How “Everything Everywhere All at Once” Became This Year’s Oscar Unicorn

In an alternative universe, “The Fabelmans” is coasting toward victory at the ninety-fifth Academy Awards, a late-career hurrah for Steven Spielberg, who will take the Best Picture and Best Director double crown for the first time since “Schindler’s List.” In another branch of the multiverse, “Top Gun: Maverick,” the movie that supposedly saved moviegoing post-lockdown, is about to add a statuette to its commanding box-office haul. In yet another reality that we are definitely not in, “The Woman King” will herald a new era of Black-female empowerment in Hollywood when it wins Best Picture, Best Director (Gina Prince-Bythewood), and Best Actress (Viola Davis). And, elsewhere in the infinite constellation of possibilities, Andrea Riseborough, of “To Leslie,” is about to clutch her Best Actress prize with fingers made of hot dogs.

But we do not live in those universes. We live in the one where “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is the dominant front-runner for Best Picture. The Oscars are always a multiverse story, with the endless combinations of possible winners narrowing as the night goes on. There is still a world in which “Everything Everywhere” loses all eleven awards for which it’s nominated—but we probably don’t live in that universe, either. The film just pulled off a quadruple win from the guilds—the D.G.A.s, the P.G.A.s, the SAGs, the W.G.A.s—whose members overlap with the Academy’s major branches. It has one acting prize (Best Supporting Actor, for Ke Huy Quan) seemingly sewn up, and two others (Best Actress, for Michelle Yeoh, and Best Supporting Actress, for Jamie Lee Curtis) close within reach. And its quirky director duo, known as the Daniels (Kwan and Scheinert), may well leapfrog Spielberg. With the ranked-choice ballot for Best Picture, a movie as broadly admired as “Everything Everywhere” is even better positioned, since it can benefit from second-choice votes as well.

On one level, the ascendance of “Everything Everywhere” is wildly unlikely. The film premièred a full year ago at South by Southwest, not a typical launching pad for Oscar contenders. It opened in limited release in late March, inching along steadily at the box office. By June, it was A24’s highest-grossing movie ever. In the fall and winter, a cavalcade of Oscar-worthy films burst onto the scene, tugging awards speculation in other directions: Cate Blanchett in “Tár,” Brendan Fraser in “The Whale,” banshees, Fabelmans, Black Panther. On its surface, “Everything Everywhere” doesn’t have the hallmarks of Oscar bait: it’s a sci-fi comedy (two genres that the Academy tends to overlook) about a middle-aged Chinese American woman who runs a laundromat, with a premise that is comprehensible mostly to philosophers and comic-book geeks (verse-jumping?), and subplots involving talking rocks, an enchanted everything bagel, and butt plugs.

And yet “Everything Everywhere” more than endured—it soared. Why? One explanation is easy: people like the movie. “I’ve loved it since it came out,” one Academy member and longtime awards strategist told me. This voter, who had picked “Everything Everywhere” for Best Picture, was drawn to the story of “a woman trying to deal with her life” and observed that the film has a more uplifting ending than many of its competitors: “As we’ve seen with the Oscars over past years, it’s the film that makes you feel happiest when you walk out.” The movie has the spectacle of a superhero blockbuster and the idiosyncratic style of an indie dramedy, but at its core it’s a heartwarming tale of a woman finding her purpose, saving her frayed marriage, and reconciling with her queer daughter. Compare that with “Tár,” a chillier, more sardonic movie that leaves its audience conflicted over its disgraced antiheroine. In that sense, the dominance of “Everything Everywhere” isn’t much different from last year’s victory for “CODA,” another sentimental family story that beat a colder, more ambiguous movie, “The Power of the Dog.”

As any Oscar observer knows, however, there are plenty of external factors that lead to a statuette. A Best Picture winner has to capture the Hollywood Zeitgeist. “None of the other movies this year feel that expansive,” one screenwriter theorized. “ ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is a remake nobody saw. And for some reason people didn’t freak out over ‘The Fabelmans.’ So this feels young and hip and diverse, and no one really knows what it’s about.” But the film may speak to deeper anxieties plaguing the industry. Glance at the ten Best Picture nominees, and you see a bifurcated Hollywood: blockbuster sequels such as “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” on one side, indies such as “Triangle of Sadness” and “Women Talking” on the other. As Richard Brody has discussed, the kinds of films that usually thrive at Oscar time have fizzled at the box office lately. The only movies that people go to the theatres for en masse are I.P.-driven tentpoles, particularly ones involving superheroes, with the public content to catch everything else on streaming. The mid-budget studio film—adult dramas, rom-coms, starry comedies—has all but disappeared. Those are the movies that have typically glued the Oscars to popular culture, going back to “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Terms of Endearment,” and “The English Patient.” But “Everything Everywhere” is this year’s unicorn: a defiantly weird non-franchise crowd-pleaser that has grossed more than a hundred million dollars worldwide. It’s the exception to the industry’s worrisome trends, which makes it all the more appealing to the Academy.

Then there’s the campaign. A24, the über-hip studio behind “Room,” “Moonlight,” and “Minari,” didn’t go into 2022 knowing “Everything Everywhere” would be its awards-season breakout. The film finished production on March 13, 2020, on the cusp of the pandemic. During the summer of 2021, the company began strategizing over the release date, figuring that it would be better to hold off until moviegoers were back at cinemas in fuller force. South by Southwest was the obvious choice for the world première. “It’s big with a young audience, and screenings there are electric,” one A24 executive said—especially because it was one of the first large in-person events after the Omicron wave. When the film moved to theatres, audiences remained enthusiastic, returning multiple times. Critics compared it to “The Matrix,” and by April A24 executives were predicting that the movie would inspire Halloween costumes.

The producers soon realized that they had a winning combination: a movie that audiences loved; a winning ambassador in Michelle Yeoh, who spoke affectingly in interviews about the show-business hurdles that she’d overcome as an Asian woman; and a cast and creative team with an infectious sense of camaraderie. But how to keep the momentum going? A24’s “The Whale” had a more traditional awards rollout, débuting at the Venice International Film Festival, in September, and moving to Toronto a week later. Yeoh also travelled the fall-festival circuit, with a special screening of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” at Telluride and an honorary award at Toronto. “How do you get through that early phase with all the new shiny objects?” the A24 executive said, recalling the crowded fall season. “You start with Michelle, because she is the movie.” By October, the Times was reporting on its peculiar staying power. The movie, like its beleaguered protagonist, was a lovable underdog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *