I remember back when 2008’s Oscar nominees were announced, and I was a regular visitor to a few different comic book forums. There was, of course, a lot of discussion on whether or not The Dark Knight should have been nominated for Best Picture. While a worthy subject for debate, that’s not the biggest thing that stuck with me from the conversations, though. What came up over and over again was that the people in the conversation were ignorant of the actual Best Picture nominees. This wasn’t willful ignorance; they weren’t saying “Meh, what a bunch of worthless hoity-toity art films.” It was enforced ignorance; they were saying, quite literally, “What are these movies? I haven’t heard of them.” I hadn’t either — being at the time a little less involved in the movie fan community — and did some looking. What I found was that the films nominated had achieved their eligibility solely through the “released in L.A.” qualification. Of the five films, only The Curious Case of Benjamin Button had a wide release in 2008, and it only barely. The others had limited L.A. releases in 2008, but had their general release in 2009. Whether my fellow comic book fans were justified in being upset over The Dark Knight getting snubbed may be a debate for the ages. But it seems like a fair call that we were justified in being annoyed that we couldn’t even see the films that were nominated at the time the announcement was made.
It’s something that I’ve always remembered. And while years like that aren’t all that common, it got me thinking about just when these movies really do come out.
The eligibility for films is determined by when they are released in the Los Angeles area. (More or less; I think there are a few other wrinkles, but that’s the general gist of it.) Looking at the pie chart for their first eligible release, it doesn’t provide too many surprises. December takes up a large portion of the chart, fitting the public perception that the end of the year is “Oscar movie season”. If anything, it’s surprising that it’s not larger. But even so, the last three months of the year make up half of the nominees. And films first released in January are a very tiny slice of the pie, which fits in with the public perception that anything released that month is forgotten by the time nominations come around. Other months are more-or-less as expected, with the number (mostly) remaining steady or going up slowly from month-to-month.
When we look at the chart for the film’s wide release, things get interesting. First, I’ll note that this is a “widest”, not “wide” chart; some of these films only ever had limited releases. But whether they were only on a few screens or were across the country, the dates used for this chart represent what could be considered its general U.S. release date. And what we see is a dramatic shift in the winter months. December is noticeably smaller, and January is noticeably larger — it’s four and a half times its size in the previous chart. November gets a little bit smaller, and other months shift by 1% or less. There’s an interesting dip in both charts for July, which I suspect has to do with the summer blockbuster season being in high gear then — and the Oscar’s usual disdain (often but not always deserved) for the blockbusters.
So what’s the story with January? Well, unsurprisingly, it’s that issue I mentioned in the prologue: Films are released in L.A. in December… and given a wide release in January. That way a film like Her can be “officially” a 2013 film for the Academy Awards, while most people in the U.S. have only been able to see it in 2014. Because of this act of gaming the release date, January has become as much “Oscar month” as December.
The third chart explains what’s going on visually. The big red slice is those films that can be considered to be “playing fair” regarding the general public: they have their wide releases from January to December of the year they’re claiming eligibility for. It’s somewhat reassuring that this is actually such a large group. In fact, years which don’t have any Best Picture nominees in the red group are relatively rare; it’s only happened in 1988, 2002 and 2008. The green slice is for films that had a general release during the eligibility year, but just barely — releases on Christmas Day and later, where they were only available for viewing the last week of the year, and most of their box office earnings were the following year. The yellow group are those films engaging in the full “eligible on a technicality” shenanigans, the ones with a limited release one year and a wide release the next. Usually this is December and January, but not always. Sometimes it’s November for the limited release, and sometimes it’s February or even later for the wide release. March happens every so often, and there are even a few that were delayed all the way to May. The prize-winner, however, has to be Wings, which had a limited release in January and a wide release also in January… a full year later.
Wings was the original Best Picture winner, so this kind of thing has been going on for as long as the Oscars themselves. But not often, early on. Eyeballing my data sheet, I can see that the number of times a film has had a Christmas release or been bumped to the next year has gone up as time goes on. It was a rare event early on; now it’s commonplace. The expansion of the Best Picture field back to a number larger than five has helped out, though. While there are still about the same number of films that aren’t available before the end of the year, widening the field has meant that there are more which are available. And to me, this can only be considered a good thing. After all, it’s a lot easier for people to get the idea that the Oscars aren’t for them if they can’t even see the films that have been nominated.