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We all trot out this factoid every year; no film released in December has won the Best Picture Oscar since 2004’s Million Dollar Baby. So why do studios still hold the majority of their Oscar hopefuls for that final month? The answer might lie in the fact that December releases still often end up being very strong at earning nominations and wins in other categories. But possibly even more so, box office. Even if a film doesn’t win the big prize, the nomination is often a huge boost to a film’s visibility and viability as a financial success. However, that can become especially difficult if those films aren’t or haven’t received critics or industry attention ahead of their release. The Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations come out in early December so a Christmas release often needs to begin its path to box office and Oscar success there. If a film opens too late or doesn’t get its screeners and screenings out in time for these nominating committees, it could find itself DOA come Oscar nomination morning.
Then there’s also the ‘qualifying release’ that many studios give their Oscar hopefuls. That means the film opens in a very limited release (sometimes only 1-4 theaters) within the Oscar eligibility timeline (meaning a film must play one week in Los Angeles before December 31st) and then open wider in January. This is often a very successful platform for smaller films and big budget blockbusters alike.
In looking at the correlation between release dates since the expansion of Best Picture (2009-present) I found that 18 out of 63 Best Picture nominees that had December bows (qualifying or otherwise) received Best Picture nominations. Of those, only six went home empty-handed on Oscar night; Up in the Air, True Grit, War Horse, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street found themselves with anywhere from 5-10 nominations apiece. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close only received one other nomination besides Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor for Max von Sydow (which he got despite zero precursors). It’s also of note that ELAIC is the only film in this ‘no win’ category that was a qualifying release. Meaning, being a qualifying release film has worked out quite well for a film in terms of being a future Oscar winner, even if it isn’t Best Picture.
This year we might have more December releases (qualifying or traditional) in contention than any in recent memory. The Best Picture frontrunner, La La Land, is a December release (12/2) and is the film most pundits are counting on to break that December curse. It could also be the first Lionsgate release to win the top prize since Crash upset the Oscar race in 2006. Right now we have La La Land (Lionsgate), Jackie (Fox Searchlight), Fences (Paramount), Hidden Figures (20th Century Fox), Live by Night (Warner Bros), Patriots Day (Lionsgate) and Silence (Paramount) all vying for a spot on the Best Picture list that will contain just 5-10 films. That’s the rub; since the expansion changed again in 2011 and we don’t know how many films will be nominated (unlike 2009 and 2010 when it was a straight 10). We haven’t even seen a year with ten nominees since that change and with earlier releases like Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight, Arrival, Lion, Sully, Loving, and Hell or High Water all in contention, you can see the math is not going to be kind to many of these late releasing films. 2012 is the year with the highest amount of December nominees so far with four of eight. Interestingly enough, every film that year (Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Misérables and Amour) all won at least one Oscar. 2012, the year Argo won, was one of the more “share the wealth” years in recent memory; of the nine films nominated for Best Picture all but one film (Beasts of the Southern Wild) won an award. 2011 wasn’t so lucky; both December releases went home with nothing. In 2013, two of the three December releases received zero wins. Two films, 2013’s American Hustle and 2010’s True Grit, are tied for 2nd place in the unfortunate category of films with the most nominations without a single win.
So what does box office tell us about these December releases and Oscar? In general, strong box office is a big help. Yet for the top two grossing films on the list below, it only resulted in a few below the line wins. The days of massive populist films like Titanic sweeping are probably over. 2014’s American Sniper earned a massive $350M at the box office and while it got major nominations it only won Sound Editing. 2009’s Avatar, the highest-grossing film in U.S. box office history, won three but all in tech categories. So maybe too much box office is seen as the reward itself. The aforementioned True Grit and American Hustle were big hits, both grossing over $150M on budgets of $38M and $40M, respectively. Pretty impressive but again, that success might have been the reward.
In the modern era, only two films have earned three or more Oscars as December releases: 2012’s Les Misérables earned nearly $150M at the box office and even though it’s one of the most recognizable and long-running musicals of all time it was still a risk that paid off handsomely. 2015’s The Revenant scored three top wins and earned over $180M. And of course, the abovementioned Avatar won three and is the highest grossing film of all time. Looking back at that last December Best Picture winner; Million Dollar Baby won four Oscars (plus three other nominations) and grossed $100M at the box office.
