The Near Future of Awards Season is Female

How Woman-directed and driven films might fare this year.
Novitiate Sundance
By  · Published on August 24th, 2017

How Woman-directed and driven films might fare this year.

When prominent awards prognosticators started revealing their updated Oscar predictions after Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York Film Festivals came to a close in October of last year, one thing did not go unnoticed: women directors were largely missing from the picture. Reactions predictably grew to this long-standing trend of the Academy Awards machine, but the anger was mostly (and unfairly) directed at the symptom. Sure, it would have been warmly welcome if, for instance, Kelly Reichardt was broadly name-checked as a contender for her pitch-perfect Certain Women by journalists focusing on the Oscar season. But if we are being honest and realistic, those types of long shot, wishful acknowledgments would have hardly changed the overall state of affairs and influenced the end results.

By October 2016, lack of female filmmakers in the awards conversation was far from a surprise for anyone who had carefully surveyed the season and studio slates until then. In fact, many (myself included) offered up early awards previews long before that, signaling the impending problem within the industry before its reflection on the awards season became loud and clear. As pretty much unanimously predicted, no woman received a Best Director nomination last year. In (only slightly) better news, 3 of the 9 Best Picture nominees (La La Land, Hidden Figures, and Arrival) sported female-driven storylines. Among them, only La La Land nabbed a Best Actress nomination (for Emma Stone).

Here we are once again, looking ahead to a brand new season of fall film festivals with expectant eyes and hopeful hearts, wondering what will stick and what will fade away come the thick of the awards chatter in winter. Will female directors and female-driven films enjoy a more prominent place in the awards circles leading up to the Oscars, considering what we’ve already seen and what’s to come? So let’s gently feel the pulse of the season and do an early reality check at the top of the upcoming fall film festivals, starting with Venice and Telluride next week.

But please, take everything here with a grain of salt. What the below is: a rough survey of the landscape for woman-directed and/or driven films that might make an appearance throughout the awards season.

What the below isn’t: set-in-stone predictions.

Movies We Have Already Seen

The glory of a surprisingly great summer at the movies still lingers. Sure, we have been blessed with several stellar independent and studio offerings these past few months (Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, just to name a few.) But we also witnessed the power of female-driven storytelling. Starring Gal Gadot as the Amazonian Goddess Diana, Patty Jenkins’ critically-acclaimed audience hit Wonder Woman (Warner Bros) is now the “biggest non-sequel comic book/superhero movie of all time” and Indiewire’s Anne Thompson gently predicts a few nominations for it across the board, while even talking about the possibility of a Jenkins nod. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that Malcolm D. Lee’s sensational word-of-mouth hit Girls Trip (Universal Pictures) crossed $100 million at the US Box Office just days ago. It’s not strictly female-driven, but Michael Showalter’s smash hit The Big Sick (Amazon Studios) from co-writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon is worth mentioning here too. They might not be Box Office hits, but Kathryn Bigelow’s harrowing and intense Detroit (Annapurna) and Sofia Coppola’s elegantly crafted and star-studded (with Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Colin Farrell) civil war-era chamber piece The Beguiled (Focus Features) also claimed prominent spots in the framework of this summer, capturing the zeitgeist of gender and race-related tensions and dynamics. Add to these two World War II-era films—Niki Caro’s powerful The Zookeeper’s Wife (Focus Features) with Jessica Chastain, and Lone Scherfig’s charming Their Finest (STX Entertainment) with Gemma Arterton—, Disney’s Emma Watson-lead, earlier-in-the-year live-action giant Beauty and the Beast (which proudly sits at number one of 2017 US Box Office), Amanda Lipitz’ inspirational documentary Step (Fox Searchlight), and Aisling Walsh’s beautiful, Sally Hawkins-starring Nova Scotia tale Maudie (Sony Pictures Classics), there is already a decent crop of female-directed and/or driven films in our hands.

