The Nod: The Perils Of Peak Oscar Movie Season

Harvey Weinstein, the man who has personified Oscar season ambition since the rise of Miramax in the 1990s, wrote an op-ed last week for The Hollywood Reporter in which he argues that the industry needs to stop jamming all of its award-caliber films into the final weeks of the year.

“The fall has become so dominated, so top-heavy with adult-driven awards releases that it has made it almost impossible for quality films to reach their full potential unless they dare release at another time of year, where they are quickly forgotten come awards season,” Weinstein writes. “Dozens of adult dramas opened in October, and everybody cannibalized each other.”

“As distributors, we need to continue releasing smart and bold films year-round,” he adds. “We need to support independent film distribution (and, in turn, independent film culture) 12 months a year, not just the last four. And we need to be loud about these films and make sure audiences stay engaged and motivated to interact with the films theatrically. Otherwise, our worst fears will be realized, with intelligent, daring adult dramas marginalized and cannibalized, and nothing but tentpoles left in their wake.”

Weinstein makes some points in the column that I don’t agree with. For one, I’m not confident that Burnt (a Weinstein Company release) or Our Brand Is Crisis would have made bigger awards-season splashes had they not faced so much competition in the fourth quarter. But the mega-producer’s thesis — that the balance of the year’s movie excellence tips far too heavily toward the last three months — is indisputably true, and has been for quite some time. Before there was peak TV, there was another epidemic of quality-culture saturation: the annual moment when we reach peak Oscar-movies.

For decades, the time period between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31 has been considered prestige season, by the industry and even casual moviegoers. We know why the calendar has leaned this way. First, because the holidays, along with the summer months, have long served as the prime times to release “event” pictures. Second, from an awards perspective, saving the best for last allows those movies to stay at the forefront of the minds of voters for the Oscars, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Golden Globes and myriad other honors doled out each year by industry and media groups.

The result is that all those voters — as well as cinephiles who live in L.A. or New York, the cities where those prestige films must be released before year’s end in order to qualify for consideration — get buried under more great movie options than they can possibly screen. To the average person, this “problem” may sound about as stressful as having too many BMWs or looking too much like Idris Elba. But the situation does create a fog of Oscar season, where, due to the limits of time, critics and other film professionals often find themselves racing numbly through films they would otherwise savor, or just flat-out overlooking worthy releases that haven’t managed to attract that elusive and, often, totally based-on-bullshit awards buzz.

Admittedly, the peak Oscar movie phenomenon is less suffocating for the average American who lives outside of New York or L.A., and may not see the potential contenders arrive at a theater near them until January or later. But because statuettes have become so crucial — or at least perceived as crucial — to marketing quote-unquote smaller films, the fact that so many good ones get slotted at the end of the year really does, as Weinstein notes, create a ridiculously competitive market for films that often are the most worthy of our attention.

Here’s the problem, though: That scheduling strategy actually works. Just take a look at the films that have been nominated across the big six Academy Award categories — Best Picture, Best Director and the four acting races — during the past six years, since the Best Picture field was expanded beyond five. Last year, only two movies released pre-October — Boyhood and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel — were in the mix, for Picture, Director, and Supporting Actor and Actress. The year before that, all nine of the Best Picture contenders were released in October or later, and only one film that came out earlier in the year — Blue Jasmine — managed to crack into the big six categories at all. The numbers were slightly more encouraging in the 2011 and 2010 races, when four spring, summer or early fall (read: September) releases scored nominations for Best Picture, and a few other first-half-of-the-year standouts fought their way into the acting contests. But generally speaking, the reason the studios think last is best for their awards season chances is because it is.

Over the past 20 years, only five pre-autumnal films — Braveheart (released in May of 1995), American Beauty (released in September of 1999, which just barely counts as pre-autumnal), Gladiator (May 2000), Crash (May 2005), and The Hurt Locker (June 2009) — have won Best Picture. Everything else has landed in theaters sometime between the weeks just prior to Halloween and Christmas morning.

It didn’t used to be like this, at least not to such an overwhelming degree. A look back at previous Academy Awards reveals that the release dates of Best Picture nominees were often scattered all over the calendar. In 1939, when Gone with the Wind emerged triumphant, more than half of the nominees that year had been released in spring or summer. The same was true in 1943, the year Casablanca won, and 1954, when On the Waterfront won, and in 1965, when The Sound of Music won.

In the ensuing decades — after Jaws and Star Wars turned the summer into blockbuster season, and the battle for Oscars grew more publicly cutthroat — the idea that certain movies come out at certain times got cemented into the consciousness. Admittedly, film writers have often aided and abetted that idea, presumptively dismissing a film’s Oscar chances simply because it’s slotted for release in March instead of October or November. (That happened a lot last year with Grand Budapest, until the nominations came out, proving all the dismissers wrong.)

Even if you don’t give a flying Furiosa about the Oscars, if you love movies, then surely you would agree that it would be better to see more of the good stuff sprinkled throughout the year instead of dumped in one huge dollop at the end. While it’s difficult to imagine the current status quo changing, the fact of the matter is that right now, in the worlds of media and entertainment, things are always changing. This is a moment when Beasts of No Nation, a film released by Netflix, seemingly has a shot at some Academy Award nominations. Anything is possible.

That mention of Netflix brings me to a point that I am sure everyone in the movie business is beyond sick of hearing, but here it is anyway: The film industry should look to TV. Once upon a time, all the new television shows debuted in the fall. Each season of a show lasted for at least 24 episodes. All those seasons wrapped up in May, and the summer months were dedicated to reruns until the following fall, when things got started up again.

Twenty years ago — less than that, even — it seemed crazy to imagine a situation where practically every week, a new season of an exceptional series would make its debut on some network or streaming platform. But here we are. The peak TV phenomenon has made attempting to catch up on TV as overwhelming as trying to binge-watch all the potential Oscar movies between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But it also has raised the bar for television quality overall, and it has made it possible for viewers to find something new and really great to watch during any season of the year. The Emmy Awards? Well, they just as often overlook the exceptional as they always did. The people who have benefited most from throwing preconceived notions about the TV calendar out the window are the viewers and the people who make television, who now have many more opportunities to realize their storytelling visions.

If the notion of an “Oscar season” were eradicated, maybe it would have a similar impact and maybe it wouldn’t. But the idea of a movie calendar where January is no longer a vast wasteland, where a film like Carol could be released over Labor Day weekend, where so many of this year’s Oscar movies wouldn’t be coming out at the same time as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is going to completely dwarf them all: I’d like to see that. Wouldn’t you?