Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hollywood's Only Oscar Strategy

Year in Review: 3 of 5


The Prime Prestige Poster Girls
Disturbing Factoid: You're unlikely to spot Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett on movie screens outside of Oscar season. Of Blanchett's 20 most recent films, a full 50% were released in December. Many from the other 50% were small films in which she had supporting roles. Kate works much less often but of her past 20 films (excluding voice work) 45% of her work debuted in Oscar's favorite month of the year. At this point aren't both of them more accurately described as Oscar Stars than Movie Stars?


In lieu of the traditional annual deep thoughts overview on the 2008 film year, I am opting to get something off of my chest regarding the imbalance of movie distribution. I'm tired of feeling overwhelmed every December. I want a steadier film diet. I am not bulimic and don't enjoy being treated that way by the studios.

I've discussed this before I'm afraid and do tire of repeating myself. So herewith a decree: In 2009, no matter what Oscar buzz befalls Hilary Swank in Amelia, Clint Eastwood's Mandela picture or the collected December '09 offerings, three of my five biggest Oscary pet peeves (#2 December-Only Release Strategies #4 Clint Eastwood #5 Hilary Swank) will be mostly verboten here at The Film Experience. In other words, though it would be difficult not to mention them at all in Oscar discussions, I shan't dwell.

READ THE REST...
for theories as to why the December Glut is worsening each decade. Can anything be done about it? PLUS: Nifty visual charts from 50 years of Oscar's Best Picture shortlists to illustrate the problem. Enjoy it even if you're illiterate.

also in the year in review

Rental Suggestions (Under Appreciated Films)
Hyperboles Gone Wild (Over Appreciated Films)
Hell's Multiplex (Worst Films & Performances)
FiLM BiTCH Awards Promo (because we love motion pictures)
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34 comments:

Arkaan said...

Well said. I think the best example I can think of is this year's Benjamin Button. Should a film with as smooth a production as it has had (no real delays, problems) really have received such a rollercoaster of buzz that it did? Given a film culture that's more based on instant gratification then in the past, how is with-holding a good thing.

I wonder if it's possible to go back. Even a little bit, but consistently. How about a film year like 2006, where three of the best picture nominees came out in October? How about more astute counterprogramming? How about recognizing how adults see movies? How about not pretending that Twilight was any bigger than Patch Adams (really, it wasn't - they both sold about the same number of tickets).

Of course, you can definitely make a point about the general mindset of the populist wanting mindless entertainment above all else, but even when critics complain about their ability to recognize greatness (Lisa Schwarzbaum, critic for EW, regarding Children of Men) solely due to the way the release is handled, something is definitely wrong.

Anonymous said...

This subject is really overdone.

Hayden said...

Okay, so speaking of La Blanchett. I honestly, thoroughly believe she's going to get a nomination this year for several reasons. First of all, everyone is seeing her film. Not only will the BO success boost CCoBB, but it also guarantees that the majority of the Academy will see it, unlike some of the other films fighting for those last Best Actress slots.

Second, having seen the film, it's hard to deny that besides the visuals, Cate Blanchett is the best thing BB has going for it. To me she was the clear acting MVP. If the AMPAS really goes for Benjamin Button, I don't see how Cate could possibly avoid coming with it, especially when actors have loved it so much.

It's a total gut feeling I have, but I truly believe she's gonna get a nom. Especially if the BAFTA backs her up, she's got a much better shot than some other contenders.

rosengje said...

Loved this article. What stuck out to me is your point about Frost/Nixon and Doubt vs. Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Rachel Getting Married. VCB in particular seems to have developed the most organically passionate fan base of any film this year. At the time, I believed TWC made the correct decision to release it in August when it could capitalize on an underserved summer specialty market. The film definitely performed well (almost $23 mill at the box office), and what was once presumed to be just a showcase for Penelope Cruz now has legitimate buzz for Original Screenplay and has gotten attention for Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, and even Woody Allen for a lone director slot.

I therefore have to wonder how much more attention the film would be getting had it been released later in the year and with a bigger Oscar push. Maybe it would have backfired, but it strikes me more and more that VCB is one of the few films that actually lived up to its hype, and even exceeded it.

Brian said...

Great article.

I wonder if there's a connection between the increase in December-centric campaigning and the rise of the DVD? It used to be that good films routinely had long legs in theatres so that a high-quality summer release could still see its theatrical returns benefit from an Awards-season boost. Now with most everything on DVD a few months after release, it's only the late-year releases that won't see their box office take cannibalized by home video by the time of the Oscar ceremony. And I do think that there is a certain strong (if decreasing) segment of Academy voters that sees a big part of the Oscar mission to still be to get audiences out into theatres to watch movies they way we all used to, collectively in the dark on a screen bigger than most televisions.

