Long before pundits speculated about the Oscar odds for “Joker,” the first person to predict that Todd Phillips’ dark supervillain origin story would become a serious awards player was across the globe in Europe. Discussing the upcoming competition for the Venice International Film Festival, artistic director Alberto Barbera didn’t mince words: “This one’s going straight to the Oscars,” he said.
That was an understatement: “Joker” wound up with 11 nominations, more than anything else in contention this year. The decision by Warner Bros. To launch the movie at a revered overseas festival, in a prime competition slot where it wound up winning the prestigious Golden Lion, paid off by immediately establishing the future blockbuster as more than comic-book escapism.
Some cinephiles scoffed at the idea of festivals as a marketing launchpad for Hollywood product, but this is exactly the sort of outcome that helps elevate festivals and allows the rest of their programming to stand a shot at discovery amid the hype.
The “Joker” outcome also speaks to an evolution in Venice’s ability to elevate highly anticipated fall studio titles early in the season. While previous Warner Bros. Productions “Gravity” and “A Star Is Born” launched out of competition, “Joker” was the first entry to compete with other international cinema titles and win the top prize. That integration — ultimately, the decision of a programming team — was a key factor in its success. While was a boon to Venice’s prestige value, it’s also a microcosm of the imprimatur that festivals can bring to their selections as a whole.
“Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho’s dark and inquisitive story of class warfare started its awards buzz last May, when it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes — a first for a Korean director, just as Bong made history as the first Korean Oscar nominee in several categories. Palme d’Or winners have made it into the Best Picture race before, and in recent history (“The Tree of Life,” “Amour”) but never with such prominence across so many categories. Two other Cannes competition titles made it into the Best International Feature category alongside “Parasite” — France’s “Les Miserables” and Spain’s “Pain and Glory,” which also found star Antonio Banderas scoring his first-ever Best Actor nomination. Another nominee in that category, “Corpus Christi,” launched at Venice with “Joker.”
Netflix’s nominees benefited greatly from the festival approach this season: There’s heavy-hitter “The Irishman,” which kicked off the New York Film Festival, and “Marriage Story,” which — like “Roma” last year — played at all four major fall festivals.
Sundance didn’t do too shabby, either: The festival spent the last several years working to attract higher-caliber films to its international feature programming, where “Honeyland” premiered last January and won the World Cinema Documentary Competition. Like “Parasite,” the Macedonian portrait of a woman living on the margins of society made history with its nominations — it’s the first movie to garner nominations for both Best Documentary and International Feature. Sundance also launched documentary nominees “American Factory” and “The Edge of Democracy,” while the two Syrian documentaries rounding at the category launched at very different moments of the year: “For Sama” premiered at SXSW, where it won the top prize, and “The Cave” opened TIFF’s documentary section.