Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


oscar

(PHOTO: DAVE_B_/FLICKR)

The Self-Fulfilling Oscar Calendar

• December 18, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: DAVE_B_/FLICKR)

How the Academy Awards shrink the year in movies to down to no more than a few months.

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.

Kevin Lincoln
Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a writer living in Los Angeles. He also contributes to The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Grantland.

More From Kevin Lincoln

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


Follow us


Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.