Nolan seems likely to finally land his, some would say overdue, first directing nomination. He has already earned the praise of fellow filmmakers like Rian Johnson (who called the film “an all timer”) and Jon Favreau ("believe the hype”).
Other summer movies might also shake up the Oscars. The acclaimed romantic comedy The Big Sick has the backing of Amazon, which last year similarly acquired Manchester by the Sea at Sundance and made it an Oscar heavyweight. The War for the Planet of the Apes even has some buzz, including pleas for considering Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance as the ape Caesar. Such an honor, while unlikely, would be a game-changer in an increasingly digitized movie world.
Jordan Peele’s horror sensation Get Out ($252 million worldwide after opening in late February) could well be the first horror film nominated for best picture since 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs” At the least, Peele should be a likely nominee for best screenplay.
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman has been an even bigger box-office dynamo and earned nearly as good reviews as Get Out. Whereas Peele’s film was received as landmark film for its fusion of genre with a satirical critique of race in America, Wonder Woman set a new record for top-grossing film by a female director. Jenkins and star Gal Gadot could well be in the hunt. The unlikely awards run last season of Deadpool suggested voters may be open to awarding a superhero film.
A campaign for Jenkins, who helmed the Oscar-winning Monster, would be closely watched because only four women have ever been nominated for best director. Kathryn Bigelow, the sole winner of the four, also has a film upcoming: her ambitious Detroit riots drama Detroit, out Aug. 4.
Usually, a highly relevant, socially conscious film from one of Hollywood’s most celebrated filmmakers would be plunged right into awards season. But the calculus was different for Detroit, which was deliberately timed to the 50th anniversary of the riots. And she, like many others, doesn’t love the increased emphasis on Oscar season.
“It’s not why we make these films,” Bigelow said.
“The motivation behind the release has to do with the 50-year anniversary,” she said. “I think it’s important to honor that and the resiliency of the city of Detroit. Whatever happens along any other lines, I have no idea.”
Bigelow knows from experience. Her The Hurt Locker was a June release but went on to best Avatar at the Oscars. “To say that it was even a remote thought would be in inaccurate,” she said, laughing.