It’s not over until the last film sings

December rears its head with an annual surprise that never fails to alter the race

It makes good business sense that studios take release dates seriously. If there’s a road map to Academy Award victory, it’s best not to ignore it. Luckily, the Oscars remain just unpredictable enough to keep the race exciting. “Crash’s” big win proves that.

Still, there is a widely held belief that a December release brings award recognition, or at least good Oscar karma. The notion is well supported — plenty of December releases have brought home the gold — but it’s not a recipe for victory.

Just look at last year’s contest, which played out this February. “Crash,” which won the best picture Oscar, opened in May 2005. Many people were surprised this small movie was even nominated, and plenty of Oscar watchers figured the award would go to one that did open in December, either “Brokeback Mountain,” directed by Ang Lee, or Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.”

Both those films were doubtless released late in the year to increase their cachet as Oscar contenders, and one has to wonder if Spielberg’s experiences in the 1990s had some influence on the situation: The helmer won both a directing and a best picture Oscar for “Schindler’s List,” which opened in December 1993. Five years later, when “Saving Private Ryan” was in contention, Spielberg again won for direction, but that July release lost the big one to “Shakespeare in Love,” which had a limited release in December 1998.

Yet, putting too much stock in a last-stretch release can also backfire. Last year, Sony gave “Memoirs of a Geisha” a serious Oscar push. A big-budget historical epic based on a bestselling novel, the movie had many of the hallmarks of an Oscar favorite. But things didn’t work out as hoped. Though “Geisha” received six noms — and won three awards — all were below-the-line honors.

Despite the occasional misstep, the desire to turn December into Oscar-contender month is strong since its roots run deep. “Gone With the Wind” had its famous Atlanta premiere on Dec. 3, 1939, though it would probably have swept the awards ceremony had it opened on Jan. 2.

Legendary producer Sam Spiegel was wise to the relationship between December releases and Oscars. Two of his three best picture awards came from movies released near Christmas: “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) and “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). Each won seven Oscars.

David Lean directed both “Kwai” and “Lawrence,” yet his next epic — “Doctor Zhivago,” released on Dec. 22, 1965 — failed to win best picture. Though it won five Oscars — all but one for below-the-line work — it was nommed for five more. It lost best picture to “The Sound of Music,” which had opened in March. Such flukes confound conventional wisdom.

Warren Beatty has twice been sideswiped by that kind of reverse December surprise. On Dec. 4, 1981, Paramount released “Reds,” Beatty’s sweeping account of the life of John Reed. The pic had Oscar written all over it. It won three, including director (Beatty), and was nommed for nine more. Most unexpectedly, the Oscar for that year’s best picture went to a tiny film called “Chariots of Fire,” which opened in May.

Ten years later, in December 1991, “Bugsy” also opened with Oscar hopes. Beatty didn’t direct this time — Barry Levinson did — but he was the pic’s eponymous star and one of its producers. Like “Reds,” “Bugsy” earned a slew of noms (10 in all) and won three Oscars. Best picture wasn’t among them, however. That honor went to “The Silence of the Lambs,” a Valentine’s Day release.

Only in the mid-1980s did December releases seemingly become de rigueur for winners. “Out of Africa” opened on Dec. 18, 1985, “Platoon” on Dec. 24, 1986. The latter’s win could only have fueled the belief that December was a magic month, for all four of “Platoon’s” rivals opened well before it did — “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “A Room With a View” as early as February and April, respectively.

“Rain Man,” which took best pic for 1988, opened in December. But then so did all the other nominees, including “Working Girl” and “The Accidental Tourist.”

The following year’s winner was “Driving Miss Daisy,” which opened to a limited run on Dec. 13, 1989. But that month also saw the release of Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July,” the Tom Cruise starrer that was nommed for eight. Stone won for direction, and the film won for editing, but given the pic’s serious rep, the take was considered disappointing.

Among the biggest December surprises of the 1990s was “Titantic’s” historic Oscar sweep. Much delayed and vastly over budget, the pic had been largely written off when it opened to some surprisingly good reviews on Dec. 19, 1997, including Janet Maslin’s in the New York Times. She quipped that the “joke of the summer” had become “the movie of the year.”

The year 2000 saw something of an upset for best pic when Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” a summer hit, slew Steven Soderbergh’s socially conscious “Traffic,” released on Dec. 27. But the trend of December winners has continued with a vengeance in recent years. Best pic winners “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), “Chicago” (2002), “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) all opened in December. It took “Crash” to derail the trend.

Yet even within that tradition of December winners, there have been surprises, Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” chief among them. The year before the “Baby” win, Eastwood had directed “Mystic River,” a film that opened to critical raves. While it won two biggies — lead actor (Sean Penn) and supporting actor (Tim Robbins) — it lost screenplay, director and best picture.

“Million Dollar Baby,” on the other hand, had little Oscar buzz prior to its year-end release.

This season, the big December surprise actually took place Nov. 16 when Warners announced it would move up Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” from February 2007 to December.

And then there’s “Dreamgirls.” It’s a surprise only if it fails to deliver on its pre-opening word of mouth. Any number of year-end releases, from “Notes on a Scandal” and “Venus” to “Miss Potter” and “Breaking and Entering,” are just waiting to take its place in the line of nominees.

Sometimes the December surprise isn’t known until Oscar night itself.

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