Hollywood Should Put an End to the December Contender Crunch

Releasing movies in the waning hours of the year might be a losing proposition for Oscar contenders.
The Post Tom Hanks
By  · Published on January 2nd, 2018

Releasing movies in the waning hours of the year might be a losing proposition for Oscar contenders.

In a week otherwise filled with friends and family members, I made one mistake over my holiday break: I jumped onto Fandango and looked at the movies playing in New York City. That brought about probably my first genuine case of FOMO since moving out of the city last summer; I even fell so far down the rabbit hole of limited releases that I began to discuss – seriously discuss, with dollar signs and everything – the feasibility of spending my post-Christmas week with friends in New York City going forward. The idea would be to cram as many Oscar contenders into a two- or three-day span as possible, allowing me to experience the assumed Best Picture nominees the right way (on the big screen). Sure, it’s a pipe dream, but one brought on by an increasing deluge of important motion pictures in the final months of the year.

All of which begs the question: why does Hollywood continue to release movies at the end of December, anyways?

Over the years, we’ve come to accept the December limited release in much the same way that sports fans accept icing the kicker in football or the circus of fouls at the end of a basketball game: it adheres to the letter of the law, even if its overall effectiveness is somewhat questionable. Much like those sports analogies, it’s a practice that is explicitly written into the rules of the game. The Academy Awards rules specifically allow movies to qualify as long as they are given a “qualifying run of at least seven consecutive days,” “for paid admission in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County,” and “released within the Awards year deadlines.” This explains the popularity of December 25th releases: they (barely) meet the “seven consecutive days” qualification for theatrical releases, ensuring that these movies will be eligible for Oscar consideration in the following month.

And while there are very good reasons for distributors to open small and let the market determine the expansion of any particular arthouse title, the negatives of a December release far outweigh the positives. In November, Variety published a piece on the overcrowded December landscape, noting that award season contenders were finding it difficult to gain traction with fourth-quarter releases. “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,” noted Variety‘s Tim Gray. “The formula doesn’t work any more.” Gray argues that recent changes to the Academy’s schedule – changes that were put into place in 2004 – have made Oscar contention a difficult proposition for many of the films released at the end of the year. As Gray notes, this has also created a deadline crunch for many critical bodies, pushing up their end-of-year winners into early December or even November, making it difficult for many voters to watch every film in contention.

All of which, of course, could be forgiven if the strategy actually worked for studios, but there’s plenty of evidence that suggests this approach leaves many films just short of Oscar gold. Consider: here’s a list of recent high-profile December releases and how they fared at the Oscars:

If you prefer it put another way, here is the complete list of Best Picture winners dating back to 2004:

For those keeping track at home, the trend has increasingly been towards November releases; ten of the thirteen titles listed above was released in theaters on or before November 25 of their release year. This doesn’t bode particularly well for this year’s batch of Oscar hopefuls, either. This past month featured limited releases for movies like I, TonyaThe Post, and Phantom Thread, with Academy Award hopefuls HostilesMolly’s Game, and In the Fade also making it into the mix. And while most of you won’t have an opportunity to actually see these movies in theaters until mid-January – and only The Post seems to have sustainable buzz as a Best Picture contender – this year-end blitz of releases doesn’t seem to be doing these films any favors.

So, a modest proposal for Hollywood: stop saving some of your biggest titles until the final week of the year. It’s not generating any enthusiasm with your fans, it’s not upping your chances of taking home a Best Picture statue, and it’s creating a crowded playing field where impressive movies get lost in the shuffle. You just had your worst summer in nearly 25 years – if you really want to do something creative, throw The Post out there in mid-July and give it a second, limited theatrical run come December. If we can maintain our interest in a movie like Get Out all the way from February on, maybe it’s time to start thinking about Oscar season as lasting twelve months instead of, well, two weeks.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)