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December Movies: Overcrowding Bad for Box Office, Bad for Oscar

December is the cruelest month, at least for Oscar hopefuls. For decades, a December launch was aimed at big holiday box office or awards attention, or both. Now, there is such a glut of year-end movies — 32 films scheduled to open in 31 days — that both goals have been hard hit.

This year’s bounty (nine wide releases, 23 limited openings) represents a big jump from the 24 last year. There are more companies releasing more films; that means more competition at the box office, especially when one of those wide openers is “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

It also means more awards anxiety as voting deadlines are moved earlier and earlier. Everybody wants to be first, so the National Board of Review announced winners Nov. 28; the N.Y. Film Critics were Nov. 30. SAG Awards deadline is Dec. 10.

The December crop includes “The Disaster Artist,” “Downsizing,” “Happy End,” “I, Tonya,” “Molly’s Game,” “The Shape of Water” and “Wonder Wheel.” Most of those have started early industry screenings, to avoid the year-end logjam.

But other films were down to the wire, such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” and Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi.” All the directors met their deadlines, and these films are high on voters’ want-to-see lists, but the question is whether enough voters will see them in time.

Last year, some December titles had no awards aspirations (e.g., “Office Christmas Party”), but others did. A reminder of some of December 2016 launches: “The Founder,” “Miss Sloane,” “A Monster Calls,” “Patriots Day,” “Live by Night,” “Paterson” and “Gold.” Some were excellent, but these films got no awards attention, and box office was paltry. Movie audiences (and awards voters) had too many riches.

The awards factor became a problem starting in 2004, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences moved the ceremony a month earlier. When the Oscars were held in late March or early April, voters had plenty of time to view all the films in contention, even year-end debuts. A primo example was 2002, when all five best-picture contenders opened in December. (In 2018, the Oscars will be held March 4, a week later than usual, but most other awards are still coming up soon; for example, Golden Globes are Jan. 7.)

Many films follow a formula that used to be successful: a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in December, going wide in January or February to capitalize on (hoped-for) Oscar nominations. The formula doesn’t work any more.

Last year, “La La Land” bowed in December, but it had been widely screened for industry members long before it opened. It earned 14 Oscar nominations and won six, a positive example of December debuts. Not so fortunate was Theodore Melfi’s terrific “Hidden Figures.” The film had a very fast schedule, and began shooting in March 2016, so it wasn’t ready for screenings in October and November, when most awards hopefuls are already in high gear. Word-of-mouth was good and the film earned three Oscar nominations. But if Oscars had followed the old schedule, it’s safe to bet the film would have gotten even more.

It’s getting harder to stir up buzz. Aside from the film glut, there is great entertainment competition from YouTube, TV (“The Crown,” “This Is Us,” “Will and Grace,” “The Vietnam War,” et al.) And the public is following politicians in D.C., who have come up with plot twists more fascinating than anything scripted.

So to all fourth-quarter contenders: Good luck.

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