Oscar Impact: Film Industry–Release Date of Oscar Caliber Movies

Though they are given once a year, the Oscar Awards dominate the Hollywood film industry all year around.

Indeed, with the exception of the two months after the show, Oscar-related activities prevail all year round. In June 2002, barely two months after the ceremonies, the Academy issued a call for Scientific-Technical Achievements for the 2003 Oscars.

This public announcement officially began the seventy fourth Oscar race. Entry forms for these awards were mailed to eight hundred companies and individuals in the filmrelated scientific community around the world, as well as to all past winners. Scientific and Technical Awards are considered for advances which have proved significant to the film industry through successful application. Entry forms, which must be submitted to the Academy no later than August 1, 2002, are brought to the attention of the Scientific and Technical Awards Committee and are evaluated by subcommittees of engineers and scientists before being voted upon by the Academy’s Board of Governors.

The Oscars have changed the entire operation of the film industry through their pervasive influence on every element of the filmmaking process: the studios and production companies, the various film artists, moviegoers, and even film critics.

To begin with, the big studios release their most prestigious and “important” pictures in the late fall and early winter, particularly in the month of December. The thinking guiding this practice is that these movies will be fresh in the Academy voters’ minds by the time they receive the nomination ballots, in January.

Releasing Films in December

Other things being equal, films released in December stand a better chance to get nominated than those released in any other month of the year. Of the fifty films nominated for Best Picture in the 1980s, eighteen (40 percent) were released in December, and thirtyfour films between September and December. By contrast, only six of the fifty films opened in the first quarter of the year. Missing, Witness, and Hannah and Her Sisters were released in February, and Coal Miner’s Daughter, Tender Mercies, and A Room With a View in March. These six movies were released in the winter because initially their producers didn’t consider them to be “Oscar stuff” or Oscar caliber,” in other words they didn’t qualify as serious contenders for the kinds of movies the Academy likes.

In some years, all five Best Picture nominees were released in December. This was the case of 1988, when The Accidental Tourist, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning, Rain Man, and Working Girl all opened at the crucial month of December. Many films would have stood stronger chances of getting major nominations had they been released at more strategically fortuitous times. For example, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and David Jones’s Betrayal, both released in January 1983, would have featured more prominently in the nominations had they been released in the fall. It is doubtful that The King of Comedy would have been more successful at the box office–it was a fiasco–or that it would have garnered a Best Picture nomination, but the three superb performance, by Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, and Sandra Bernhardt, would have received a more serious attention for acting nominations. Similarly, the British film Betrayal, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter from his play, also contained three superlative performances by Ben Kingsley, Jeremy Irons, and Patricia Hodge, each of whom deserved to be but wasn’t nominated.

Changes Over Time

The film’s release date has not always been a crucial variable. In the 1930s, only seven (7.6 percent) of the ninety-two nominated films , and in the 1940s, ten (14 percent) of the seventy films, premiered in December. The specific month began to play strategic role in the 1950s, when ten (20 percent) of the nominated films opened in December. And it became even more important in the 1960s, when sixteen (32 percent) of the nominated films were released in December, many of which around Christmas Day. The Awards Year’s rule stipulates that films must play at least one week in the Los Angeles county prior to December 31.

Though a strategic release certainly contributes to a film’s visibility, one should not jump to the conclusion that the release date counts more than its artistic merits. With his thirteen nomination, Woody Allen, a highly respected figure for his many talents, has shown complete disregard for the timing of his films’ release. Most of Allen’s pictures were released in the winter or spring–the worst season as far as Oscars are concerned. As noted, Hannah and Her Sisters opened in February, and Bullets Over Broadway, Allen’s last film to receive Best Picture nomination, was released in September, almost in defiance of Oscar norms.

The Oscar’s effect on the release dates and distribution patterns are good examples of the Award’s unanticipated consequences.