This coming March will be the 20th anniversary of what I consider to be the greatest Best Picture race of my lifetime. The 67th Academy Awards pitted Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption and Forrest Gump against each other, with Quiz Show and Four Weddings and a Funeral (both quality films, mind you) as also-rans. Set aside the fact that Forrest Gump somehow managed to win, and just consider the quality here. Then, when you're done, take a look at the release dates for these films:
- Four Weddings and a Funeral (May 13)
- Forrest Gump
- Quiz Show (Sept. 14)
- Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction (Oct. 14)
Yes, once upon a time, Best Picture-caliber movies were released throughout the year. Every year, this fact becomes increasingly difficult to believe.
We won't know the Oscar nominees until next month, but we can hazard a guess at how the Best Picture race is going to come together. We can be almost certain that Gravity and 12 Years a Slave -- both October releases -- will be in the mix. (They're probably co-favorites, actually). Captain Phillips, also an October release, stands a decent shot of being nominated.
There's some hope for sleepers like Fruitvale Station (July), The Butler (August) and a handful of other pre-November releases, too. But the competition is incredibly stiff from the veritable onslaught of Academy-baiting films that will have been released in the two-plus month window leading up to the announcement of nominations.
Those films include American Hustle, August: Osage County, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Philomena, Saving Mr. Banks and The Wolf of Wall Street to name a few. Now, I keep bringing up the Oscars because that's what drives this calendar-backloading arms race between Hollywood studios. As Salon's Daniel Carlson puts it in an unforgiving piece about awards season:
Awards coverage treats movies as if they exist only for the few weeks at the end of the year when studios put out “prestige” titles that are designed to capture award nominations. There’s no real secret to why they put out these movies at the end of the year: our brains look more fondly on recent experiences, so studios want films to come out as close to the nominating cycle as possible. There’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy involved; since the end of the year is now associated with award contenders or prestige titles, releasing your movie at that time can give you a subconscious boost in the mind of the voter. But movies exist long after a particular awards season has ended.
The emphasis here is mine, and I think it's critically important point that I wish studios would consider (while simultaneously resigning myself to the fact that they won't for more than a half-second). This is a vicious cycle, and it doesn't really matter if the media or the voters or the studios started it. What matters is that they all feed in to it, and that it does a great disservice to your average moviegoer.
This time of year has become completely overwhelming. I badly want to see all nine of those films. Were they released at even semi-regular intervals throughout the year, it would be a heckuva lot easier to make a point of doing so. But jammed into a 10-week (or so) span during which I'll also celebrate the holidays with family and try to see other appealing films that aren't necessarily Oscar bait (Thor: The Dark World, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Frozen, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, etc.) it becomes a near impossibility to get to them all.
That's incredibly unfortunate and extremely frustrating. Ultimately, it's hard not to wonder if it hurts these films collectively too. Are they passing up what could be a broader audience for what amounts to an awards season Hail Mary?