Picture this: you have what looks like a sure fire prestige picture sitting in your hands. Whether you instigated a bidding war on the festival scene, have partnered with a streaming giant to strike a blow for freedom against the Hollywood machine, or just have the right cocktail of talent and material, you have a movie that’s attracted some serious Oscar buzz before even showing a frame.
And then, it happens. That first screening ends, and instead of the adoring glow of your crowd, you’re met with something much more troubling: a short, but distinct fall to the bottom floor. It’s happened to greater movies and people before, and there’s always a movie or two every awards season that sees its Oscar buzz fizzle out.
We may have seen the first example of such buzzkilling this year, with Warner Bros releasing The Goldfinch to disappointing reviews, and an even worse opening weekend, this past week. And before the next golden bomb falls in 2019, we’d like to take the time to manage the movie world’s expectations by going through the following titles that also initially looked like surefire Oscar hits, but ultimately missed.
After obsessing over this passion project for roughly two decades, director Martin Scorsese finally got to make Silence, his adaptation of the novel by author Shusaku Endo’s epic story of missionaries searching for their mentor in 17th century Japan. While it had a promising start with critics, the box office on the Andrew Garfield/Adam Driver-starring film cratered quick and hard. Even worse, the prevailing sentiment that the lengthy film was more boring than golden may have poisoned the well to a certain extent, leaving the time tested Scorsese with a film that couldn’t be saved by divine intervention.
The Birth Of A Nation
Remember all of that talk about bidding wars earlier? That wasn’t a joke, as writer/director Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation was sold for a then record $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight. The sale of the slavery drama depicting the Nat Turner Rebellion was on the heels of a lot of praise that the film had garnered in its big debut at one of the first festivals that set the tone for the moviegoing year. But by time the film went to theaters, personal drama in Parker’s life, as well as a general sour response to the film itself, saw this title going from an early front runner to obscurity.
The Front Runner
Speaking of a front runner, director Jason Reitman’s film with that very name had what felt like a can’t miss checklist of awards season bait. The film’s timely story of how political discourse in the media changed during the Gary Hart campaign of 1987 had Hugh Jackman, J.K. Simmons and Vera Farmiga at the head of an equally talented supporting cast. But even with everything the film had going for it, all the film could muster was $3 million at the box office, middling reviews and a lost opportunity for Oscar gold.
Philippe Petit’s story about crossing a tightrope between the Twin Towers was no stranger to awards consideration, as the 2008 documentary Man on Wire that covered his great feat actually won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. So you’d think that director Robert Zemeckis would have his work cut out with The Walk, as casting Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the cinematic Petit and putting a unique 3D spin on the film would bring a new angle to a story that the Academy already proved they loved. The film didn’t even crack their radar, performing so badly with the Oscars that it couldn’t even get a single technical nomination to its name.
Peter Berg has a knack for picking timely dramas that showcase the heroism of everyone from the American armed forces to oil drillers caught up in environmental disaster. Patriots Day played to Berg’s strengths, as well as that of his frequent collaborator, Mark Wahlberg, as it took the Boston Marathon bombings and told the story of the ensuing investigation with the same keen eye for detail and respect for law enforcement that he’s always had. Some think it may have been too soon to tell that particular story, while others may not have been fans of the Peter Berg formula. In either case, neither this film, or its 2017 successor Stronger, could turn the story of triumph in Boston’s darkest hour into awards gold.
Maybe it’s a fool’s errand to think that any particular talent in Hollywood could earn a repeat nomination easily. But after Michael Keaton first showed up in the trailers for The Founder, showing the world that he was just getting warmed up with Birdman in 2014, it felt like his moment was coming. Even better, the John Lee Hancock-directed film looked like a barn burner of socially conscious drama, with performances from Laura Dern, John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman seeming to seal the deal on several key fronts. Boy, was that order ever wrong, as not even a token nomination for Keaton could be secured.
Live By Night
Ben Affleck was riding so damned high after Argo won a handful of Oscars in 2013, including the top honor of Best Picture. The man was granted a blank check, and he was minted as Academy Award royalty, so the sky was the limit for what he could do next. For a moment, Live By Night looked like it was going to be the movie that would send him back into the golden spotlight, as he’d already spun author Dennis Lehane’s material into his impressive directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. This ‘20s gangster epic not only found itself released as a huge, financial dud, it was unveiled when the awards conversation of the year was already dominated by movies like La La Land and Moonlight.
Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Here’s a Pro Tip if you’re hoping to put a film into the running for an Academy Award: the latest point you should consider releasing it into the world is at the Toronto International Film Festival. If you can’t make it there, good luck making it anywhere. Just ask writer/director Dan Gilroy, who brought what looked like another Denzel Washington fueled Oscar hit known as Roman J. Israel, Esq. to the festival in 2017, and couldn’t pick up a nomination outside of one for his lead actor’s performance. And even at that point, it felt like the nod was driven more by the power of Washington himself, and less from the film, which was pretty much panned on its arrival into theaters.
Another example of timely subject matter not exactly setting the public on fire is Joel Edgerton’s film based on the real life struggles of Garrard Conley’s experience in gay conversion therapy, Boy Erased. A film that seemed to come along at the right moment, Edgerton’s emotional drama failed to secure even a nomination for its much buzzed about lead performance by Lucas Hedges, with his script and direction also evading Oscar’s attention. Though the film did win an award that hits home when considering the subject matter, as it scored the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Film – Limited Release.
We end this tale of awards season hopefuls gone sour with a movie that should have hit better than it did. In a cultural moment that saw narratives of female empowerment starting to take greater prominence, Widows had the likes of Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, and Cynthia Erivo kicking ass and scoring a ton of cash in director Steve McQueen’s follow-up to his Best Picture winning work on 12 Years A Slave. Outside of critic’s associations lauding the film with buzz and praise, neither the Golden Globes nor the Oscars could be swayed in favor of this crime caper’s cause.
You can have a movie that performs like a charm or totally bombs at the box office, and you can show up to every festival in the book with the best charm offensive known to humanity. But if the buzz doesn’t survive those initial screenings, you can’t get it back; no matter what some people might say.
Let this list be a lesson to you Oscar hopefuls casual observers who think you’ve got your office pool locked after the trailers start rolling in for those movies that look like sure fire Oscar bait. Nothing is certain until the nominations are announced, and the envelopes are opened on air. And even then, you might be in for a few surprises.