The relationship between commercial, critical, and peer acclaim is complex, but before you open that slimy can of worms you first need to decide when to release your film, because if you want to win an Oscar this is very, VERY important indeed.
PART V: RELEASE DATE
For your film to be eligible for Oscar consideration, it must have a theatrical run of at least seven days in Los Angeles between January 1st and December 31st. So every film in this year’s pack would have been released in the US during 2012, hence why the British Les Miserables is being released on Christmas Day in America and not until January 11th in the UK – one day after the nominations are announced (not a coincidence but more on that in a few weeks). However, closer inspections of all 114 Best Pictures nominees from 1993 – 2012 shows that release dates are far from random choices.
The Academy Awards claim to recognise the most remarkable films in any given year based entirely on a production’s artistic merit and so, if we momentarily remove all other factors, we can reasonably expect a fairly consistent spread across the year. In reality, there were zero Best Picture nominees released in January, February, and April across this twenty year period, and only sixteen (14%) in the first half of the year. In contrast, 43 were released in December and 75 (66%) in the last quarter. However we cannot ignore the exceptions, with films such as The Full Monty and Babe proving that a good film can still occasionally gain surprise recognition at the Oscars, regardless of release date. And also the nominated films released during the earlier months tend to be a mixed bag genre-wise, with animations, low-budget British films, animation, sci-fi, and blockbusters. To put it another way, the films released before October are those designed to make money, because Hollywood is a business first and foremost, and in these cases the Best Picture nomination was a bit of a cheeky bonus.
The nominees released in the final three months of the year are overwhelmingly period dramas, biopics, political dramas, and conveniently all the types of films that tend to do well at the Oscars. But what this shows is not that these genres do better at the box office during this time of year (though there is a notable commercial advantage to having your Oscar-nominated film in theatres during the campaign), or even that films have a greater chance of being nominated because they are released at this time, but that studios deliberately release their biggest Oscar hopefuls at this time because of the promotional advantages. If your film is in theatres in December, voters will be inundated with promotional material at the same time they are being asked to cast their ballots. Being a great film will only matter if the voters are thinking about your film in the first place. This is where you point out the reminder list that the Academy emails out with ballots listing all the eligible films, but you know as well as I do that a film you have only just seen will be far more resonant than exactly the same film watched eleven months ago.
So you are probably thinking if you want to win an Oscar all you have to do is release your film in the final week of the year and it’s practically in the bag, but you’re wrong. Although a majority of Best Picture nominees are released in December, a film from this month hasn’t won the award since 2005 (Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, if you’re asking). In fact, four of the last seven winners were released in November. This may be because in 2004 the Academy Awards were brought forward a month, and so the Oscar contenders are released earlier in the year by studios to accommodate the same lengthy campaign period. So let’s give this a bit of context and look at the release dates of some of this year’s big Oscar contenders (according to IMDB):
The Master – 21st September
Argo – 12th October
Lincoln – 16th November
Silver Linings Playbook – 16th November
Life of Pi – 21st November
Zero Dark Thirty – 19th December
Les Miserables – 25th December
Django Unchained – 25th December
Based on predictions compiled by Gold Derby, Argo was the early favourite, overtaken by Les Miserables, but currently Lincoln is in the lead with Zero Dark Thirty creeping into second. Of the eight films above (generally regarded as the biggest contenders this year), three of eight are December releases. That’s 37%, which is exactly the same as the total number of December released Best Picture nominees since 1993. But it’s a November release which is currently the favourite to win.
So taking all of the above into account, if you want to win an Oscar with your American period drama starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Amy Adams, Richard Gere, Whoopi Goldberg, Frances McDormand, and Chris O’Dowd directed by Michel Gondry, composed by Howard Shore, and produced by The Weinstein Company, you should release it on Thanksgiving weekend.