Nomadland is Disney’s first Best-Picture front-runner in years

A SCENE from Nomadland. — IMDB.COM

NOMADLAND began as a series for Harper’s magazine, and that’s all author Jessica Bruder was thinking it ever would be.

But eventually her work interviewing dozens of Americans who choose to live in campers and travel from state to state chasing seasonal jobs turned into a book. Now a film version —  with its stark portrayal of social isolation and income inequality across America’s vast, stunning landscape — is a contender for multiple Academy Awards in this time of pandemic.

“I think being cooped up in COVID times makes us long for these wide-open places,” Ms. Bruder said in an interview. “To be out on the road, to be in motion, to be meeting strangers, and creating community. There is that pent-up desire that finds its answer in watching this film.”

Nomadland, from Walt Disney Co.’s Searchlight Pictures, picked up six Oscar nominations on Monday. The nods include best actress for Frances McDormand, who plays a widow who leaves her economically devastated hometown to hit the road in a van. Chinese auteur Chloe Zhao, who directed the movie and wrote the screenplay, was nominated in both of those categories.

Disney, which picked up Searchlight through its 2019 acquisition of Fox’s entertainment assets, could claim its first best-picture award since the four it won in the 1990s and 2000s, when it owned Miramax. It’s currently the favorite on, which aggregates critics’ picks.

“This movie just has everything going for it in a year that is a really unusual year,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Comscore, Inc.

The journey of Nomadland to the big screen began when Ms. Bruder’s agent gave a copy of her 2017 book to Jasmine Lake, who sells book rights to studios at United Talent Agency. “This would make a great movie,” she said to herself on the flight back home.

Ms. Lake took it to McDormand’s agent, Brian Swardstrom, also at UTA. Originally the actress was to play one of its real-life characters, Linda May, but Ms. Zhao created a fictional protagonist for her instead.

Searchlight agreed to finance the modest $5 million budget. Shooting began in the fall of 2018, using a cast that included Linda May and several more real-life nomads.

In one of the film’s more surprising sequences, Ms. Zhao filmed in an, Inc. warehouse after Ms. McDormand wrote to the company requesting access, according to Mollye Asher, one of the producers. The scenes were among the last recorded, because Amazon wanted to wait until after both the Christmas rush of orders and the “returns season” that followed.

The pandemic shuttering theaters and large events around the world created challenges for Searchlight. When the Telluride Film Festival was canceled, the studio arranged a drive-in screening with the organizers at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Some of the nomads came in their vans.

In an unusual degree of cooperation between normally competitive events, Searchlight also got the Venice and Toronto film festivals to simultaneously premiere the picture, where it won top prizes. Ms. Zhao and Nomadland picked up best director and drama at the Golden Globes last month. In China, Ms. Zhao’s success has drawn a mixed reaction, as the government appears to be wrestling with critical comments she made years ago about the country.

The picture, which was originally scheduled to hit US theaters Dec. 4, got delayed by cinema closings. Disney decided to release it first in Imax Corp. theaters in January and then in other theaters and on Hulu, the company’s streaming service for general entertainment audiences, last month.

The studio has declined to give out box-office grosses, but it’s not alone in relying heavily on streaming to reach audiences. Several other best-picture contenders, including Judas and the Black Messiah and The Trial of the Chicago 7, were available early online.

Meanwhile, Ms. Bruder’s four-year-old book, which garnered positive reviews initially but nothing spectacular in the way of sales, has now found itself on the New York Times bestseller list.

“This second life that the book is having is not something I ever expected, and it’s pretty amazing,” she said. — Bloomberg