As I sit writing this, I’m less than 24 hours removed from seeing Inside Llewyn Davis, which is outstanding, further testament to the Coen Brothers as our culture’s Dante, leading us through hells both literal and figurative. It’s December, and this month, still to come, are a number of movies I and others who follow film are pretty stoked about: Spike Jonze’s Her, David O. Russell’s American Hustle, Martin Scorcese’s Wolf of Wall Street, Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Meryl Streep and pretty much every other actor in Hollywood’s August: Osage County. Tracking back through November, where we can pick up Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas Buyers Club and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, and October, which gives us Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, we’ve got the lion’s share of the possible Best Picture Oscar nominees covered.
Isn’t that weird? That’s pretty weird. The Oscars cover a year. And the only films that seem to be in the running for some of the major awards that weren’t released in the last three months are ones that also don’t quite fit the normal mold of Oscar films: Fruitvale Station, an unflinching work by a new director; Blue Jasmine, a Woody Allen movie and, therefore, pretty much unconcerned with the rules of the industry; and Before Midnight, the third installment in what might be the most original mainstream trilogy in American cinema.
I’m not breaking any new ground here, but I am trying to lay a framework for us to understand why the hell this is. Why do all the Academy Award-worthy movies have to come out at the end of the year? Are voting members’ memories that short? Will the serious filmgoing public, marginal and niche as it is, refuse to see prestige films that come earlier? And, most of all, why do the studios pit all the “cool” movies—the movies the mid-level cinephile, not the one who’s digging on Upstream Color and The Great Beauty, is dying to see—against each other?
If all the strange, beautiful pictures disqualify themselves from seriously competing in the Awards season, the Awards season becomes a collection of trite and uninteresting movies.
LET’S TAKE THE CASE of one film in particular: Out of the Furnace. Equipped with an elite pedigree and a closet full of Oscar-stamped actors, Out of the Furnace came out December 6 and … did not fare well. With a $5 million box-office take on its opening weekend, competing against no other new releases. It will now likely fade fast under the weight of the other oncoming prestige pictures, one of which also features Christian Bale in a main role.
Out of the Furnace had issues beyond its release date: Reviews were lukewarm. Advertising did nothing to convey any of the million things the movie is about: PTSD, dying American steel towns, fractured families, the meth trade, the prison system, violence and rage. And rather than actually giving a coherent push behind one of the film’s cavalcade of stars—Bale, Case Affleck, Woody Harrelson—the studio split its efforts to the point where you would never know Willem Dafoe was in the movie, even though his role is substantial.
But the release date was the film’s biggest issue, because, no matter what, Out of the Furnace had no chance against Bale’s other film. American Hustle is a perfect storm of prestige, reuniting David O. Russell with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, who is performing about as well as any actor possibly can right now, both on screen and off. Then, throw Jeremy Renner into the mix and give them the backdrop of a real-life story to play with, which, if Argo is any indication, works rather well. In the light of this juggernaut, chances of Out of the Furnace being anything other than “Christian Bale’s other movie” were pretty low.
Yet if Out of the Furnace had a genre, it would be “Oscar,” in the way that well-written books are inevitably described as “literary fiction.” And so, Out of the Furnace got a December release, where it appears destined to be ignored and forgotten. Considering that, you would have a hard time arguing that releasing this movie six months earlier—or even in September, a la the thriving Prisoners, a movie with which Out of the Furnace shares an overwhelming grimness and solemnity, not to mention a killer cast—wouldn’t have done wonders for its reception, given it room to breathe, and allowed it an individual identity.
THE DESTINY OF PRESTIGE films in November and December is suffocating and unnecessary from a consumer’s perspective. It’s hard to argue with that. But it’s also detrimental to the films, which exist in competition with each other in a way that they wouldn’t were they given more room. It’s not even a productive competition, what could be a conversation; it’s a world in which we are all actively constructing our Top 25 lists. It’s not the Top 25 lists that are the problem, it’s the fact that these movies seem to be released with Top 25 lists in mind. Which, in fact, they are; just ask Harvey Weinstein, the mega-producer whose ability to vacuum up Oscars for his films is something of a Hollywood fixation. When movies come out in December, they are inserting themselves into a movie-going psyche obsessed with hierarchy, ordering them into the best and second-best and so on, as a result of the awards season rush. And because of the congestion, this is the only possible way: The onslaught of necessary pictures means a complete reordering of the year’s landscape to that point, all at once.
My list this year will include Upstream Color, Side Effects, Drinking Buddies, Stoker, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and Spring Breakers, all movies that are as worthy of the aforementioned in terms of accolades. (It will also include Only God Forgives, but I don’t expect anyone to agree with me on that, at this point.) I’m glad these films all weren’t coming out in November and December because I’m already only one man who, even with a high tolerance for going to movie theaters, actually has other interests. Had they come out in November and December, I wouldn’t have seen some of them, and that banishes these films from the Academy Awards conversation. Some of them may have improved their Oscar chances with a late-year release, particularly Side Effects, which, I think, could have been dressed up into a prestige film from its status as a well-crafted thriller with a minimum of studio effort. (Side Effects, like many releases, was struck with some early-production casting and procedural drama—Blake Lively was originally slated to play Rooney Mara’s character, which, if you’ve seen Side Effects, probably horrifies you—and that will often affect a movie’s conception as something worthy of an awards push or placement.) But what you have here is a calculus of release dates and exposure. Films like Stoker, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and Spring Breakers, which are all too weird, morally challenging, and spare to be ideal Oscar films, can stake out their little windows in the release calendar away from the conventional juggernauts of prestige and hope that they land with some impact. If one were tossed into the December conversation, however, it would be overwhelmed.
This also becomes self-fulfilling. If your strange, beautiful picture needs a March or July release to be impactful, it disqualifies itself from seriously competing in the Awards season. If all the strange, beautiful pictures disqualify themselves from seriously competing in the Awards season, the Awards season becomes a collection of trite and uninteresting movies. (The high level of conservatism of the Academy’s voters also plays a significant role here: see Mark Harris’ breakdown of the voting demographics for more on that.)
We—me and you, serious moviegoers, patrons of the art (lol)—may think the Oscars are banal and misguided and more or less irrelevant, but the fact of the matter is, they’re not—they’re a major vehicle for the artists and work of the medium. And, by their nature, they chop off three-quarters of the release calendar, including many of the films that most deserve that Oscar shine.