Starting around September, movie theaters undergo an interesting transformation. Early in the year, marquees sparkle with earnest, witty, independent film titles, while the summer reveals a shift to big action blockbusters. But come fall, a whole other kind of movie beast is unleashed: The awards season hopeful.
"I would get an Oscar season depression," quips Whit Stillman, whose film "Love & Friendship" was released in June and was the subject of positive reviews, particularly for star Kate Beckinsale. "I'm suddenly watching all these films that were depressive. I'm a silly person, a comedy guy. So at some point I decided I would only see the films I wanted to see."
Fortunately for movie studios, not all moviegoers think like Stillman, and the end of the year has become known for some serious filmmaking, destined to inspire deep think pieces and (ideally) little engraved statues. But what about the movies like Stillman's that earned critical plaudits but ventured forth before the Kraken was unleashed? Do they stand a chance with awards voters?
Surprisingly, the answer can be yes: Think of "Boyhood" (released August 2014); "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (March 2014); "Mad Max: Fury Road" (May 2015) — all of which pushed through to the Oscar finish line. But getting a smaller film with fewer expectations and an even smaller marketing budget to the end of that line is a challenge every year and requires a combination of timing, strategy and sheer luck.
"You have to weigh whether a picture can sustain all that competition at the end of the year — or is it better for a picture to open at a time when the competition is not as severe," says Michael Barker, Sony Pictures Classics co-president, noting that SPC's first release, "Howards End," opened in February 1992 and won three Oscars a full year later.
"There's a compelling argument for opening in the first eight months of a year and that's: Your film can stand out when there's less competition for the attention of the audience," he adds.
In the case of SPC, he's speaking of the current Julianne Moore/Greta Gerwig/Ethan Hawke-starring "Maggie's Plan," which was released in April — traditionally a quiet period for theaters — and ran for four months on the big screen in New York City. Having a long run like that is both possible during the early post-Oscars portion of the year — and optimal if a smaller film wants to get noticed.
Similarly, "The Lobster," a controversial dark satire starring Colin Farrell, also spent an extended run in theaters of 10 weeks after its limited U.S. release in May.
"It's nonsensical that all of these [Oscar hopeful] movies come out in a very short time," says "Lobster" producer Ed Guiney. "Between October and February we're spoiled for choice, and other times during the year we're scratching our heads to figure out what's going on. As a theater owner [Guiney owns two in Ireland], we're starved certain times of the year and inundated at others."
This time of year, a four-month or 10-week run is unheard of; even a good film can be here and gone in moments. But films that come out earlier in the year have another advantage — that by the time awards season swings around, they're ready for a second wind thanks to DVD and VOD releases and get a fresh chance to remind viewers of both their existence and award-worthiness.
"We debated rushing ['Eye in the Sky'] out for awards season in 2015 and decided to do the right thing for the movie — which was to let the awards season get out of the way," says producer Ged Doherty of his unflinching political film that starred Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman that came out in April. "Now people are just discovering it on DVD, and word of mouth is starting up again."
DVD is key for smaller films: Big ones just being released are too concerned with piracy to issue many — if any — screeners, but it's cost-effective to send already produced consumer DVDs to academy members and journalists with a film that's completed its theatrical run.
But that's a gamble too: Once DVDs are out, says Barker, attendance at official academy showings of the film can plummet, which means awards voters may not be seeing the film as intended by filmmakers. "The effect can be positive or negative depending on how the film plays on the small screen," he says.
Yet overall the feeling remains that if you want serious Oscar attention, releasing in the last third to quarter of the year affords you automatic consideration in the big races — without having to remind anyone that the film exists.
"After Telluride and Toronto [fall film festivals], all these Oscar movies come out and compete — and that clearly remains a strategy," says Matt Ross, director of July's Viggo Mortensen-starring "Captain Fantastic." "And some films have to fall by the wayside."
A fact that remains true no matter what a film's strategy is. After all, there are only so many hours in a day. "There's only time for academy members to see so many films at the end of the year," Barker says with a sigh. "You just hope and pray that you'll be one of the 10 or 12 they decide are worth seeing."