Oscars Shuffle: Why Many Potential Contenders Are Getting Pushed to 2018

Everyone wants to jump into awards season, but given a crowded market, sometimes it's better to wait a year.

To make a bid for Oscar this year or wait until 2018?

That was a key question that complicated the film acquisitions market at the year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where most sellers were looking for deals that included a 2017 release for their films so that they would qualify for Academy Award consideration this awards season. But not everyone got one.

A number of films with strong acting performances — from The Children Act, starring Emma Thompson, to The Wife, starring Glenn Close, and On Chesil Beach, starring Saoirse Ronan — found buyers but won’t get an awards-qualifying berth this year, much to the dismay of their backers. A24 plans to release Children Act in 2018, and Sony Pictures Classics with The Wife and Bleecker Street with Chesil Beach plan to do the same — so should those films eventually score Oscar noms, they won’t be announced until 2019.

There are certainly benefits to launching quickly after Toronto, since festival buzz can help carry a film through the nomination process and spark a box-office hit. SPC’s Still Alice was a prime example: Bought for low-seven figures out of Toronto in 2014, it received a qualifying theatrical run that same year and Julianne Moore went on to win the best actress Oscar. The film played theatrically through awards season and earned $44 million worldwide. Last year’s Jackie offered another success story. Fox Searchlight picked up the film out of Toronto for no minimum guarantee, and star Natalie Portman landed a best actress nomination. The film grossed $14 million at the domestic box office.

This year, sellers faced an especially tough calculus on the part of a number of key buyers. Specialty distributors like Fox Searchlight, Focus and SPC arrived at the festival with fall release slates that already were quite full. Searchlight’s lineup includes Battle of the Sexes, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Focus is fielding Victoria and Abdul, Darkest Hour and the upcoming Paul Thomas Anderson film; and SPC is juggling Call Me by Your Name, Novitiate and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. And even competitors, who might have leaner fall slates, had to consider that they would encounter gridlock when trying to secure theaters for their own movies given how quickly the fall release schedule had filled up.

“Just ask an exhibitor how much space they have at Christmas,” says SPC co-president Tom Bernard. “That’s the real story. There’s no room between November and Christmas. Everything would come out if there were theaters to accommodate.”

The schedule is so crowded that Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios, which was on a buying spree and was also determined to elbow its way into the upcoming awards season, found itself shuffling the dates on one of its Toronto acquisitions to make room for another. The upstart distributor bought Chappaquiddick, in which Jason Clarke plays Ted Kennedy, on the ground at the festival and quickly dated it for Dec. 8 (where it would open opposite Neon/30WEST’s Toronto acquisition I, Tonya, in which Margot Robbie plays Tonya Harding). But then when Entertainment Studios closed a deal for the Christian Bale starrer Hostiles after the festival closed, it decided to move Chappaquiddick to Nov. 22 so that Hostiles could have the prime Dec. 8 slot.

A few other Toronto films also managed to win 2017 release dates, and some already qualify in the foreign-language category regardless of their U.S. bow, like Israeli drama Foxtrot (foreign-language films need only be released in their home country in 2017 in order to be considered for the 2018 Oscars). ICM’s Jessica Lacy, who sold Foxtrot to SPC, argues that most of the films that will wait till next year weren’t necessarily deserving.“The ones that aren't [going out this year] don't have strong enough awards potential in a crowded release schedule,” she says.

That’s not always the case, though, since sometimes films with genuine awards potential are held back so they don’t find themselves directly challenging another contender a distributor is promoting. For example, following The Wife’s first screening, enthusiastic bloggers began predicting Close, a six-time Oscar nominee who has never won, would be the Oscar front-runner for best actress, if the movie is released next year, but SPC, which acquired the film, will hold it for 2018 since the distributor is already promoting Liverpool’s Annette Bening, a four-time Oscar nominee who has never won.

Financiers may want their films to get a quick release rather than wait so that they can recoup their investments sooner. And talent reps may want to see their clients immediately launched into the awards season when they win favorable reviews in Toronto. In the case of Hostiles, no one wanted Bale to wait till next year, when presumably he would find himself competing against his Dick Cheney performance in Adam McKay's film about the vice president.

But strategically, sometimes it’s better not to rush a film’s release. And there have been a number of success stories for films that took the opposite approach. For example, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was picked up at 2008 Toronto but not released until June of the following year, and it then went on to win the best picture Oscar. Similarly, Crash, a Toronto 2004 acquisition, was not released until May 2005, and it, too, ultimately proved to be a best picture Oscar winner.

And while waiting for a release might not be the way filmmakers and financiers want to go, it ultimately has little impact on how a film performs at the box office.

“A lot of movies play in Cannes or Toronto and come out a year later,” Bernard adds. “The public doesn’t know. It’s really not an issue.”