Paramount is currently set to unspool Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” for guilds and critics’ groups in December. It’s unusual for an Oscar player to be unveiled that late, as it risks missing the deadline for early looks from organizations like the National Board of Review, the New York and Los Angeles critics’ groups, and the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., whose nominations and superlatives often set the tone for the awards season. Thanksgiving week is usually when stragglers aim to screen in order to meet those groups’ deadlines.
But for Academy viewers, it can sometimes be good to go later, keeping a contender fresh in the minds of voters as Oscar ballots arrive. “True Grit,” “War Horse,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and “Zero Dark Thirty” screened as late as the last week of November on their way to nominations for best picture. Other late screeners, like “Joy” and “Unbroken,” ended up exposed as pretenders in the best-picture race, yet were able to nab other nominations here or there.
But there are precious few examples of films holding until December. The most extreme case, James Cameron’s “Avatar,” was an event that could afford to leave everyone with bated breath. The 2009 film first screened for guilds and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. the first week of December, and didn’t screen for critics until Dec. 10.
Warner Bros. didn’t show Stephen Daldry’s 2011 film “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” until December, and may have pulled a fast one in the process: There wasn’t time for negative reviews to diminish it. The film ended up with a surprising nomination for best picture (as well as one for supporting actor Max von Sydow), but it remains one of the most critically maligned nominees in recent memory.
A December reveal also worked out for “Django Unchained” in 2012: It got five noms and two wins (for supporting actor Christoph Waltz and Quentin Tarantino’s original screenplay). Less fortunate was 2008’s “Seven Pounds”: The idea of Will Smith re-upping with his “Pursuit of Happyness” director Gabriele Muccino had a whiff of awards prestige — until people saw the result.
While a late reveal and being top of mind going into balloting is a great way to push through to a nomination in some categories, a longer game is generally necessary for a best-picture victory. After all, the last film to screen later than mid-November and go on to win the Academy’s top category was “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004.
In recent years, best-picture winners “Argo,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman,” and “Spotlight” used the August-September festival circuit to lay an early track. “The Departed,” meanwhile, is an example of a contender eschewing the festival strategy but still unveiling early enough (late September) to build toward a win. The idea is to have time for the film’s message to land and still leave room to navigate and recover as other flavors of the week come and go throughout the season.
But there are caveats with that strategy. This year’s best-picture front-runner is “La La Land,” which bowed at Venice, but that film could be at risk of overexposure when the clock runs out on the season. And if Scorsese’s film — which has been on the legendary director’s to-do list for decades, and reportedly clocks in at a robust 160 minutes — blows away the competition on arrival, it may leave voters heading to the polls feeling like the season saved the best for last.
Assuming, of course, that “Silence” is golden.