Do fall’s big film festivals still matter?

Actress Tilda Swinton holds a fanciful golden mask on the red carpet at the 77th Venice Film Festival.
Tilda Swinton on the red carpet for “The Human Voice” screening Wednesday at the 77th Venice Film Festival.
(Stephanie Cornfield / For The Times)

Bong Joon Ho’s twisty thriller “Parasite” premiered at Cannes last year, winning the Palme d’Or, before heading to the Telluride Film Festival and then Toronto, where the ticket line snaked around the Ryerson Theatre, the air thick with the smell of pot and the kind of heady anticipation that draws movie lovers to festivals.

Could “Parasite” have gone on to win the best picture Oscar without first building buzz on the festival circuit? What about “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’ delicate, introspective portrait of a young Black male at three stages in his life, which built word of mouth shuttling from Telluride to Toronto to New York?

In a mask, model Catherine Poulain steps off the boat at the Excelsior Hotel for the Venice International Film Festival.
Clad in a mask, model and social influencer Catherine Poulain steps off the boat at the dock to Excelsior Hotel, the premier venue for the 77th Venice International Film Festival.
(Stephanie Cornfield / For The Times)

Eight months from now, when (if?) the Oscars are presented at a ceremony that has been pushed back two months by the motion picture academy because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we might have the answers to those questions. The pandemic wiped out both Cannes and Telluride this year. The Venice festival is underway with temperature checks, physical distancing, designer face masks and a reduced lineup of mostly European films. Toronto’s fest begins Thursday, a mostly virtual event that includes 50 movies, down from the 333 programmed in 2019.

“With the festivals diminished, it’s going to be an odd Oscar year,” says veteran awards consultant Cynthia Swartz, whose firm, Strategy PR, worked on the 2019 campaigns for “Joker,” “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” and “Little Women.”

High-profile, star-driven pictures like those three titles will be absent from this year’s festivals, as studios monitor the performance of Christopher Nolan’s big-budget brain-teaser “Tenet,” which opened in the States on Friday after doing well overseas last weekend. If moviegoers return to cinemas to see Nolan’s long-awaited film and if theaters open soon in Los Angeles and New York and if the pandemic eases during winter, we could see awards contenders like Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story” and Denis Villeneuve’s take on “Dune” open by the end of the year.

Model Georgina Rodriguez on the red carpet at the Venice International Film Festival at the Venice Lido, Italy.
Model Georgina Rodriguez prepares for her close up on the red carpet for “The Human Voice” screening at the 77th Venice International Film Festival held at the Venice Lido, Italy.
(Stephanie Cornfield / For The Times)

“Right now, it’s ‘After “Tenet” opens, after “Tenet” opens,’ ” says a longtime Oscar campaigner. “Spielberg isn’t going to open unless theaters stay open and people decide it’s safe to attend.”

Christopher Nolan’s latest puzzle box of a movie, “Tenet,” has become of the most-anticipated releases in years, in part because of continual delays due to COVID-19.

That leaves space this year for more indie films (“It’s going to be an indie Oscars,” predicts one consultant) — a space that Searchlight Pictures has leaped into with Chloé Zhao’s drama “Nomadland,” which will premiere at Venice and play at Toronto and the New York Film Festival and screen at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 11 as a special Telluride From Los Angeles drive-in experience. The movie stars Frances McDormand as a woman traveling the country in a van, along with other casualties of the 2008 recession, looking for work.

Zhao has been holed up for the last month on the Disney lot, finishing post-production on both “Nomadland” and “The Eternals,” a Marvel Studios superhero movie slated for next year. The Beijing-born filmmaker has just two other movies on her résumé: indie efforts “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider,” the latter a 2018 western drama that won the National Society of Film Critics’ best picture prize. Because she’s unknown to most audiences, Searchlight decided to go big with “Nomadland,” putting it at the four fall festivals and slotting it at regional and international events in coming months.

“Chloé’s on the cusp,” says Searchlight’s executive vice president of marketing, Michelle Hooper, “and these festivals will be a good way to get her on the world’s collective radar.”

Frances McDormand in "Nomadland."
Frances McDormand in Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” which premieres Friday at the Venice Film Festival.
(Searchlight Pictures)

Conversely, everyone knows Regina King, who won an Oscar for Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” and this month might win her fourth Emmy, having been nominated for her lead turn on the HBO limited series “Watchmen.” But after several years directing episodic television, King is moving into new territory, bringing her feature directorial debut, “One Night in Miami,” to Venice and Toronto. It’s a fly-on-the-wall, fictional depiction of a real event — the night Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown met in a motel room after Clay (shortly before he took the name Muhammad Ali) beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title. Amazon Studios bought the movie in July.