But don’t get too excited too quickly. Sure, a few of these titles might claim stakes to varying degrees throughout the awards season (in both below and above the line categories.) But can any of the aforementioned female directors make the cut? Will the films themselves be in the running for Best Picture? For my money, they currently feel like long, slim shots at best (though I wouldn’t write off Coppola, or even Jenkins, despite the Academy’s poor track record with superhero films.) But time will tell how these films will evolve and age in the upcoming months against some of the big guns waiting to drop across several fall film festivals and beyond. The competition will be fierce. So for now, let’s just cautiously earmark them.

Upcoming Movies (Festivals and Beyond)

Dee Rees’ stunning Sundance darling Mudbound (Netflix), a harrowing, gorgeous and novelistic adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel, is expected to make waves at Toronto (TIFF) and NYFF, before it hits both theaters and online in November. The film’s timely and timeless depiction of race relations and racism in the US is bound to resonate with both audiences and The Academy. Also from the streaming giant comes First They Killed my Father, Angelina Jolie’s biopic on Cambodian human rights activist Loung Ung, scheduled to screen at TIFF in September (and reading between the lines of its premiere status, at Telluride as well before it heads to Canada and opens in September.)

Last year’s Best Picture-winning studio A24 will travel to TIFF with Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird (starring Saoirse Ronan) before it screens at NYFF and opens in November. This is yet another title that is bound to have its initial screening at Telluride, considering its International Premiere status (as opposed to a World Premiere) at TIFF. Co-directed by JR and the legendary Agnès Varda, the moving road-trip documentary Faces Places (Cohen Media Group) is getting ready to steal the hearts of TIFF and NYFF audiences (and OK, Telluride too) after enchanting its viewers at Cannes. Who knows, perhaps veteran Agnès Varda will finally score that Oscar nomination. Based on the true story of the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs and directed by the Little Miss Sunshine duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Battle of the Sexes (Fox Searchlight) is TIFF bound, with a pretty obvious stopover in Telluride first. Among the smaller female-directed fare, two Sony Pictures Classics films stand out. Maggie Betts’ commanding religious drama Novitiate (with exceptional performances from Melissa Leo and Margaret Qualley) will continue its post-Sundance journey at TIFF before it opens in October. Chloé Zhao’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight winner The Rider is also looking like a Telluride shoo-in before it screens for NYFF audiences in October.

Among the rich offerings of female-driven fare, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (Paramount), starring Jennifer Lawrence and slated for Venice and TIFF before it opens mid-September, makes an immediate impression with its intriguing dark trailer and Rosemary’s Baby-like advertising. In Bruges director, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Fox Searchlight) stars Frances McDormand as the mother of a murder victim who single-handedly takes on her town’s police department, and is programmed within the TIFF lineup. Guillermo del Toro’s highly anticipated The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight) follows the fairy-tale-like adventures of two women (Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer) in Cold War era USA and is scheduled to open in December after it makes a tough journey through Venice, Telluride (even its IMDb page says so) and TIFF.

It might be a slight stretch to call Sean Baker’s breathtakingly humanistic drama The Florida Project (A24) strictly female-driven (given Willem Dafoe’s undeniable weight in the story). But this awards-bound Cannes jaw-dropper (continuing on to TIFF and NYFF next) is mostly told through the eyes of its young star Brooklynn Prince (who plays the innocent Moonee living on the verge of extreme poverty), so why not include it here? Starring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and charting her unlikely friendship with a young Indian clerk, Stephen Frears’ Venice and TIFF-bound Victoria and Abdul (Focus Features) and Aaron Sorkin’s TIFF premiere Molly’s Game (STX Entertainment) starring Jessica Chastain as the entrepreneur who runs a highly exclusive underground poker game, are other female-driven films to keep an eye on. Predictably skipping the festival circuit entirely is Steven Spielberg’s The Papers (20th Century Fox), which stars Alison Brie, Tom Hanks, and Meryl Streep and follows America’s first female newspaper publisher and an editor battling the government.

And there we have it: a rough sketch for women getting ready to play the awards game. We won’t know anything until the season starts taking some real shape post-fall festivals. Put a pin on this for now and let’s check in again in October.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.