If so, I think that the December-fixation trend might naturally diminish somewhat in the next decade or so, as the theatrical cinema-going experience becomes less and less important to the way we experience movies.

Either that or it will become even more exacerbated as a last stand for cinemas and 35mm prints. But given how many voters use screeners to make their decisions, I'm doubtful that this is a crusade that will gain in momentum.

Casey Fiore said...

Great read, Nathaniel. I loved the last paragraph where you questioned Doubt's and Frost/Nixon's Oscar chances had they been released earlier in the year. How many other films from the past few years can we put in this category?

certainly Dreamgirls

bryan said...

On the case against Benjamin Button (and Doubt), one fact that strikes me is that 5 of the last 9 Best Pic winners were not December releases. I bet a lot of not-quite-the-best prestige pics try to get out of the door late so the backlash never begins in time for the noms. The best way to mitigate this, I'm guessing, would be to move the ceremony back to March, since the move has probably made the problem a little worse for this strategy. But there's so much groupthink on this, I'm not sure Hollywood would get it.

NATHANIEL R said...

i so enjoy the February Oscars more than the March Oscars. It felt so weird to celebrate the best of a year so late into the new year...

i still like my idea. a change in rules to where all films have to open before christmas and in at least several places more places than just LA. That way all the films are on a semi equal footing (they've all experienced some degree of public reaction even if they're still in limited release)

i think oscars would get a lot more interesting --right now i'm noticing there's an ever growing contingency of people who back certain ponies without ever having ridden it.

which is...

weird.

but unavoidable under the current circumstances i'm thinking

NATHANIEL R said...

hayden you could totally be right. I guess if BB has coattails but I guess i'm just in the dark again about what it is people see in her every performance. She's certainly given some great ones. But I'm not sure she's doing anything here that if anyone else did it people would be going crazy for.

i'm bewildered.

but to play devils advocate for a minute if actors love it that much and she's a good bet why didn't she get a SAG nomination?

bryan said...

For as much as i was very meh over BB, Cate Blanchett was the best part of the movie. Her understated emoting really hit the elegaic theme of the better parts of the movie. I only had a problem with her on her deathbed, where her voice sounded too different from her younger one.

I was thinking about where i HAD heard that voice, and then it struck me: old Kate Hepburn, and wouldn't that be kind of ironic if they nom'd her again here.

The only surprise to me is that a confirmed category fraudster is going for lead in a borderline-sized performance.

Hayden said...

I wouldn't be too phased by her SAG snub. They're a much less exclusive body when it comes to nominating unknowns who are arguably more deserving than members of the AMPAS club, and in such a crowded year it's hard to make excuses for specifically WHY an actress didn't make it in.

What makes it interesting is that in Best Actress different actresses in the top 7 or 8 are getting nommed and ignored in different places, so it's tough to predict who's safe and who isn't. I just think that Blanchett gave the kind of performance that older Academy members love, in a film they may just go nuts for.

I just can't see them nominating Brad Pitt for that lazy, easy performance (or Henson merely for being adorable--see my blog) and not Blanchett, who did the film's heaviest lifting. And who they love, love, love.

Hayden said...

Oh yeah...didn't you love how distinctly Hepburnesque (circa Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) Blanchett looked in that one draped smock in her 60's?

JorgeRodrigues said...

I agree so much with this...

This year's best movies opened ALL before december...

Slumdog
Wall-E
Rachel Getting Married
The Dark Knight
Milk
Burn After Reading
Happy-Go-Lucky
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Australia

Only The Wrestler and Wendy and Lucy opened in December...

nothingiswritten said...

To carry forward Brian's thought about DVDs: Might a well-timed DVD release actually help a midyear film's buzz, thereby improving its chance at a nomination? Maybe I'm all wrong here, but I was under the impression that the mid-December DVD release of Little Miss Sunshine got people talking about it all over again, and people who had missed it in theatres in the late summer had a second chance to see it and start lobbying for it as an Oscar prospect.

This is why I find the last week's reappearance of VCB in the local first-run multiplex baffling (it first played here in August). Wouldn't the film be better served by a DVD release now?

Kamikaze Camel said...