“It’s very exciting and affirming,” King says by phone. The movie finished shooting in February, with King returning to film two final scenes in late spring, then push through post-production. “It’s set in 1964, but these men are talking about what it’s like to be Black in America right now.”

Ty Jones, left, Matt Jones and Kevin Daniels in "One Night in Miami."
Ty Jones, left, Matt Jones and Kevin Daniels in “One Night in Miami...”
(John Flynn)

Toronto will also premiere “Bruised,” Halle Berry’s directorial debut, a sports movie in which she plays an MMA fighter. Other titles include “Ammonite,” a period love story starring Oscar winner Kate Winslet and four-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan. “On the Rocks,” reuniting Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray 17 years after “Lost in Translation,” will premiere at the New York Film Festival.

Netflix, which released Spike Lee’s acclaimed drama “Da 5 Bloods” this year, will release movies directed by David Fincher (“Mank”), Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”), Ryan Murphy (“The Prom”), Ron Howard (“Hillbilly Elegy”) and George Clooney (“The Midnight Sky”), along with an adaptation of August Wilson’s play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. None of these titles will be playing at festivals, though, with Netflix Co-Chief Executive Ted Sarandos saying he didn’t want filmmakers to rush through post-production during a pandemic.

The Black community embraced Chadwick Boseman’s representation of heroes and culture from the ballfields of ‘42’ to the Wakanda of ‘Black Panther.’

The biggest beneficiaries of this year’s pared-down festivals might be movies looking for buyers. As Swartz notes, the delayed Oscar calendar gives studios and streamers an additional two months to pick up a film and get it up and running for awards season. “The Oscars are still eight months away,” she says. “That’s an eternity.”

Two promising titles are “Pieces of a Woman,” Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó’s first English-language feature, starring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf and Ellyn Burstyn, and “Concrete Cowboy,” a father-son drama set in north Philadelphia’s Black urban horsemanship community starring Idris Elba and “Stranger Things” cast member Caleb McLaughlin.

Idris Elba in Ricky Staub's "Concrete Cowboy"
(Toronto International Film Festival)

Endeavor Content is hosting a drive-in double feature for buyers at the Hotel Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles next week, screening “Concrete Cowboy” with the horror movie “Shadow in the Cloud” and the Naomi Watts drama “Penguin Bloom.” “Concrete Cowboy” will then premiere at Toronto, minus the red carpet, though the movie is just one of four titles to have a virtual news conference at the festival.

“All the normal things you dream about as a first-time filmmaker — walking a red carpet with your cast and crew, experiencing your movie with an audience — aren’t going to be there ... but also, I got to make a movie with Idris Elba,” says “Concrete Cowboy” director Ricky Staub. “These days, it’s all about choosing to be grateful.”

Security is present but the large crowds are not at the 77th Venice International Film Festival.
(Stephanie Cornfield/For The Times)

Mundruczó, reached by phone an hour after he arrived at Venice, expressed similar feelings of thankfulness. “Pieces of a Woman,” written by Mundruczó’s partner, Kata Wéber, showcases an extraordinary performance by Kirby, playing a character trying to heal from an immeasurable loss. Martin Scorsese signed on as an executive producer after seeing the film, saying: “You feel as if you’ve been dropped into the vortex of a family crisis and moral conflict with all its nuances, drawn out with care and compassion but without judgement.”
Mundruczó describes Venice right now as “melancholic,” the streets largely empty. “It feels like winter, even though it’s summer,” he says, noting the lack of crowds. He’s happy there will be an audience for his film, even at a reduced theater capacity. “I could not make a more honest movie, a more personal movie, a more emotional movie,” he says. “In a strange way, it speaks to our current times of COVID, asking how you can stay positive and move on when confronted with darkness.”

A lone member of the press works in the empty pressroom during the 77th Venice International Film Festival.
A lone member of the press works in the press room during the 77th Venice International Film Festival.
(Stephanie Cornfield/For The Times)

“The way this year has gone, it’s exciting to feel excited about something,” Staub says. He laughs. “I don’t know. You can see I’ve hashed out all my gratitude pieces these past few weeks. But I am optimistic that right now there may be a hunger for special movies like this.”