‘The Woman King’ Has Become A Major Oscar Season Contender

The Woman King (review) held firm in weekend two, dropping just 41.5% and grossing $11.145 million for a $36.3 million ten-day total. That’s not a barn-burning figure, especially for a film with unpredictable overseas potential, but the opening and hold (along with reception) implies a strong domestic showing on par with Where the Crawdads Sing ($89 million from a $17 million debut this past summer). Obviously, along with Don’t Worry Darling (a $19.4 million chart-topping debut), this shows that putting films about/for/by women in theaters instead of tossing them to streaming can be a fun new way to make money. Moreover, if The Woman King continues to leg out, it will probably gross more at the domestic box office than most year-end awards season contenders. As such, it’s time to discuss the Viola Davis-led and Gina Prince-Bythewood-directed action drama as a big-deal Oscar contender.

For the record, the film, co-starring Lashana Lynch, John Boyega and Thuso Mbedu, debuted in mid-September with a big-deal premiere at this year’s Toronto Film Festival. It’s not like Sony didn’t at least somewhat treat it as a prestige picture. However, it was (smartly and correctly) positioned as a commercial popcorn movie first, sold in the media as an ‘important’ representational milestone but positioned to audiences as a crowd-pleasing kick-ass actioner. Like, say, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed in October of 2006, Sony let the all-star genre film earn rave reviews, strong audience polling and best-case-scenario box office first. And now that it’s done that, well, it could end up in the thick of it almost by default. Barring a surprise here and there, it will likely be one of the very biggest awards season contenders, with better reviews and audience reception to boot.

I am not talking about pure commercial plays (Top Gun: Maverick, Elvis, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever or Avatar: The Way of Water) that may end up in the Oscar race by sheer acclaim and commercial force of will. In terms of year-end releases explicitly intended to chase Oscar glory, David O. Russell’s Amsterdam (starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington and many more) skipped the festival circuit for a wide theatrical release on October 7. I quite liked the movie, but either Disney/20th Century Studios don’t think it has Oscar potential or they are hoping a conventional commercial success (Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle both earned over/under $250 million worldwide) will make it an automatic big-deal offering. See also: Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans (opening over Thanksgiving) and Damien Chazelle’s all-star 20’s-set Hollywood dramedy Babylon (opening on Christmas Day and expanding in January).

Otherwise, presumed quality aside, most of the big awards-friendly are films likely to be more blogged about and discoursed online than seen by paying audiences. Think Todd Haynes’ Cate Blanchett-starring conductor drama Tar, Chinonye Chukwu Civil Rights-era tragedy Till, Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin (In Bruges earned $7 million domestic and $34 million global back in 2008) and James Grey’s semi-autobiographical Armageddon Time in October. November brings the Hugh Jackman/Vanessa Kirby/Laura Dern sequel to The Father, titled The Son and Luca Guadagnino’s Timothée Chalamet -starring cannibal drama Bones and All, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking. Along with The Fabelmans, Universal will also release the ‘reporters who brought down Harvey Weinstein’ drama She Said just before Thanksgiving. That Zoe Kazan/Carey Milligan flick could break out, although the more salacious Bombshell earned $31 million domestic and $61 million worldwide with (talent aside) more glamorous movie stars.

The main contender in December is Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. The discourse will be strong with this grim and downbeat passion play about an overweight man living out his last days, with plenty of digital ink spilled both over its allegedly spectacular star turn from Brendan Fraser and how truly sympathetic the film is or isn’t to its morbidly obese protagonist. The Wrestler earned $44 million worldwide in 2008, and this certainly seems closer to that than Black Swan. Sam Mendes’s 1980s-set coming-of-age drama Empire of Light has already earned mixed reviews, while Sony’s Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a commercial-first release. ParamountPARA
hopes the Brad Pitt/Margot Robbie-led Babylon breaks out in early January, but the allegedly three-hour, hard-R raunch-fest is not nearly as four-quadrant or grandparent-friendly as 1919, Hidden Figures and La La Land.

Spielberg’s recent historical dramas (Bridge of Spies, The Post, War Horse) have earned $72-$82 million domestic and $165-$180 million worldwide. Amsterdam, which also features Rami Malek, Anya-Taylor Joy, Taylor Swift and Robert De Niro, would have been an easy commercial play 10-15 years ago, it’s less ‘sexy’ and more ‘farce’ than American Hustle or even Jennifer Lawrence’s Joy. Babylon and She Said are coin tosses, while the rest of those films would probably be thrilled to make as much total as The Woman King earned on its opening weekend. If all these films play as expected (or worse), even The Woman King grossing closer to $65 million than $85 million will stand tall among its peers. Throw in near-unanimously rave reviews (94% and 7.8/10 on Rotten Tomatoes) and an A+ Cinemascore alongside an aspirational theatrical success story courtesy of a major studio, and you have a hell of an awards narrative.

This is not to say I think The Woman King will sweep the Oscars or (not yet having seen most of the likely nominees) that it should. But finding itself among the ten Best Picture nominees will grow more likely as its commercial success continues and especially as more seasonal releases mostly play to the hardcore film fans and awards junkies. Heck, cynicism alert, The Woman King will work as a substitute if the Academy wants to not give a Best Picture nomination to a (likely-to-be) critically acclaimed blockbuster comic book superhero sequel (whose trailer kills in IMAX) without backlash. As Don Draper would say, “That’s what the money is for.” More broadly speaking, The Woman King ending up in the race would be an ideal way to honor a critically adored, audience-pleasing commercial success that doesn’t rely on IP or generational nostalgia.

We’ll see how this plays out between now and Christmas. No, I don’t think having conventionally popular movies in the Best Picture race does that much to juice Academy telecast ratings. However, I will chuckle happily if the Best Picture race includes Elvis, Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar: The Way of Water, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, The Fabelmans (every Spielberg drama that isn’t Amistad gets in, period), The Woman King and Everything Everywhere All at Once along with three other acclaimed festival darlings (I dunno, The Whale, Babylon and Women Talking?). Right now, The Woman King has the advantage of rave reviews, confirmed audience approval and genuine commercial success, which in turn will make it Sony’s top priority for the season (give or take getting Jackman the Best Actor Oscar for The Son). If it wasn’t initially presented as a major awards player, I’d argue it is one now.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2022/09/26/movies-woman-king-oscars-box-office-viola-davis-lashana-lynch-john-boyega-gina-prince-bythewood/