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Spot question: What do the last seven winners of the Best Picture Oscar all have in common? Chances are you won't find many narrative, practical or technical common points between the lot of them, but there is this: none of them were first released Stateside in December. Yes, “The Artist” and “The King's Speech” only narrowly count by virtue of their limited Thanksgiving releases, but the point is that they, too, got in just ahead of the traditional Christmastime glut of prestige fare that has become inseparable from Oscar season.
In every year since the last-minute sneak attack by “Million Dollar Baby” in the 2004 season, the overstuffed Christmas stocking that is the December release calendar has produced contenders and nominees aplenty – as well as the high-profile misfires that are an equally inevitable part of the season. But when it comes to actually choosing their favorite of favorites, the Academy has recently proved that its collective memory can extend at least a little beyond the eggnog fog.
It's a marked turnaround from four straight years of tightly-wrapped mid-to-late December releases, from “A Beautiful Mind” to the aforementioned “Baby,” dominating proceedings – and an indication, as much as anything, of the increased role that film festivals play in launching and nurturing contenders in an Oscar landscape no longer ruled by the studios. Of those last seven pre-December winners, only 2006's “The Departed” skipped the festival route, building its Best Picture case simply from reviews and box office receipts – a patient strategy a Christmas release mightn't have afforded.
Yet clearly the studios have as much conviction in the December release strategy as ever, if not more so – this season's slate is veritably stuffed with major titles that have dodged the festivals and are gearing up for a late unveiling, before descending upon spoilt-for-choice ticket buyers in the last month of the year. “Les Miserables,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Django Unchained,” “Promised Land” and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” are among the unseen heavyweights taking that tack, while already-debuted titles that are nonetheless taking their chances in the December whirlwind include “Amour,” “The Impossible,” “Quartet” and “Not Fade Away.”
Most of those films are angling for Best Picture consideration. At least a few of them will be disappointed, though it's impossible to say as yet if their chances would improve in a less pressured month. The raised profile and amplified expectations of a December release may not have done any favors for botched Oscar hopefuls like “The Lovely Bones” or “Nine,” but they would have been branded disappointments, and limped out of the race, earlier in the year too.
Meanwhile, last year proved that the December hype machine could just as easily benefit dubious contenders, as late releases “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and “War Horse” slid into the Best Picture race despite critical skepticism and a weak precursor showing. One can only speculate, but either film been released to such a moderate reception in, say, October, it seems unlikely they'd have stayed the course.
One can hardly blame studios, then, for capitalizing on the short-term heat of December, given the returns that even a token nomination brings an expensive prestige item. It'll be interesting to see this year if the Academy's decisions continue to convince them it's right approach, given that the earlier-than-ever deadline for nomination ballots gives the December releases a shorter-than-ever period in which to make an impact on voters. One wonders if Universal, which pushed “Les Mis” back to Christmas Day just one day before the Academy announced the January 10 nomination date, would have done so after the fact; they're presumably confident enough in the film not to fear the spread of a tepid response, but the fact remains that many voters will be struggling to see it in time.
Part of me, I admit, hopes the December deluge isn't rewarded too comfortably – if only because it'd be heartening to see equally lavish recognition for the few top-drawer prestige items that dare to venture out of hiding earlier in the year. There's a hypocritical tendency among awards pundits to complain about the dearth of quality fare in the first three-quarters of the release calendar, only to regard the early birds with dismissive suspicion.
We're repeatedly told that “Beasts of the Southern Wild”'s buzz is waning due to its summer bow, while Harvey Weinstein has been taken to task for releasing “The Master” wide in September to middling box office – you can debate the business acumen of these strategies, as well as the question of whether they'd actually perform any better in later months, but there's something to be said for giving audiences the option of substantial awards-caliber options throughout the year, whether the audience takes up the offer or not.
I was recently talking to a colleague about Warner's bumping of “The Great Gatsby” to next summer, and while I thought the move seemed reasonable enough – particularly to accommodate a potential Cannes premiere – he insisted that “films like that belong in December.” Whether Baz Luhrmann's wild vision delivers or not, such an attitude serves only those in and around the awards racket, not adult audiences who'd rather not concentrate their cinemagoing at the holidays.
There are more than enough recent examples of cannily campaigned Oscar success stories from the earlier months of the year – from “Crash” to “Winter's Bone” to “The Hurt Locker” to “Gladiator” – to suggest that voters' memories, when appropriately prodded, can be longer than we give them credit for being. Here's hoping a “Beasts of the Southern Wild” – or, to fantasize for a moment, a “Take This Waltz” or a Rachel Weisz in “The Deep Blue Sea” – survives the winter onslaught when the nominations are read. Movies are for life, not just for Christmas.
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