The Importance of Being Venice: Here’s Why Awards Campaigns Start on the Lido

The Venice Film Festival is the starting pistol of the awards season, but that’s only been the case for the past five years or so. The Lido will unveil the first looks at technical juggernauts like “Dune,” from Warner Bros., and emotional period dramas like “The Power of the Dog,” from Netflix. Venice could unleash all the momentum for the upcoming awards season, sure to be dense — and long again — with an Academy ceremony dated March 27.

In the last 20 years, the Golden Lion, the festival’s highest honor, has matched the Oscars’ choice for best picture only two times: “The Shape of Water” and “Nomadland.”

But Venice has produced a cache of films that have garnered best pic nominations (“Spotlight,” which won the Oscar, “Arrival” and “La La Land” in 2016, “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” in 2017, “The Favourite” and “Roma” in 2018 and “Joker” and “Marriage Story” in 2019). Moreover, since the best picture lineup was expanded to 10 nominees in 2009, “Birdman” (2015) took home a best pic Oscar, while “Gravity” (although it played out of competition) and “Philomena” in 2013 landed noms. Best picture winner “The Hurt Locker” played Venice in 2008.

So why is Venice a great place to kick off an awards campaign?

Their crop of in-competition selections has changed greatly from the heavily European and independent circuit to an allowance of more audience-friendly movies. Moreover, as the Academy has diversified its membership and studios become increasingly aware of it, they are pushing for some of their non-traditional awards contenders to make their debut at the Lido.

This year, under the leadership of Oscar-winning jury president Bong Joon Ho and six other acclaimed actors, screenwriters and filmmakers, 21 films will vie for their affections. This invaluable outset will undoubtedly set the tone for the upcoming season.

Netflix will have a hefty presence with three movies. Seemingly their most prominent candidate looks to be Academy Award winner Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” with Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst. Already showing signs of confidence with the feature, so far, it’s the only film playing all four major fall festivals, including Telluride, Toronto and New York. Campion became the second woman ever to be nominated for directing for 1993’s “The Piano.” “Power” marks her first feature since 2009’s “Bright Star.” Campion will share the Netflix spotlight with Italian director Paolo Sorrentino for “The Hand of God” and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who’s making her directorial debut with “The Lost Daughter.”

Sony Pictures Classics feels confident with writer and director Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers,” starring Penélope Cruz, splitting time with her other Spanish film, “Official Competition” from Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is still seeking U.S. distribution. Almodóvar has won the international feature Oscar for Spain with 1999’s “All About My Mother” and picked up three other noms for the country.

Venice is not just about best picture from the studio perspective. A contender also needs the love of the actor’s branch, the largest branch of the Academy. That’s where the Volpi Cup awards for best actor and best actress come into play.

For women, three past Volpi honorees have translated to Oscar wins in the last 20 years: Helen Mirren (“The Queen”), Emma Stone (“La La Land”) and Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”), with four others becoming eventual nominees between lead and supporting categories, most recently with last year’s winner Vanessa Kirby for “Pieces of a Woman.”

Early word is promising for Kristen Stewart’s work as Princess Diana in Neon’s “Spencer” from Pablo Larraín. After winning the Cesar Award for “Clouds of Sils Maria,” she obviously appeals to European cinematic sensibilities. However, we’ve seen biopics about the famed Princess of Wales go by the wayside with films like “Diana.” Hopefully, this won’t follow suit. Colman could be in the conversation again for “The Lost Daughter.” Only three women have won the Volpi twice – Valeria Golino, Isabelle Huppert and Shirley MacLaine.

Knowing that “Joker” premiered at Venice, and won an Oscar for Joaquin Phoenix, has given hope to horror fanatics everywhere. Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis will receive the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement just as the next entry in the Michael Myers slasher series, “Halloween Kills” premieres. Despite being criminally overdue for awards love, it’s doubtful Curtis will be able to break through.

In the aughts, the men’s translation to Oscar success via Venice is surprisingly less connected. Only two winners in the history of Venice, Frederic March for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in 1932 and Paul Muni for “The Story of Louis Pasteur” in 1936, have won the Oscar for best actor. For nominees, in the last decade, only Willem Dafoe for “At Eternity’s Gate” in 2018 and ex-aequo winners Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix for “The Master” in 2012 have translated to AMPAS noms.

This could bode well for someone like Oscar Isaac from Focus Features’ “The Card Counter” or Tim Blake Nelson from “Old Henry,” which is still looking for U.S. distribution. Chances are Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power of the Dog”) or Toni Servillo (“The Hand of Dog”) could be eyeing that spot.

Venice isn’t always about what’s “in” but also what’s “out of competition.” After a long pandemic delay, Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” is finally getting its first set of eyes on it. Other former technical marvels like 2013’s “Gravity” bowed at Venice, and ended up with seven Oscars, including best director. “Dune” could mirror that trajectory.

Other notables include 20th Century Studios’ “The Last Duel” from Ridley Scott, Focus Features’ “Last Night in Soho” from Edgar Wright and “Old Henry.”

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