The Academy decided to push up the Oscars next year to February 9, a few weeks before its previous date of late February/early March. The reasons for the shift are unclear: maybe it’s the ratings, maybe it’s the Super Bowl a week before to get audiences hyped for another event? Things are changing all over the place with streaming screeners, with streaming entering the Oscar race, with blockbusters swallowing up the multiplex, and on and on it goes.
The last time the Academy changed their date was around 2003, when they shifted it from late March to late February to take advantage of February sweeps. That had, to my mind, a devastating impact on the race itself. When the Oscars were held in March, movies really had time to open to the public. Sure, there were always “Oscar movies,” but they were held until the last part of the year to be closer to voting. The public still saw them because they tended to be big event movies anyway: sweeping epics, love stories, etc.
What happened after the first date change was that the Oscar race was pushed way up into festival season. The nominees are now mostly decided before the voting even begins, give or take. The main hot spot for Best Picture had been, up until last year, the Telluride Film Festival, which happens at the end of August. Last year’s winner, Green Book, was first seen at the Toronto Film Festival and bypassed Telluride.
Still, Best Picture winners after the 2003/2004 date change were all seen by audiences (festival or otherwise) before October. Readers of this site know this already since I’ve been writing about it ever since. Let’s do it one more time, shall we?
2004 — Million Dollar Baby (the last to really be a “late breaker”)
2005 — Crash (Toronto 2004)
2006 — The Departed (opened early October)
2007 — No Country for Old Men (Cannes)
2008 — Slumdog Millionaire (Telluride)
2009 — The Hurt Locker (Toronto 2008)
2010 — The King’s Speech (Telluride)
2011 — The Artist (Cannes)
2012 — Argo (Telluride)
2013 — 12 Years a Slave (Telluride)
2014 — Birdman (Venice/Telluride)
2015 — Spotlight (Telluride)
2016 — Moonlight (Telluride)
2017 — The Shape of Water (Venice/Telluride)
2018 — Green Book (Toronto)
What you don’t see anymore are December late breakers building momentum driven by what general moviegoing audiences think — the audiences that build the moment now are festival goers, critics, bloggers, and industry. If you work backwards from the date change, you see the public and box office matters a lot more. The Hurt Locker and Moonlight are two films that won regardless of how they did at the box office. It just didn’t matter what the public thought. And it still doesn’t.
2002 — Chicago
2001 — Gladiator
1999 — American Beauty
1998 — Shakespeare in Love
1997 — Titanic
1996 — The English Patient
1995 — Braveheart
1994 — Forrest Gump
1993 — Schindler’s List
You can see by these films that the public absolutely played a part in how they did at the Oscars. Titanic’s entire story was written by its box office. Same goes for Forrest Gump and Gladiator. These are films that the industry rewarded based on how much THEY liked them and ALSO how much the public liked them. Remember we all used to talk about “capturing the zeitgeist?” That still happens, but it does it inside a very tiny bubble that includes what the hive mind on Twitter thinks (does it check off the acceptable boxes or does it piss off a blogger who will pitch a fit and spread a wave of hysteria) and how the bloggers are positioning the movie. How do people FEEL supporting it?
Green Book is really an exception to the rule since it defied the hive mind by being a movie people loved but also being backed by Spielberg. The thing is, had Green Book been given a chance to greet the public BEFORE the so-called controversy erupted, it would have done really well at the box office. It didn’t do badly ultimately (85 million domestic), but it would have done better.
All of this to say that taking the public out of the equation broke the Oscars to my mind. The public is supposedly the group most important when making films. You don’t make them for critics or bloggers or even for industry voters. They’re supposed to be for audiences. The Oscars should be somewhere in between critical acclaim and what the public loves. They realized that all too late and tried last year to cobble together a combo plate with “popular” movies, but that won’t sustain. Trust me. They aren’t going to be falling all over themselves to nominate whatever that last Avengers movie was. So they are going to be put into the same position they were in, deciding what to do with what’s happening at the multiplex.
Part of that is they will have to compromise on Netflix and Amazon and other platforms, where creativity and risk-taking still reign. If Hollywood is going to completely sell out to the fast food model, the Academy can’t be expected, with a straight face, to reward these things. I had long suggested they adopt a “Best Effects-driven Motion Picture” category to honor what movies like these actually ARE. The credit should go to the effects departments. They insulted everyone by suggesting, god forbid, that there can be such a thing as a “popular” film, as opposed to the films nominated for the Oscar that nobody watches. The truth hurts, folks. But they don’t call it the truth for nothing.
Now let’s look at how the race might change now that everything is happening weeks earlier than planned.
First, there isn’t a lot of difference in terms of where the other awards are. The Golden Globes timeline hasn’t really shifted all that much. The Producers and Directors Guilds haven’t shifted all that much. The biggest difference is when on the timeline Oscar voting takes place.
And that looks like this, compared to last year:
On the one hand, we know the Academy is always trying to lessen the influence of the campaigns. They really hate the part where studios “compete” by advertising. Which is funny because that is exactly WHY there is an awards industry at all — people wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work. But there isn’t a lot of wiggle room here, especially in the first week of voting, which happens literally after New Year’s. Not even a break to get back to the office — just boom boom boom. Get it done and done.
The final voting takes place before last year’s even started. Again, get it done, boom boom boom. They want the whole thing over and out as quickly as possible. The Golden Globes will take place just two days before Oscar voting closes, as opposed to a whole week from last year.
With the Oscars pushed up almost a month, that also means that it’s theoretically possible earlier festivals like Sundance and Cannes could come to mean a bit more in terms of positioning. Cannes has always marched to its own beat, but Sundance could certainly become something of a much bigger deal, although since it’s always right on top of the current year’s Oscar announcements that’s doubtful.
What the shift will REALLY mean is that the Oscar game will go even further underground, handing the win over to streaming platforms that are really more equipped to deal with the kinds of release patterns we’re going to be looking at for the kinds of films the Academy likes to reward. The upside to that is that if a movie plays on Netflix, say, millions more will be able to see it than they would if it was only playing in New York and LA.
This new move should completely end the habit of releasing late-breaking films in time for Christmas and Oscar season. Forget it. Your movie will have had to have been seen, written about, buzzed about, targeted with hit pieces then given time to recover or it’s not winning Best Picture.
I suspect that the festival circuit will come alive with Oscar even more than it is now. So if we see it along the lines of Venice/Telluride/Toronto now, it should start to work in more of the fringe festivals that come early, like Middleburg and Savannah. There are so many of them popping up now, and under the right circumstances, they theoretically allow actual ordinary citizens of the town to see the films even if they aren’t part of the festival.
So the question must be asked, is the date change good for the Oscars?
Will it help boost ratings? Maybe. Maybe it’s true that people are exhausted by the time the show rolls around. Maybe getting it over with is the right move.
Is it good for the Oscars? The better question is — is it good for the film community on the whole? The answer is no. In the same way America has become a cripplingly divided nation where each side gets its own version of the truth, the gap between the Oscar industry and the movies regular people see is getting wider and wider. This move will only push them further back into their part of the divide.
But at this point there is no going back in time. Everything has changed, including how we watch the Oscars, why we watch them, and what to do with them going forward. The Academy, like everything else, has to adapt or die. We’re in the midst of big changes in the film industry overall. Some are clinging to the past as its dying in their grasp, some are happily greeting the future and everything that goes along with it.
I guess we’ll just have to see how it goes.