THE LONG SHOT: Post early for Christmas

Posted by · 1:35 pm · October 7th, 2009

Jeremy Renner in The Hurt LockerLondon is in the midst of a postal strike. No mail, be it far-flung postcard or electricity bill, has popped through my front door for over a month. I recently had to stroll into Soho to pick up my London Film Festival accreditation pack by hand. And rather discouragingly, my local post office today put a hastily scrawled sign in the window: “Post NOW for delivery by Christmas.”

If you’re wondering why I’ve started this week’s column with this fascinating tidbit from my domestic life – apart from the fact that, as Kris noted, the crickets are chirping in awardsville this week – it’s because, as I stared disbelievingly at the sign, it occurred to me that a similar memo should be sent to several specialty studios hoping for a stake in this awards season. (Yes, my mind works in curious ways.)

In short: you have a little package that needs to deliver in time for Oscar consideration? Don’t wait until December. Send it out now.

This may seem like crazy advice given Oscar voters’ ever-growing love affair with winter releases. Just last year, no pre-November release made the Best Picture cut. And Harvey Weinstein has proved time and again that substantial rewards can be reaped if you spring a film upon the Academy without giving them too much time to think about it – from “The Cider House Rules” to “Chocolat” to “The Reader,” he knows which films won’t survive a few months of critical and industry scrutiny.

But I’m not really addressing the Weinsteins, or the studios with name-laden, Oscar-tailored prestige productions in the wings. Rather, I’m appealing to the IFCs, the Oscilloscopes, the indie outfits with smaller, trickier films in the hunt: you may think you’re helping your babies by releasing them in the most Oscar-friendly months of the year, but you could just as easily be suffocating them.

That’s not to say the risk of moving a few months earlier in the calendar is any less significant, but if your film has the goods, at least it gets more time and space to build its identity in the minds of critics, audiences and voters alike.

Dominic Cooper in An EducationHow smart of Sony Pictures Classics, then, to begin rolling out “An Education” in this otherwise slow week at the movies, receiving more press (and hopefully, selling more tickets to urban adult moviegoers) than it ever would otherwise. Would it receive the same level of attention two weeks before Christmas? Perhaps (it’s a marvelous film, after all), but why go up against the big guns when you don’t have to?

Some have questioned fledgling distributor Apparition’s wisdom in putting out “Bright Star” so early in the season, fearing that a bijou piece like Jane Campion’s film doesn’t have the heft to remain in the conversation for four whole months. They may well be right, but if the film is that fragile, what chance would it stand amid the December crush? Whether it takes hold or not, Apparition has at least given the film a generous window.

If this sounds like business talk, I apologize: that’s really not my forte. But it comes from a place of genuine love and concern for the movies themselves. Last year, for example, saw a number of regrettable Oscar-season casualties as indie outfits overestimated their sway in the festive season.

What, for example, was IFC thinking by opening Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” – with its awards-demanding lead turn by Michael Fassbender – with a limited run in early December? The film, a beautiful but punishingly bleak work with no star names attached, always faced an uphill climb for Oscar attention, but that scheduling didn’t even allow for a long-shot Best Actor campaign.

Oscilloscope similarly scuppered a potential (and richly deserving) Best Actress bid for Michelle Williams by throwing the miniscule “Wendy and Lucy” to the wolves of December. Chances are these films wouldn’t have registered any more with Academy members earlier in the year, but at least some people might have seen them.

Even the mighty Fox Searchlight faltered with “The Wrestler,” affording it too little time to build the momentum that could otherwise have landed Best Picture and Director bids. In comparison, look how well spring and summer releases worked out for “Frozen River” and “The Visitor,” respectively, as months of word-of-mouth landed them major (and majorly against-the-odds) nominations.

Julianne Moore in A Single ManSo, even if this is underdog season, get in there first. Do the folks behind Hal Holbrook’s awards vehicle “That Evening Sun” really want to throw the film into the wilds of midwinter? Does IFC really stand to lose anything by putting out the distinctly un-Oscary “Fish Tank” now, where the extraordinary story of debut star Katie Jarvis might at least generate a few column inches? If there is any hope for “The White Ribbon” outside the foreign-language ghetto, is a December 30 release the best way to capitalize on it?

