The Impact of ‘Asteroid City’ Isn’t Just Oscar Potential — It’s the Future of Specialized Film Itself

Paris-based auteur Wes Anderson filmed his sci-fi comedy “Asteroid City” in Spain during the pandemic in 2021, but it embraced a 1955 American milieu. The well-reviewed movie offers Anderson’s usual sprawling ensemble — Scarlett Johansson, Jason Schwartzman, Bryan Cranston, Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, Margot Robbie, Tilda Swinton, Ed Norton, Adrien Brody, and more — but it’s not the actors who will pop up with Oscar nominations. No one gets enough individual screen time.

Like Anderson’s most-lauded “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014, Metascore: 88), “Asteroid City” will likely clean up with the crafts, and possibly, like “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012, Metascore: 84), also nab a nod for Original Screenplay.

Written by Anderson and long-time screenwriting partner Roman Coppola, “Asteroid City” stars Schwartzman as avuncular writer Augie Steenbeck, typewriter and pipe in tow. He is bringing his whiz-kid scientist son Woodrow (“Eighth Grade” standout Jake Ryan) and three daughters (Ella, Gracie, and Willan Faris) to the Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention in the New Mexico desert, where mushroom clouds erupt periodically on the horizon. Joined by his children’s disapproving grandfather (Tom Hanks), the beleaguered widower finally tells his kids that their mother died three weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the grieving father cheers himself up by flirting with the glamorous Hollywood star in the cabin next door (Johansson). Soon the group experiences an unsettling alien encounter. And that doesn’t begin to explore the frame-within-a-frame twists and turns of this exhilarating, visually delightful narrative swirl. With “Asteroid City,” Anderson delivers his most accessible and enjoyable comedy since “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Grand Budapest Hotel.”

But today, that’s not enough to make a movie become an Oscar contender. It needs to hit at the box office, an outcome that, to be generous, is challenging. With its name auteur and stellar cast, “Asteroid City” serves as a litmus test for not just Oscar glory, but whether the older specialty film audience will still show up at theaters.

“Asteroid City”Focus Features

“In the ongoing dialogue between the specialty market and the audience, we’re all fascinated to see how ‘Asteroid City’ does,” said Roadside Attractions co-president Howard Cohen. “It’s the blue-chip movie for this audience. If they come back for that, are they going to start coming back? So far they haven’t come back with any consistency, partially because there haven’t been that many movies for them.”

While some movies don’t need box office to become Oscar contenders (“TAR,” “Triangle of Sadness,” “The Fabelmans”), a June release like “Asteroid City” needs a lot of attention to last. “This big comedy with a huge ensemble has to be a commercial hit to stick its landing to feel hugely relevant in several months,” said one veteran awards campaigner.

And will the actors campaign? “Everything they do helps other categories.”

Last time around, Searchlight launched anthology film “The French Dispatch,” starring Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Benicio del Toro, Bill Murray, and Tilda Swinton, at Cannes 2021 (a year later than planned, due to the pandemic). Despite upbeat reviews (Metascore: 74; “Asteroid City” is at 73), the movie underwhelmed at the October domestic box office ($16 million), performed better foreign ($29 million), and landed zero Oscar nominations.

This was a far cry from the stellar Oscar performance of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (Metascore: 88), which Searchlight opened in March 2014. It lasted through awards season, grossing $59 million domestic and $104 million foreign. Those totals were boosted by nine Oscar nominations, including Director, Original Screenplay, and Picture, plus four craft wins (costume design, score, production design, makeup and hairstyling).

Wes Anderson at Cannes in 2021 for Searchlight’s “The French Dispatch”John Rasimus/STAR MAX/IPx

Two years earlier, Focus launched American summer camp comedy “Moonrise Kingdom” (Metascore: 84) at Cannes, followed by a May North American release that managed $45 million plus $23 million foreign and scored one Oscar nomination for Original Screenplay for Anderson and Coppola.

As to where “Asteroid City” will fall on that spectrum, only the art-house audience knows for sure.

A Focus Features release, “Asteroid City” will hit select theaters on Friday, June 16, with expansion to follow on Friday, June 23.

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