Oscar Campaigns: Hollywood Needs a New Timetable to Avoid the Year-End Glut

Sundance 2016 Feature and Documentary Premieres
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Academy Awards attention is supposed to help the movie business. But the math isn’t adding up.

This year, there will be 15 films opening Dec. 21-28. That’s more than double the number from 2015. In November and December, 44 films will open, up from 34 last year.

Clearly, awards season is imbalanced. It’s OK that there are more films; and it’s OK that they are seeking awards attention. The problem is that too many movies are following the exact same awards timetable. The year-end logjam is not helping those films, it’s not helping voters and it’s certainly not helping audiences (and most of these Oscar hopefuls are targeting the exact same viewers).

On Jan. 20, 1997, Variety ran a story saying distributors were optimistic about “transforming the movie industry into a year-round business.” For many decades, May was considered a dead month for movies and the 1996 launch of “Twister” that month was considered radical. Since then, the definition of summer has expanded. Awards season needs a similar rethink.

Three months ago, Oscar buzz was positive for several movies released January through August, including “Captain Fantastic,” “Hell or High Water,” “A Bigger Splash,” “The Lobster,” “Sing Street,” “Hello, My Name Is Doris,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “The Meddler,” “The Hollars” and “Eye in the Sky.”

But once the festivals (Venice-Telluride-Toronto-New York) debuted a slew of year-end movies, almost all of those earlier titles were left in the dust as awards pundits — notorious for our ADD — talked about the shiny new objects.

The overcrowding is unfortunate, but it’s understandable. Since the movie industry is so unpredictable, studio people try to hedge their bets by imitating past successes, whether in subject matter or release dates.

With awards hopefuls, there are two basic patterns:

Scenario One: A film debuts at the fall festivals, then starts screening for journalists and “taste-makers,” then finally is shown to Academy members. In the past eight years, six of the best-picture winners followed this plan, from “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) through “Spotlight” (2015).

Scenario Two: A film opens sometime between January and August, and begins its campaign in the fourth quarter (often including a DVD launch and new screenings).

Too many distributors are following Scenario One. Conventional wisdom says Scenario Two is riskier, despite the fact that plenty of January-August films have won multiple Oscars in recent years (“Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Boyhood,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” etc.) and even taken the best pic trophy (“Forrest Gump,” “Gladiator,” “Crash,” “The Hurt Locker”).

When Oscar hopefuls are backloaded, too many films are competing for media attention, for screens, and for the same audiences. They cannibalize each other, and the casualty rate is too high.

In addition, bloggers/pundits — and yes, I am among the guilty — should make predictions based on what they’ve actually seen, not what they’re hearing. Oscar buzz is part of the process, but the year-end obsession has become self-fulfilling.

The world is changing. TV is offering fare that used to be the exclusive domain of independent movies: edgy, character-driven and provocative. Audiences have too many options. The holidays take up a lot of time and energy as well. Bottom line: Year-end ain’t what it used to be for awards.

Decision-makers in the film biz need to consider Scenario Two, or even to invent a new timetable (Scenario Three?). The heaviest campaigning will always be year-end, but studios need to tap into the year-round benefits.

In photo: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz in “The Lobster”