I even have concerns about The Weinstein Company’s last-minute strategy for Tom Ford’s wafer-delicate, defiantly niche “A Single Man”: a nomination for Colin Firth seems a safe bet, but I wonder if it might have an easier time reaping even greater rewards with more time for its audience to get behind it.

Maybe it’s just me, but Summit’s decision to hold “The Hurt Locker” for an entire season, before grabbing the lion’s share of critical attention in summer, looks smarter by the day. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Christmas cards to mail.

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11 responses so far

  • 1 10-07-2009 at 2:06 pm

    david said...

    Wow…and I thought my postal service was inefficient!!

    I agree Guy…with potential heavy hitters like Avatar, Invictus, Nine, and The Lovely Bones all scheduled for late year releases you would think this would be the perfect time for these “smaller” films to screen, and carve out a niche for themselves. I might be completely wrong, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Academy balanced it’s final ten Best Picture contenders between highly praised independent type fare, and more commerical main stream movies. So maybe, one release date may end up being just as good as another after all. It will be a tough uphill climb for most of these film either way. It will be very interesting to see what approach the Academy takes with this “top ten” idea on many different fronts (ex: Do they continue to restrict docs, foreign, and animated films to there own categories??).

  • 2 10-07-2009 at 2:24 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    if your gonna open in december go wide or go home

  • 3 10-07-2009 at 2:25 pm

    Bryan said...

    And the other thing is all those “December” releases don’t role around to most parts of the country until mid January (not that Oscar cares) but I always feel two steps behind of everyone.

  • 4 10-07-2009 at 2:30 pm

    david said...

    I know exactly where your coming from Bryan…it is frustrating feeling like your the last person to see everything.

  • 5 10-07-2009 at 2:56 pm

    Lance said...

    I like your explanation of how “Chocolate” “The Reader” and “Cider House” got nominated.

    Even when the movie is great an early release can allow for a backlash. Lately, many of the talent contests have ended with the frontrunner coming in 2nd (Susan Boyles and Adam Lambert) after receiving overwhelming media coverage. Media and the internet allow for the public to get bored with something a lot quicker than they used to. I wonder if the Oscar voters will start showing the same tendencies more and more in the years to come.

  • 6 10-07-2009 at 3:31 pm

    James D. said...

    I think you have a point, but I would go even earlier. A DVD release allows people that don’t live in New York or Los Angeles to view it through Netflix and can raise the buzz substantially.

  • 7 10-07-2009 at 4:00 pm

    Lance said...

    They should do screenings through out the year and each film receives a score from 1 to 100 and the top 10 make the cut. That would alleviate the problem of making a film’s release date such a player in this competition. It would get rid of all the campaigning for nomination slots. It would stop the influence of critic’s and other awards shows on the Oscar voters.

  • 8 10-07-2009 at 5:31 pm

    Zac said...

    Hunger was released last December and it finally plays here in Muskegon, MI this weekend. Yikes! :)

  • 9 10-07-2009 at 7:33 pm

    Simone said...

    Damn Zac, it played here in Ann Arbor in March. And that was my third viewing after Toronto/Tiff last Sept, and London in November.

  • 10 10-08-2009 at 1:42 am

    red_wine said...

    Yes Wendy And Lucy was sadly over-looked. It should have been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and should have won Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.

    Nine has an 80 million dollar budget. So it better have Chicago like box-office to be deemed a hit. The Lovely Bones is 65 million and should find it fairly easy to make a profit. Invictus is a sports movie so its 50 million dollar budget should be easy to recoup. Afterall Eastwood’s last December movie was a huge box-office smash.

  • 11 10-08-2009 at 2:47 am

    Alex said...

    Don’t know where to put this – Roger Ebert is echoing (or amplifying) Kris’s sentiment about Michelle Monaghan in Trucker – “Her performance clearly deserves an Oscar nomination.”

    He also gave Knowing 4/4 and thus can’t be trusted, but this will certainly provide Monaghan with some traction.