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In Hollywood, the only thing more fun than setting the status quo is disrupting it.
Studios have traditionally released so-called prestige films in the fall and winter so that they would be fresh on the minds of Academy and guild members during voting season. But A24’s Oscar success with “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which debuted at SXSW a full year before it won the best picture trophy in March, has challenged that conventional wisdom. This year’s labor strife has further scrambled awards strategies, keeping talent on the publicity sidelines for many big contenders.
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Michael Schulman, author of the behind-the-scenes tell-all “Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears,” notes that the summer blockbuster season emerged in the ’70s with the release of “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” helping to establish “the idea that summer movies were for genre movies and
then fall and winter were for serious stuff.”
But the focus on late-year releases did not begin then. “Even if you go back to the early decades, you can see that studios would sometimes slip something in at the end of the year to try to get Oscar attention,” Schulman says, noting that the Academy’s current structure of only honoring films from the previous calendar year only started with the seventh ceremony in 1935.
Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” had a limited release shortly after its March 2022 premiere, receiving critical acclaim as well as continuous and ample press coverage that — combined with word-of-mouth buzz and a release on digital and Blu-Ray before returning to theaters with bonus footage — catapulted it to become that year’s best picture frontrunner and eventual winner. The movie won seven Oscars overall, including directing, screenplay and three acting trophies.
With its big night, “Everything Everywhere” joined the ranks of classics that proved premiere dates don’t always matter when it comes to Oscar ballots. In addition to “It Happened One Night,” the screwball romantic comedy that opened in February 1934 and won the best picture Oscar at the Academy Award ceremony a full year later, other early release Oscar success stories include “Casablanca” (in U.S. theaters beginning January 1943), “The Godfather” (released in March 1972), “The Silence of the Lambs” (released in January 1991 in New York and nationwide that February) and “Forrest Gump” (a 1994 summer smash).
This award season may generate similar results. Early 2023 releases such as “Past Lives” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” as well as the cultural behemoth that was the “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” double feature, are some of the known competitors. Other films have yet to be released but have started earning buzz at festivals, including “The Holdovers,” “May December,” “Poor Things” and “Maestro.”
The question isn’t so much whether these earlier films can compete in this climate, it’s how they can do so — especially as the SAG-AFTRA strike continues. Some, but not all, major contenders have waivers from the guild for promotional purposes.
While no studio marketing or public relations reps agreed to speak on the record for this story, seasoned awards strategist Richard Licata noted that the “key has always been if you create quality noise at once and you keep up the momentum — and keeping up the momentum means being very aggressive with screenings and media relations and spending money to keep a film in the public’s eye — it definitely helps in taking you to the finish line.”
This is true not just for the picture, but for the talent involved, observes Licata, who points to the buzz surrounding Renée Zellweger before she won the actress trophy in 2020 for portraying Judy Garland in the biopic “Judy.” That film premiered in August 2019 at Telluride and the narrative soon became that no one else could have played the abused and addicted screen icon.
“Oppenheimer” star Cillian Murphy, who was always well respected, had a breakthrough year as a leading man in the Chris Nolan film, and America Ferrera’s monologue in “Barbie” resonated with many female viewers. Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” received critical praise when it debuted at Cannes, and while some have worried that film would run the risk of losing momentum ahead of its Oct. 20 theatrical release — especially as star Leonardo DiCaprio has been unable to promote it — excitement has remained high.
Licata also reminds that, while parties and moderated talks are great, not all Academy and guild voters live in Los Angeles or New York. Screeners need to be made readily available for them. Think of the push-back given to 2014’s “Selma,” which had a late premiere date but also such a limited release and lack of mailed screeners that voters complained they couldn’t consider it even if it did get rave reviews.
Beyond Oscar gold, “Everything Everywhere” delivered financial rewards at the box office, becoming the first A24 film to make over $100 million in global ticket sales. Releasing a film during award season gives distributors double bang for their promotional bucks because they’re appealing to both voters and audiences.
“Oscar Wars” author Schulman reminds that this is why then-Miramax co-head Harvey Weinstein protested when the Oscars shifted to late February in 2004 and shortened awards season by a month.
“During the ’90s, he had really popularized this whole idea of using the Oscars to get a ton of press and attention for Miramax movies, which were indie films and needed to find their audience,” Schulman says. “Whereas a studio film could just throw money at a campaign, Miramax needed the oxygen of award season, and they needed the awards to fuel the box office in turn.”
The trick, Licata says, is that “it has to be constant” and in diverse places, be it targeted ads on TV or forever encouraging press to include the film in feature stories.
The aim, he says, is for voters and audiences to be “getting it from all angles. And, at some point if you’re a living, breathing human being who loves movies and TV, you’ll go, ‘I think I’m gonna go see that.’”
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