Sony Classics set for a bumper year at Cannes, following acquisition of ‘Red Army’

Last year was a slightly quieter one than usual for Sony Pictures Classics on the prestige film circuit — the studio had a number of strong titles, from Asghar Farhadi's “The Past” to Ralph Fiennes's “The Invisible Woman,” but only a couple that really connected with audiences. Their strongest Oscar contender, Woody Allen's surprise hit “Blue Jasmine,” ruled the Best Actress race but didn't make it all the way to Best Picture. Meanwhile, Best Foreign Language Film — the category that they normally have on lock, with four consecutive wins between 2009 and 2012 —  didn't go their way at all, with several surprise omissions keeping them out of the final five. 

2014, however, looks like it could be a very different year for SPC: just look at their stacked Cannes Film Festival slate, for example. Before the festival has even started, they've already secured five major titles set to play on the Croisette, four of them as world premieres.

The biggest of them, as discussed yesterday, is Bennett Miller's “Foxcatcher,” the buzziest American film in Competition and one that has only stoked curiosity and anticipation since being pulled from the 2013 release calendar. As the studio made clear with yesterday's announcement of an awards-friendly November release date, they have a lot of faith in this all-star biopic; if critics jump on board at Cannes, it'll be a ready-made juggernaut.

But their second Competition hopeful, Mike Leigh's long-cherished passion project “Mr. Turner,” also has high hopes pinned on it — the J.M.W. Turner biopic is Leigh's largest-scale film to date and boasts a plum role for veteran character actor Timothy Spall. No Leigh film has entirely escaped the Academy's notice since 2002's “All or Nothing”; Sony handled “Another Year” in 2010, landing Leigh his fifth Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (and seventh overall). With a baitier project, they may be aiming even higher this time — and with a December 19 release date, they're looking for it to be fresh in voters' minds.

Outside the Competition, they have Zhang Yimou's “Coming Home” — Zhang's output may have been unreliable of late, but this Cultural Revolution romance earns event status by marking the director's long-awaited reunion with his muse Gong Li. (The star has herself only made three films since their last pairing, “The Curse of the Golden Flower,” in 2006.) Regardless of how the film is received, Sony has a very likely foreign Oscar submission on their hands here: China has entered seven of Zhang's previous films into the race, and they'll find this particular big-name combo tough to resist.

It's been traditional in recent years for one Sundance sensation to make its first European appearance at Cannes, and this year, Damien Chazelle's “Whiplash” follows fellow Grand Jury Prize winners “Precious,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Fruitvale Station” to the Croisette — the difference being that “Whiplash” is playing in the Directors' Fortnight strand rather than the slightly higher-profile Un Certain Regard. It should enjoy a significant spike in attention anyway: Chazelle's film was one of the few consistent talking points in the US Narrative section at Park City, retaining its buzz from opening night to the very end, where it won the Audience Award in addition to the jury's top prize. The Cannes attention won't necessarily propel it into the awards derby (as “Martha Marcy May Marlene” learned a few years back), but it certainly adds cred. An October 10 release date, meanwhile, gives the indie a bit of time to build word of mouth through the fall.

Finally, the studio announced the addition of documentary “Red Army” to their slate just yesterday. Emmy-nominated documentarian Gabe Polsky's film boasts Jerry Weintraub and Werner Herzog as an executive producer, and meshes sport with politics in a study of the former Soviet Union's HC CSKA Moscow ice-hockey team — nicknamed the “Red Army” for its military affiliation. It has a spot in Cannes's Special Screenings section.

So, a strong start for Sony Classics — and we don't even know what else they might acquire at the festival. Expect most of these titles to surface again in Telluride, where the studio has a strong history of taking their showcase titles, and beyond.