If ‘Challengers’ Does Well in Theaters, Expect It to Be in the Oscars Conversation

When determining what films have any chance of winning the Oscar for Best Picture, or even being in contention for it, there recently has been a returned focus toward the delicate balance of art and commerce. As theatrical exhibition continues to rebuild and reform in wake of the global pandemic, the last two Best Picture winners, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Oppenheimer,” were celebrated not just for being inventive, but for proving that audiences were still willing to come out in droves for a film without a colon or numeral toward the end of the title.

All that to say, if “Challengers” does well during its opening weekend at the box office, which is not a given, it will be much harder to ignore during awards season. As of now, there’s simply not much else down the line on the 2024 release calendar that fits into that sweet spot for mid-budget prestige adult dramas led by award-winning actors. The film, about a love triangle between young tennis phenoms, has been a hit with critics and a fixture of Instagram Explore pages based on its glitzy, fashion-forward marketing campaign — something that has become part of the package when casting Zendaya (here, also producing) in one’s movie.

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The former Disney star, who has earned two Emmys for her starring role in the HBO drama “Euphoria” as a teen battling addiction, has billions of box office dollars under her belt from being part of the ensemble for both the “Spider-Man” and “Dune” franchises, but “Challengers” is her first time really stepping out as the lead of a theatrical release.

It should be noted that the film’s director Luca Guadagnino finally caught the attention of Oscar voters with his “Call Me by Your Name,” a film that technically premiered in January at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, so he is familiar with what it takes to keep one’s film at the top of voters’ minds throughout a full calendar year. But when your film is set to go wide in April, the message that’s conveyed is that it is a commercial play first and foremost.

Going from below the line upward, the best Oscar chance for “Challengers” is far and away its score. Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross already have two Oscars for Best Original Score, so there is plenty of familiarity with their work among Academy members, and yet it does still come as a surprise that they were able to make an erotic sports drama primarily set in the 2010s into this pulsing disco fantasia. Even before the film was released, its music had already made even more of an impression with cinephiles than the music of “Dune: Part Two,” a follow-up to a Best Original Score-winning film.

CHALLENGERS, from left: Mike Faist, Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, 2023. © MGM /Courtesy Everett Collection
‘Challengers’©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Other craft categories seem more of an uphill battle. For instance, although fashion is a highlight of the film, the Oscars being an award given by film industry professionals may not be as charmed by Guadagnino choosing Loewe creative director Jonathan Anderson to oversee the film’s costumes, rather than someone like a Costume Designers Guild member instead.

What “Challengers” can count on is being part of the initial conversations around the Best Original Screenplay race. Like recent nominee “May December,” playwright Justin Kuritzkes’ “Challengers” script was featured on the Black List, an organization that has been very predictive and influential on what screenplays the Writers branch highlights. “Call Me by Your Name,” Luca Guadagnino’s last film nominated for Oscars, got its one Academy Award win in a screenplay category. The only element that would make it hard for a win is that Best Original Screenplay has gone to the director of the nominated film (on their own or with writing partners) every year since “The King’s Speech” won in 2011.

For the acting races, it all depends on who gets submitted where. Though “Challengers” is about a love triangle, the overall impression seems to be that star Mike Faist is the corner that takes a backseat. He was on the cusp of a Best Supporting Actor nomination before, for his breakout film role in “West Side Story,” but his more passive role as the ready-to-retire Art Donaldson does not feel showy enough to go the distance in a category meant for scene stealers.

With stars Zendaya and Josh O’Connor, as Tashi Donaldson and Patrick Zweig respectively, there is more of a roadmap toward awards attention. The camera is obsessed with them in the film, and it is their delicious dialogue that has become burnt into viewers’ brains from two years of watching the trailer for the twice-delayed Amazon MGM Studios film.

Both actors also boast performances in other 2024 releases that support the idea that they are ones to watch. Finally getting to be part of more than 10 minutes of the story, Zendaya’s Chani became the heart of “Dune: Part Two” that best sold some of the ideas the director Denis Villenueve was trying to convey. Meanwhile, O’Connor earned even more indie cred with his starring role in Alice Rohrwacher’s adventurous “La Chimera,” which Neon finally released in March, nearly a year after its 2023 Cannes Film Festival debut.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 16: (L-R) Justin Kuritzkes, Amy Pascal, Josh O'Connor, Zendaya, Mike Faist, Luca Guadagnino, Rachel O’Connor and Mike Hopkins, SVP, Prime Video & Amazon Studios attend the premiere of Amazon MGM Studios' "Challengers" at Westwood Village Theater on April 16, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)
Justin Kuritzkes, Amy Pascal, Josh O’Connor, Zendaya, Mike Faist, Luca Guadagnino, Rachel O’Connor and Mike Hopkins, SVP, Prime Video & Amazon Studios attend the premiere of Amazon MGM Studios’ “Challengers” at Westwood Village Theater on April 16, 2024 in Los Angeles, CaliforniaMonica Schipper/Getty Images

Even if “Challengers” becomes a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination, a Best Director nomination for Guadagnino does seem unlikely, mostly because the film might read as too American for the section of the directors branch looking to elevate international filmmakers and international stories, and too small a scale for the other part looking to highlight achievements that seem epic in scale (i.e. reigning winner Christopher Nolan.) The film is playing in IMAX though, so it is not exactly a small movie.

Again, it just needs audiences to show up and show out, because the best way to make sure one’s critically acclaimed original piece of cinema is on Oscar voters’ radars is for it to feel like everyone else is seeing it in theaters too.

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