The Academy's compressed Oscar season is a debacle, but don't blame studio movie release patterns

By Mark Harris
January 14, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Mark Harris Illustration Quickhoney

Who’s to blame for Oscar madness?

I’ve already gotten a good deal of feedback (a bunch of email saying ”Right on!”, a bunch of email saying ”Up yours!”, and comments on sites like Oscarwatch, The Film Experience and Hollywood Elsewhere) about my first Final Cut column. My argument was that the new, shorter Oscar voting schedule, in which Academy members have to mail their ballots by Jan. 10 rather than (as was the case until three years ago) the end of January is unjustly hurting the chances of movies that went into limited release in December. I pointed to Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth and Letters From Iwo Jima as three potential victims of a voting schedule that didn’t allow Academy members enough time to see them.

A number of people have replied that I’m missing the point — that what’s broken isn’t the Academy, but the studios, which foolishly insist on jamming too many of their best movies into the very end of the year. I’d like to address this, because it stems from a complaint to which I’m deeply sympathetic — that studios (and their so-called indie labels) starve people who love serious or challenging movies for 11 months out of the year, and then feed them more than they can eat in the 12th. As anyone who has searched for a good movie to see in March or April knows, there’s legitimacy to this gripe.

But I think that the defenders of the new, shorter Oscar calendar are wrong on two fronts. First, they’re kidding themselves if they imagine that a tightened voting schedule is somehow going to bully movie companies into changing the way they release movies. It won’t happen for a simple reason: The end-of-the-year logjam is working reasonably well on a financial level. Pan’s Labyrinth roared out of the gate with a per-screen average of close to $40,000, and it’s stayed strong. After a similarly powerhouse limited debut, Children of Men widened to 1,200 screens in the first weekend of January and was, on Monday, the second highest-grossing movie in the country, a remarkable performance for a grim and difficult dystopian thriller playing on 1,800 fewer screens than its nearest competition. Notes on a Scandal has gotten some early traction at the box office and reached the top 20 last weekend while still on fewer than a hundred screens. The fact there was still room for Letters From Iwo Jima and The Painted Veil to do even decent (though only decent) business shows that the December/January marketplace can stretch to accommodate these movies. Given a choice between Oscars and money, studios will take money every time.

The other fallacy of the”It’s the studios, stupid” argument is also financial: As much as we may say that we want grownup movies all year around, we don’t put our money where our mouths are. Just look at the movies that opened between Labor Day and Thanksgiving: The Last King of Scotland, despite reviews that unanimously touted Forest Whitaker’s performance, grossed less than $4 million. Babel got notices touting it as an Oscar contender and has taken in about $20 million — remember, it stars Brad Pitt — in three months. Flags of Our Fathers opened in October and, despite very good reviews, didn’t get nearly the first-weekend sampling Paramount and DreamWorks needed it to get. Little Children, For Your Consideration, and Running With Scissors barely got a look. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Sherrybaby, and Catch A Fire didn’t get a look. Put together, every movie I just mentioned grossed about as much as Saw III. Whatever you may think of these films individually, the pattern is pretty clear: Given that The Queen and Volver were the only two small movies to get real attention from discerning audiences in three months, why shouldn’t the studios continue to back-load the year? (And let’s not even talk about spring and summer, when deserving indies like Brick, The Proposition, and Half Nelson could hardly find a pulse at the box office.)

There’s no reason in the world to imagine movie companies will start doing things differently because of the new Oscar schedule, and there’s little point in the Academy digging in and refusing to blink until they do. It’s easier to change one awards calendar than to alter a multi-billion dollar industry, isn’t it? The Oscars, like any other awards, should be about one thing: Rewarding excellence using judgments that are based on as fair and thorough a survey of the playing field as possible. That means letting all of the movies open in a single year, and then leaving some room after the year ends for catching up, second thoughts (remember those?), and clarity of judgment, a system that worked decently for decades. The new, accelerated schedule — which has affected all movie awards, not just the Oscars — prevents that.

For further evidence of the problem, take a look at this year’s Writers Guild nominees (WGA members do not get screeners, and have to vote a week earlier than Oscar voters). Not a single December release was among the ten screenplay nominees. Not Letters From Iwo Jima, not Children of Men, which just won the Scripter award as the year’s best literary adaptation, not even the user-friendly Notes on a Scandal. (Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t even eligible, but that’s a whole other fight.) Anybody who believes that the majority of WGA voters saw December’s limited-release movies before voting just isn’t paying attention. Good movies will continue to be ignored during awards season because not enough voters have a chance to see them. And that does nothing but devalue the awards and prevent good work from getting all the praise it deserves.