Initial reviews for "Chicago 7" have been upbeat, and the film comes with considerable awards bona fides. A timely look back at the political tumult of the late 1960s and the notorious trial that followed the violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the film boasts an impressive cast including Oscar winners Mark Rylance (as defense attorney William Kuntsler), Eddie Redmayne (as Students for a Democratic Society leader Tom Hayden) and nominee Frank Langella (as Judge Julius Hoffman).
"Borat" writing nominee Sacha Baron Cohen is also part of the ensemble, as are recent Emmy winners Yahya Abdul-Mateen II ("Watchmen") and Jeremy Strong ("Succession"). (Some awards pundits have already speculated the cast may be too big for any performance to truly stand out.) Sorkin himself has been nominated three times for his screenwriting, winning adapted screenplay in 2011 for "The Social Network."
Of course, nothing about this awards season is normal. Key fall festivals in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York have either been dramatically scaled back, gone virtual or been canceled outright. The critical taste-making cities of Los Angeles and New York, home bases both to the film industry and the media that cover it, have not reopened movie theaters and the exhibition industry continues to struggle nationwide.
Meanwhile, the film academy has pushed the date of the Oscars back by two months, to April 25, and relaxed its eligibility rules this year to enable films for the first time to qualify for Oscar consideration without a theatrical release.
For Netflix, in dogged pursuit of its first best picture Oscar, the awards derby ahead is filled with both promise and peril.
On the heels of the underperformance of Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" from Warner Bros., major studios continue to appear weary of wide releases. Earlier this week, Disney pushed a key Oscar hopeful, Steven Spielberg's new take on "West Side Story," a full year to December 2021. Should the fall and winter bring a new surge in coronavirus cases, as many fear, smaller distributors like A24 and Sony Classics may also feel compelled to move more of their awards hopefuls out of harm's way, making a clearer path for streaming services like Netflix.
Then again, even if the field of competition thins out, will general audiences have any interest in an Oscar race devoid of blockbuster theatrical titles ... la "Joker," "A Star Is Born" or "Black Panther" in recent years?
Amid so much anxiety, Netflix's theatrical rollout of "Chicago 7" at least provides a hopeful green shoot in the otherwise fallow landscape of theatrical distribution. But it's also a reminder that even for a company thus far shielded from the worst impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, there are trials ahead. And no matter where you look in the film ecosystem, the outlook remains far from certain.
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