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How the Oscar Date Change Will Affect the Outcome

This year, there are 8,469 eligible Oscar voters, a jump of 35% from four years ago. The membership increase may affect the outcome, but without seeing a numerical breakdown of branches, gender and geographic location of voters, we will never know for sure.

There is another important factor affecting the results: The changing calendar.

This year’s ceremony, on Feb. 9, is the earliest ever. The accelerated schedule has been the source of anxious jokes for months; the attitude seemed to be that this year’s awards season is filled with familiar stuff, but at a faster pace.

However, it is not the same stuff. The differences affect two key areas: the all-important buzz, and voters’ access to watching the films. If a film hasn’t established itself by mid-October, it’s an uphill battle. The faster schedule removes the opportunity for people to discover films, especially late-year openers.

As always, the SAG Awards nominations include six categories for film, picked by SAG-AFTRA voters (who were randomly selected to be part of this year’s nominating committee). This year, no film that began public screenings after Oct. 15 got a SAG nomination. Most nominees had debuted via the September festivals and had been frequently screened since then.

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Coincidence? Maybe.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences traditionally held the Oscars in March or April, but moved the ceremony a month earlier, beginning with the Oscarcast on Feb. 29, 2004. Oscar history offers other evidence that the date change can have an impact.

— The bellwethers changed. For the 16 years before the date switch, the film that earned the most nominations won the best picture award 14 times, or 87%. For the 16 years after that date change, the film with the most nominations won only six times, or 37%.

— Before the switch (1987-2002), the Golden Globes predicted the Oscar best pic in 13 of the 16 years (81%). After the switch, that match was cut in half, to seven of 16 times (43%).

— Every best-picture winner from 1987 to 2002 had a cold opening — i.e., debuted in theaters commercially, without previous runs on the festival circuit. Of those 16 winners, 10 had launched in November or December. (In 2002, the year “Chicago” won, all five best-pic nominees opened in the U.S. in December.) In 2019, it’s doubtful if most of them would have been nominated.

— For the past 11 years (i.e., since the 2008 “Slumdog Millionaire”), every one of Oscar’s best picture winners had debuted at Venice, Telluride or Toronto, or some combo of those three.

Clearly, awards strategists are using the fests to begin their buzz. In theory, there’s no harm in that. But in the past, a later Oscar-voting date allowed some films to build word-of-mouth. Exhibit A is Halle Berry, who was not high on the awards radar in December 2001, but “Monster’s Ball” from Lionsgate had time to build support.

Voters no longer have time to discover little films that began screening late and/or that didn’t have extensive screenings or a hefty push from their distributors. That list includes “Clemency,” “A Hidden Life,” “Just Mercy,” “Dark Waters,” “Honey Boy,” “Waves,” “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” “Give Me Liberty,” and “Uncut Gems.” None of them earned a single Oscar nomination. A few latecomers, including “Bombshell,” “Little Women” and “1917,” earned Academy Award bids, but they were high-profile movies that voters made a point of seeing. The other films didn’t have that benefit.

The earlier awards are meant to help Oscarcast ratings. But the big question is: Are they helping to encourage moviegoing?

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