Many think the road to the Oscars begins in Toronto, and officially they’re right. However, when a studio presents an exclusive screening of their latest film to Academy members it sends a pretty clear message. Dunkirk has been praised magnanimously by critics, but it was in London earlier this week where it’s campaign really started.
Warner Bros. have invested a lot of resource into Christopher Nolan’s latest project – a drama retelling the historic Battle of Dunkirk where 300,000 soldiers were rescued from French shores during World War II. They have succeeded in building tremendous hype, which is translating well at the box office, but revenue is not proportionate to awards. In fact, such an early release suggested Warner were not planning a BP run this year.
Maybe this is still the case and if you’re yet to see Dunkirk you may assume it to be a natural contender to sweep the technical awards, much like Nolan’s Inception did with a bonus BP nod on the side. Those who have seen the film will know this is not a completely conventional Christopher Nolan film; the visuals are striking but not explosive, the narrative is considered but not overtly dramatic nor action-packed. If any of his films were likely to crack the major awards and actually potentially win Best Picture, it’s Dunkirk. Though nominations across the technical and design categories are likely, it’s greatest chance of success comes in the majors.
It is of course far too early in the year to make any concrete predictions, but herein lies Warner Bros.’ biggest dilemma, which poses the questions:
- Can it sustain hype through to next March, and
- Does an academy screening in July really make any difference?
Typically any film that stands a solid chance of winning Best Picture from the Academy is released in the last quarter of the year. It creates a natural platform on which to promote the movie precisely around the same time the ballots are cast. The formula has been tried and tested for many years, and though critics are quick to point out Silence of the Lambs it is anomalous.
That’s not to say a film released earlier in the year cannot win Best Picture if it’s good enough. In fact a nomination would not be out of the question, particularly considering the rise in critical acclaim for blockbusters – typical summer and holiday releases. With Dunkirk Nolan has straddled the fine line between the universal appeal of ‘event cinema’ with the delicacy of a critically acclaimed drama. However, in order to sustain momentum for the next 8 months it needs to immediately propel itself into the festival and awards circuit with some big results.
The biggest launch pads of the year to gauge potential awards prospects are Cannes and Toronto. The former is perfect for smaller, independent and foreign language contenders, while the latter is the Iowa equivalent of the film award circuit – a great showing here puts you front and center in the Oscar race.
Unfortunately for Dunkirk it features in neither festival, so regardless of the hype and the box office success it celebrates now, Warner Bros. appear to have shown little confidence in the movie’s major Oscar chances. But ultimately if the few thousands voters adore a film, it makes no difference what the millions of fans and critics think.
Maybe then, this week’s Academy screening is a tactical move. It seems strange for such an early showing of a film that should be lobbying hard towards the end of the year, but it gets people talking early when there’s little else to consider.
The event at Leicester Square on Tuesday evening was wrought with anticipation. There was a palpable buzz around the venue, which itself had a distinctly classic old-theatre feel and an unfortunate lack of air-con. These kind of screenings will naturally have the audience on the studio’s side – for some no doubt it was the work of their friends, family or colleagues. The downside it it takes something truly diabolical to illicit any boos from such a fraternal crowd, but the upside is a more emotional, more disarmed reaction.
Applause was an expected, almost conditional reaction as the closing credits rolled, punctuated by a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. No clearly audible cheering as one would expect from a crowd determined to collectively demonstrate Dunkirk‘s ballot-worthiness. In fact the reaction was one not of awe but satisfaction.
This was not the reaction to be expected, or required, from a July release that has any hope of sustaining popularity throughout the year, against the buzz of the big winter contenders.
It must be acknowledged that Warner Bros know what they’re doing. They managed to campaign Suicide Squad all the way to an Oscar – an achievement not to be sniffed at. This initial screening lacked star presence and any discernible sense of lobbying, but the very act of screening to Academy members was itself a declaration of intent. Despite such a seemingly unorthodox start to its campaign, and a surprisingly stoic response at the screening, Christopher Nolan will still be seen by many as a top contender this season.