Awards Season Launch: The Best Picture Race

Award Season Calendar 2012 – 2013
November – December | January – February

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences pushed the key milestones for Oscar nominations to their earliest dates ever, it didn’t merely force Hollywood to recalibrate its vacation plans.

The Acad continued a trend of changing the economics of the film industry, merely by its awards scheduling.

In 2003, nominations for the March 23 Oscar ceremony were set for Feb. 11. In 2012, with the kudos in late February, Oscar noms were announced Jan. 24. This time around, Oscar noms will be revealed Jan. 10, an evolution that has affected everything from the importance of various film festivals and critics groups to the fate of the movies themselves.

At the most high-stakes level, the early dates have intensified the risk-reward riddle of an Oscar campaign. A nominated film will have 45 days to bask in the publicity-filled glow of its nomination before the Feb. 24 Academy Awards, the longest period this century and 12 days more than the year before.

“If you’re in the business of distributing movies solely at the end of the year to get awards recognition, because without it they’re not going anywhere, then you’ll benefit if you’re nominated, because you’ll make more money in those (extra) two weekends than you would otherwise,” one kudos consultant says.

Oscar finalist “The Descendants” milked the post-nom/pre-ceremony period a year ago, earning $27 million of its $82.6 million domestic gross in that stretch despite having been in continuous release since before Thanksgiving. Others, such as “Moneyball” and “The Help,” used the timeframe to goose DVD dollars.

But the Oscar date creep brings a downside for any film dependent upon the awards season race to build interest: the disappearance of post-holiday wiggle room. This year’s Jan. 3 voting deadline for Oscar noms falls on the Friday of a week much of the industry will spend on vacation.

With a smaller pre-noms window, word-of-mouth is more challenging to build. The previous Oscar nominations voting deadline was Jan. 13, nearly two weeks into the new year. Those extra days have been considered crucial for lower-profile projects to generate noms, such as lead actor Demian Bichir of “A Better Life.”

The post-Thanksgiving period has become more crowded than ever, with films fighting to get screens — and to keep them in the face of newer releases.

“The theater situation is so clogged,” says Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy and co-founder Tom Bernard. “The way that the world has changed, there’s so much product going through these theaters. You want to have the movie available for anyone who wants to see it in that time, so you have multiple screens. In the old days, you’d have lines around the block, and it would play for months.”

The domino effect has been to force many distributors to push release dates earlier into the season and begin campaigns sooner, with September-October becoming a more vital awards period time. Fests in Telluride, Toronto and Venice have taken some of the importance for launching awards campaigns from November’s AFI gathering, Bernard notes. Events normally taking place after New Year’s Day, such as the Palm Springs Intl. Film Festival and the Golden Globes, must face the reality of rescheduling to stay within the Academy Awards framework and avoid the fate of a diner on old Route 66.

With all the autumnal clutter, there’s more and more to be said for getting a jump on things early in the spring — potentially a great time to launch independent films before the studios’ summer tentpoles roll out. If the film in question generates awards interest, it can return later in the year with its bona fides already established, a la “Crash” and “The Hurt Locker” in recent years.

“The Oscar race is not financially a great way to go a lot of times,” Bernard says. “It’s not something every movie has to take a shot at. If you take that Oscar shot and the movie doesn’t work, you’ve disappeared.”

Looking ahead, the Academy probably isn’t done tinkering with its schedule. The February 2014 calendar brings the Winter Olympics, the quadrennial worldwide extravaganza that pushed the 2006 and 2010 Oscars back into March. Should the pattern repeat, more breathing time would await Oscar contenders. But if the Acad decides to push its main event ahead of the lighting of the torch in Sochi, Russia . . . look out.

Jon Weisman blogs about awards season at variety.com/thevote.

Award Season Launch: The Best Picture Race
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Award Season Calendar 2012 – 2013: November – December | January – February

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