Oscar race is all about timing (except when it's not)
New York – — Timing is everything in the Oscar race. Except when it's not.
This year's Academy Awards field has done more than most to upend traditional rhythms of Hollywood's awards season, a normally finely-tuned red-carpet ballet. "Not my tempo" — the indelible line from J.K. Simmons' music instructor in the best-picture nominated "Whiplash" — has been the season's mantra.
The critical favorite, Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," was the front-runner for much of the season, only to be seemingly usurped by the industry's choice, "Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," which swept the guild awards. Momentum — the most cherished, carefully sought ingredient in any Oscar campaign — has been elusive, just as the normal parameters of awards season appear to be shifting.
"Boyhood" (six nominations) and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" (nine nods) were released early in the year, long before most Oscar movies were even in the blocks. At the same time, the other end of the calendar no longer seems so safe.
Of the last three movies to debut — "Selma," ''American Sniper" and "Unbroken" — only one emerged as an awards juggernaut. The timing was perfect for Clint Eastwood's Iraq War sensation, which was eagerly embraced by conservative America, leading to record-setting box office in addition to six nominations. But "Selma," which director Ava DuVernay completed shortly before its Christmas Day release, didn't catch on with awards the way many expected.
The reasons could be numerous, and certainly many read racism into the film's snubbing (though it landed two Oscar nominations, including best picture). But the lesson of "Selma" in Hollywood was more straightforward: It arrived too late to sufficiently screen for the industry's guilds or to solidly stake its place among the top contenders.
"A lot of companies, including us, should open a lot of these films a lot earlier if we can in that last quarter of the year because it becomes so freaking crowded," says Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which this Oscar season, landed 18 nominations, its most ever. "A lot of these we couldn't open earlier because they weren't ready."
Last year, Barker faced a similar choice with Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher," a film originally slated to be a fall 2013 release. But with Miller needing more time to edit, SPC chose not to rush it out, instead debuting it to acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival (where Miller won best director), setting it on a path that eventually led to five Oscar nominations.
Sony Pictures Classics has had success with a handful of summer releases that were still remembered by the Academy Awards (notably Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine" and "Midnight in Paris"). But every film is different, Barker noted. After acquiring the Alzheimer's drama "Still Alice" at the Toronto Film Festival in September, SPC immediately slated it for a December release, seeing the strong response to Julianne Moore lead performance. Now, Moore is considered a shoo-in for best actress.
Paramount Pictures had good reason to rush "Selma." The film was bursting with relevance, arriving while protesters were flooding the streets over the Eric Garner and Darren Wilson grand jury decisions.
The same timing that may have hurt "Selma" didn't have the same effect on "American Sniper" partly because Eastwood's film was finished far in advance and so it had no trouble getting screeners to guilds, many of which vote in December.
The thing is that no one wants to "peak" early. Oscar season shares much with president campaigns, where candidates fear entering the ring too soon. But being the last to jump into turbulent award season waters with a holiday release now appears risky, too.
"When the Oscars were at the end of March, a December release was advantageous, but not any longer, due to a number of factors, primarily the calendaring of the ballots, busy holiday schedules, colliding releases, etcetera," veteran awards season consultant Tony Angellotti said in an email. "Two films released early on, 'Boyhood,' and 'Budapest,' have successfully weathered all seasonal bends and curves."
If either were to win best picture, it would be the first film released before the fall to take the award since 2009's "The Hurt Locker" (a June debut) and only the fourth pre-autumn best-picture winner in the past two decades. (The others were 1999's "Gladiator" and 1995's "Braveheart.")
Angellotti believes the biggest winners from this awards season may be the fall film festivals in Telluride, Toronto and New York — the launching pads of the majority of awards-seekers. It's the route Fox Searchlight took with "Birdman" and last year's winner, "12 Years a Slave."
It's a delicate dance: trying to create buzz but not so much that the inevitable backlash topples chances come Oscar voting.
"Nobody wants to be the early frontrunner because they know that it's so difficult to sustain that position," says Scott Feinberg, awards analyst for The Hollywood Reporter.
Feinberg believes the guilds may be urged to delay their voting periods to accommodate later releases. But he thinks few films will emulate the releases of "Boyhood" or "Budapest": "What's still true is voters get very excited toward the end of the year when these highly anticipated, much discussed movies start screening."
Either way, the clock has almost run out on this year's nominees. Oscar voting ends Tuesday.