So let’s look again at those December releases and maybe find where that sweet spot might lay. La La Land could very well end up near $150M like Les Misérables or like another adapted musical that won Best Picture, Chicago, which was, interestingly enough, also a December release. We can’t leave out 2011’s The Artist from this conversation. Even though it was a November release it stands as the last original musical to win the top prize (plus four other Oscars). With an early December release date, just a week before the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations are announced (where it’s sure to do very well), La La Land could ride a comfortable box office wave throughout December and January. Jackie could prove as big for Natalie Portman as Black Swan was for her, but maybe the American public is going to be too exhausted by this year’s political season to feel like going there. Patriots Day is giving me a bit of an American Sniper vibe in its intense red-blooded Americana and feels like a post-election hit with the ‘red’ crowd, as Sniper was. Sure, Peter Berg is no Clint Eastwood with the Academy but then his name isn’t what drew people to the box office for Sniper either. If Silence had given us anything up this point I’d see that as a potential but right now, not so much. Hidden Figures might be more of a box office play than an awards one but it could be the exact mixture that drives people to the box office over the holiday. Ben Affleck’s follow-up to his Best Picture winner Argo, Live by Night, could scoop up box office gold and above the line nominations or just be a minor tech play.
Here’s an interesting note that relates to this year; Paramount has had six Best Picture nominees from December since 2009, twice as many as the next leading studio (Warner Bros, who’s actually pretty good at this strategy, too). They are also the only studio to have two December releases from the same year hit Best Picture (2010). This year, Paramount has Fences and Silence coming out in December and both are largely being seen as likely Best Picture candidates. Lionsgate also has two potential nominees this year. Well, one lock and other a possibility – La La Land and Patriots Day.
Only January 24th, 2017 will tell us which of this year’s top December releases join this club.
The Revenant (qualifying release – 12/25) – won Actor, Director, Cinematography; nominations for Supporting Actor, Film Editing, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup & Hairstyling, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects – $183M (20th Century Fox)
The Big Short (12/11) – won Adapted Screenplay; nominations for Picture, Director, Supporting Actor – $70M (Paramount)
Selma (qualifying release – 12/25) – won Original Song; no other nominations – $52M (Paramount)
American Sniper (qualifying release – 12/25) won Sound Editing; nominations for Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing – $350M (Warner Bros)
Her (qualifying release – 12/18) – won Original Screenplay; nominations for Production Design, Original Score, Original Song – $25.5M (Warner Bros)
American Hustle (12/13) – no wins in 10 nominations (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Costume Design, Film Editing, Production Design, Original Screenplay) – $150M (Sony/Columbia)
The Wolf of Wall Street (12/25) – no wins in 5 nominations (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay) – $116.9M (Paramount)
Django Unchained (12/25) – won Original Screenplay and Supporting Actor; nominations for Cinematography, Sound Editing – $162.8M (The Weinstein Company)
Zero Dark Thirty (qualifying release – 12/19) – won Sound Editing (tie); nominations for Actress, Original Screenplay, Film Editing – $95.7M (Sony)
Les Misérables (12/25) – won Supporting Actress, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound Mixing; nominations for Actor, Costume Design, Production Design, Original Song – $148.8M (Universal)
Amour (qualifying release – 12/19) – won Foreign Language Film; nominations for Director, Actress, Original Screenplay – $6.7M (Sony Pictures Classics)
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (qualifying release – 12/25) – no wins; nomination for Supporting Actor – $31.8M (Warner Bros)
War Horse (12/25) – no wins; 6 nominations (Cinematography, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Art Direction) – $79.8M (Disney/Buena Vista)
The Fighter (12/10) – won Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress; nominations for Director, Supporting Actress, Film Editing, Original Screenplay – $93.6M (Paramount)
True Grit (12/22) – no wins in 10 nominations (Director(s), Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Costume Design, Art Director, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing) – $171M (Paramount)
Black Swan (12/3) – won Actress; nominations for Directing, Film Editing, Cinematography – $106.9M (Fox Searchlight)
Avatar (12/18) – won Visual Effects, Cinematography, Art Direction; nominations for Directing, Film Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing – $749.7M (20th Century Fox)
Up in the Air (12/4) – no wins in 6 nominations (Director, Actor, Supporting Actress x2, Adapted Screenplay) – $83.8M (Paramount)