Indeed. It was only a few years ago that a movie released in May (that'd be Crash) won Best Picture. And lest we forget Silence of the Lambs was released in February. The problem is that the studios - probably quite rightly - don't have faith in the Academy or critics for that matter to still be in love with great movies later in the year. Melissa Leo has so far been an early year hit contender and The Dark Knight and WallE certainly are too but where did The Visitor go? But, then, I do wonder too if Frost/Nixon had been given an early summer release for instance whether it could have made an easy $50mil on the back of being good with an adult friendly director and ended up being a solid Best Picture contender instead of a "well, maybe for the final spot?" type of nominee.

Besides, I don't know about others, but if I saw a movie earlier in the year and by January can still claim to be as in love with it as I was at the time then I would most certainly put that down over something that I liked in December, but am not entirely certain about.

John T said...

Eastwood's Mandela seems like an almost certain film that Oscar will be fawning over. Freeman, at the very least, seems likely to hit a nomination.

Tim said...

Insightful as always. There's not much more frustrating than having to suffer through ten and a half months of what Hollywood thinks 14-year-old boys want to see, just to spend all of the holidays in front of a movie screen, and I like to imagine that I'm not the only person who's a little bit gleeful that the December strategy seems to have backfired, at least somewhat, this year. Also, great work getting all those stats together. It's kind of scary, isn't it?

(And no, Doubt would absolutely not be an Oscar hopeful if it had come out in, say, September).

Just one big caveat, though: you theorize that there are more movies getting released than there used to be, which I'm virtually certain is incorrect. Back in the '30s and '40s and into the '50s, recall, movies weren't an artistic vocation, they were a job, and the studios cranked them out like an assembly line. There's a reason John Ford made almost 150 movies, and it's not because he was a workaholic.

Kurtis O said...

Couldn't you have made that lovely rendering of the world's 3 best actresses BEFORE I made my Posters of the Year list?

Kamikaze Camel said...

In regards to the "more movies being made" I think Tim is right, but the thing is there are far more things these days to take away from going to the movies. People can watch movies on DVD, download them illegally, watch DVD, go on the internet or do any number of social things. Going to the movies isn't what it once was many people (evidenced by that strange "stat" that on average people only go to the movies two or three times a year). And these days there is an dwindling supply of people willing to see upwards of 50 movies a year, yet because of things like the internet there are more and more movies coming to our attention and just not enough time and money to see them all so it becomes physically impossible to see something like 30 films in December when you have not only big Oscar hopefuls but small arthouse films (Wendy & Lucy, Hunger, etc).

Alex said...

Interesting data. I wonder if the pretty much complete corporatisation of film has something to do with it. I'd guess that many of these films are only greenlit/distributed as potential awards contenders. They're not expected to turn a profit or break even without the aid of awards nominations so holding off until December might be the only chance for a production company/ distributor to be rewarded for their efforts -- if not financially, then at least with some critical prestige.

adam k. said...

I agree that Cate did the most impressive actual acting in Benjamin Button. She had the biggest arc (easily), what with... well, that'd be a spoiler. But between the dancing (if that was really her... you never know with a movie so enamored of digital replacement), the aging, the emotional changes, the romance... it was quite an impressive perf. And I'm not even a huge Blanchett fan.

I also disagree with the notion that she could've/should've gone supporting. I suppose she might've gotten away with it if she'd tried, but with Henson to compete with, it only would've confused. This is a romance through and through, and she's the female lead. The second half of the film is pretty much hers (whereas the first half belongs to Pitt). And she also anchors the whole thing through the deathbed framing. She's 1/2 the film. She is a lead.

Styx said...

That "December" poster is the funniest thing I've seen on this site all year. "One of the best months of the year!" OMG that was too funny! Bravo, sir!

Donny said...

The only thing the Academy will do to "correct" this problem is what they've already done periphreally to solve another problem -- up the telecast of the Oscars to try to prevent rampant marketing from super-aggressive, statue/money-hungry studios. That would in turn force studios to alter their release strategies (re: set opening dates somewhat earlier in the calendar like October or November -- can't go too crazy with that out-of-sight, out-of-mind no man's land of February to April) to accommodate the new airdate. It seemed to have worked for awhile with strong contenders coming out in early fall or earlier("Mystic River," "Ray," "Little Miss Sunshine," "Crash," "Capote," "The Queen," etc.) and being recognized for getting that early traction. But that all seemed to change again this year. They'd never do something like a half-year semifinals round. It would be too much work on these lazy voters, and someone down the line would surely bitch about these early-year films having an improper advantage over the year-ends if they toppled the other (the irony).

