Four of the last five Oscar winners arrived in December

December is excellent for taking trips to Hawaii, pondering New Year’s resolutions and holiday shopping. When it comes to launching Oscar contenders, it’s not bad either.

Four of the last five Oscar winners — “Million Dollar Baby,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Chicago” and “A Beautiful Mind” — arrived in December while last year’s champ, “Crash,” came out in May (after having its premiere eight months earlier at the Toronto Film Festival).

This year’s high-profile December arrivals include Paramount’s “Dreamgirls,” “The Good German” and “Blood Diamond” from Warner Bros., “The Pursuit of Happyness” from Sony; and “The Good Shepherd” from Universal.

But a December release date is by no means the tipping point toward winning gold. The fourth quarter is statistically the best place to start, but contenders can bow at virtually any time of year.

“I think it’s doable to release a picture in the first half of the year and still do well in the awards season,” says Tom Ortenberg, prexy of theatrical films at “Crash” distributor Lionsgate. “Look at us, ‘Silence of the Lambs’ and ‘Gladiator.’ ”

“The key for a release early in the calendar year is the movie has to resonate,” he adds.

“It has to be the type of film to affect people, and stick with them.”

When asked if “Crash” might have had kudos success if it had come out against more high-profile competition in the fall, Ortenberg says it’s too tough to tell.

“We’ll never know,” he opines, “but its awards prospects were best served by the early release. Otherwise, it would not have had time to gestate with people.”

Russell Schwartz, marketing topper at New Line, says it’s bad strategy for a studio to pick an opening date according to what might be best for awards consideration.

“What’s important is to open the movie at the best time for the movie, not for the awards,” Schwartz says. “These movies can open 52 weeks a year.”

Case in point: New Line’s own “Maria Full of Grace” got a July release and was able to garner an actress nom for its star, Catalina Sandino Moreno.

Films coming out earlier in the year also can receive the help of a big DVD push. “Crash” sent out approximately 130,000 DVDs last year, which helped generate a SAG Awards win for its ensemble and was a precursor to the Oscar triumph.

Over the last few years, the Toronto Film Fest (this year’s event ran Sept. 7-16) has seemed to be the generally accepted starting point for awards campaigns. Studio publicity machines will take positive reviews coming out of Canada and use them to generate full-blown Oscar buzz.

Conversely, September releases hoping to gain awards traction with critical praise can be torpedoed by negative reviews. This year, “All the King’s Men” took some tough critical knocks and faces an uphill climb to get into Oscar’s good graces.

And what makes “King’s” awards trek even more difficult is that the film imploded at the box office, earning just $3.6 million on its opening weekend. With mostly poor reviews and worse grosses, the film may be completely dismissed by voters.

How large a factor box office is in the Oscar race depends on the size of the film, the specific Oscar category and whether it’s from a major studio or an indie. “Capote,” for example, earned only $25 million, but that didn’t hurt Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Hoffman’s acting Oscar supports Ortenberg’s theory that the best picture race is the one most affected by theatrical grosses.

“You can get an acting or writing nom for a picture that hasn’t broken through at the box office, while a best picture needs some sort of commercial viability,” he says.

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