Really I think the writers strike just about screwed up everything -- not only new development for the upcoming television season, but also for completed and upcoming films down the pike (and the 2008 holdovers still awaiting a 2009 release). The country's in a recession, ticket prices are up, sales are down, and speciality film divisions are going belly-up left and right. It's not too hard to figure out why these films are getting the December treatment. Reluctant studios don't have proper faith in these films or their audiences' intelligence, nor do they know of a better way to sell these tough-to-market films other than through the prestige Oscar factor hook. That's how they put these films in a tidy marketing package and hope that the adult audiences respond accordingly, which then drive box office receipts, DVD sales, more Oscar talk, and buoy international sales. They don't know how to do anything else nowadays beyond marketing to 15-year-old white boys. Sad, but that's the reality of things.

The Know Nothing Know It All said...

It's frustrating to see even smaller films trying this strategy though. Look at a great movie like "The Wrestler." If that had been released around late summer/early fall, it might be where "Slumdog Millionaire" is right now. It's just now getting a steady rollout, which is ridiculous. Same thing with "Children of Men" two years earlier.

Janice said...

On the other hand, the late release date seems to have backfired last year for "Atonement" - or did it fail to impress AMPAS for other reasons? (The voters seemed to have been in a very dark mood last year.)

jo said...

Love the artwork Nathaniel, I've been waiting for someone to do something about these 3 women in particular, and as always you do so in an inspired fashion. Bravo! Very funny!

NATHANIEL R said...

the know nothing...

yeah the two movies i think we're really foolish to wait for december this year you hit on the nose: THE WRESTLER (needed a lot of discussion to be received on a larger scale as something more than a low budget performance drama) and WENDY & LUCY (which was too small for christmas. It should've just followed its festival buzz into release)

not to mention about 10 other miniscule movies that had no hope of getting anyone talking amidst the huge star epics and the holidays.

but December is wise for some movies. it helps BENJAMIN BUTTON be a frontunner and also FROST/NIXON and DOUBT were probably smart about waiting this long. They're both "fun" in a way and they have big themes/bait elements but they're hardly masterpieces. This way everyone can still vote for them when they're fresh and before they have a lot of time to consider whether this truly is "best filmmaking"

maybe i'm naive about the whole thing but i tend to think the movies that are great don't need December to get nominated and the movies that only seem great at first glance really do need December.

or am i projecting my own anti-december feelings onto it? ;)

Robert said...

I think you mentioned a big factor (that hasn't gotten enough discussion). I'm talking about the marketing angle. Studios don't know how to market most of these films outside the parameters of awards contenders, so they're happy to let award nominations take the place of actual marketing.

If they release their movie in September or October, then they'd have to come up with actual marketing strategies and spend $$.

Of course, this works against Oscar in the long run. No marketing means that fewer people have even heard of these movies which means lower ratings for the Oscar-cast.

Janice said...

I just read that one of the Fox honchos is blaming "the competition" as the reason that Australia is not doing well at the box office. So how does that explain the fact that BB, which has more prestige pics to compete with, has done better at the box office? I'm amused by how far the studios (and everyone involved) will go to put the blame elsewhere, after they plotted and planned the release date to the nth degree.

Regarding the December glut - I totally agree with you, Nat. It would have been interesting to see those graphs extended a couple of decades earlier, although the studio system then was quite different from what we have now. I think it has a lot to do with the shrinking ratings for the Oscars, as well as a lot of the contempt that "ordinary Joes and Janes" (the ones some might call "red staters" but in fact it's not that easily divisible) have for Hollywood, for prestige pics, etc etc - the sense of being left out. Who cares about Oscars if you can't see any of the films being nominated because the studios didn't think you, the great unwashed, were worthy of seeing it, only the folks in NY and LA? And, doesn't that also mean that these films are not really competing in an honest way (unlike Rachel, or VCB, or The Visitor, or Happy Go Lucky or any films/perfs that had to get out there and actually earn their buzz and their audiences?)

I still wonder about the situation with Atonement - last year you were saying that a late release actually hurt its chances, no?

pappu said...

I think Nathaniel is aiming for much more (read: loftier) than appeasing and interesting us, with this rather focused, relatively thorough, even academic piece on the Year in Review. It's not even marking one's territory. It's heading for as professional-as-it-gets within a world mushrooming with professional amateurs. Good going!

RC said...

thanks for all the work you put into the charts.

i've wondered exactly how those figures pan out...i appreciate your work here.

I'm so done with this strategy though...

please at least start releasing the goods in august/september.

anthony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Glenn said...

I've thought that if Atonement had come out even a week earlier it would have missed Best Picture. It seemed to barely scrape in there and if it had been out in November then it's small amount of Best Picture buzz would have evaporated earlier.

FilmDr said...

Nice work. Did I just notice a reference to this post in The New York Times? If I did, congratulations!