The Five Primary Motivations for Releasing an Oscar Hopeful in December

Insiders say that money, surprise, necessity, titillation, and water-testing are the main things that factors into the decision to give a film an end-of-the-year release.
Sony Pictures

The vast majority of this year's awards hopefuls have already played at least once on the festival circuit (Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, and/or New York) and/or gone into general release. Most of those that have not are set for October or November releases. But a select few others are being held until December, the last month in which they are eligible to qualify for Oscar consideration this year, and are being screened for the press only selectively before then, if at all.

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We all know that it is generally imprudent to release awards hopefuls early in the year -- though there have been exceptions (most recently The Hurt Locker), early releases tend to be forgotten and/or drowned out by the end of the year rush, when invitations to screenings and screeners of newer films with fresher hype start to pile up and the strategic challenge and cost of reviving interest in earlier films can be enormous. But why wait until so late in the awards season to unveil a contender?

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I had my own suspicions, but decided to reach out to several top awards strategists for their take, and have come up with five different motivations. As you can see below, I believe that each of this year's end-of-the-year releases falls under at least one of them.

"The Last Man Standing"

Definition: A film that has the on-paper pedigree of a major contender and hopes to swoop in and take over the conversation after everyone else has already shown their hands.

Past Examples: A Beautiful Mind (12/21/01); Gangs of New York (12/20/02); Cold Mountain (12/25/03); The Aviator (12/17/04); Dreamgirls (12/15/06)

2011 Examples: Young Adult (12/9), a dramedy written by Oscar winner Diablo Cody, directed by Oscar nominee Jason Reitman, and starring Oscar winner Charlize Theron; Carnage (12/16), a dramedy adapted from a hit Broadway production, co-written for the screen/directed by Oscar winner Roman Polanski and starring Oscar winners Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz, plus Oscar nominee John C. Reilly; We Bought a Zoo (12/23), a dramedy adapted from a best-selling novel, co-written for the screen/directed by Oscar winner Cameron Crowe and starring Oscar winner Matt Damon; War Horse (12/25), a drama adapted from a best-selling novel-turned-hit Broadway production, directed by Oscar winner Steven Spielberg, and with contributions from an Oscar-winning team of collaborators including producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, film editor Michael Kahn, and composer John Williams.

Upside: The "old-school model," it allows a film to avoid the festival circuit (where it would be just one of many films being discussed, could get knocked down a notch, and, even if it survives intact, would have to try to maintain momentum for months thereafter), and to instead drop in like a shiny new toy right before the end of the eligibility period.

Downside: As other contenders fall short of expectations, anticipation only builds for those that have not yet been seen. High hopes -- and particularly the "frontrunner" label -- can prove very hard to live up to.

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"The Opportunist"

Definition: A film that is primarily aimed at making money over the holidays, and for which any awards attention will be seen as icing on the cake.

Past Examples: Titanic (12/19/97); The Great Debaters (12/25/07); The Lovely Bones (12/11/09); It's Complicated (12/25/09); Avatar (12/18/10)

2011 Examples: The Adventures of Tintin (12/21), Steven Spielberg's animated/motion-capture 3D adaptation of a popular series of comic books, produced by Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and Kathleen Kennedy and featuring the work of the master of motion capture, Andy Serkis, among others; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (12/21), David Fincher's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's blockbuster novel-turned-Swedish film, which up-and-comer Rooney Mara (The Social Network) as the title character opposite James Bond himself, Daniel Craig.

Upside: When it comes to the end of the year, making money and garnering awards attention often go hand-in-hand, so if a studio can accomplish its primary objective of connecting in a big way with the general public then it will also only improve its chances of connecting with awards voters.

Downside: Not crafting an awards strategy early on can put you at a great disadvantage when going head-to-head with films that have. With the money that Avatar wound up making, Fox could have afforded to hire every awards strategist out there, but because the studio was so focused on making back its huge investment at the box-office (understandably), they didn't really have any pros working on awards strategy until The Hurt Locker's "David vs. Goliath" and "ex-wife vs. ex-husband" narratives had already taken hold, costing it the best picture Oscar.

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"The Late Scramble"

Definition: A film that was only recently completed and is being quickly turned around in time to qualify for eligibility this year.

Past Examples: Million Dollar Baby (12/15/04); Letters from Iwo Jima (12/20/06); The Reader (12/10/08)

2011 Examples: The Iron Lady (12/21), Phyllida Lloyd's biopic of Margaret Thatcher, which stars Lloyd's Mamma Mia! (2008) star Meryl Streep as the title character, only wrapped post-production days ago; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (12/25), Stephen Daldry's adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's best-selling novel, which stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, among others, and which was only shot earlier this year, and which is still being finished. (I have heard rumors that The Weinstein Company might surprise people with John Hillcoat's star-studded The Wettest County in the World before the year comes to a close, but the studio, which already has its hands full with numerous other awards hopefuls, insists that it has no such plans.)

Upside: As Clint Eastwood films have proven on numerous occasions, dropping a quality film into a race that few ever thought it would ever be a part of can reap great rewards.

Downside: Strategists' hands are largely tied, in the sense that even they themselves can't see the film until only shortly before everyone else has to, leaving them little time to reframe expectations, drum up interest, book screening rooms, and get the film and talent in front of the various critics and awards groups.

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"The Titillator"

Definition: A film with controversial/risque content is given early screenings on the festival circuit and then goes away for a while, hoping to ride early festival buzz/curiosity late into the season.

Past Examples: Brokeback Mountain (12/16/05); Atonement (12/7/07); Blue Valentine (12/29/10)

2011 Examples: Shame (12/2), Steve McQueen's sure-fire NC-17 film starring Michael Fassbender, in the performance that won him the best actor award at September's Venice Film Festival, as a sex addict (who spends much of the movie completely nude and engaged in sexual acts) and Carey Mulligan as his troubled sister (who is also shown nude in an extended full-frontal scene); Pariah (12/28), Dee Rees's semi-autobiographical film, which impressed at Sundance, starring Adepero Oduye as a young semi-closeted lesbian (who is shown engaging in sex acts, playing with sex toys, and dancing to sexually-explicit songs); We Need to Talk About Kevin (12/?), Lynne Ramsey's disturbing drama about a mother (Tilda Swinton) whose son (Ezra Miller) goes on a killing rampage at his school, which played at Cannes, Telluride, and Toronto, and raises difficult questions about whether an evil person is born or becomes that way.

Upside: The early screenings get people talking -- "The movie is so crazy/disturbing/realistic... I wouldn't be surprised if Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams actually had sex in it" or "The movie is fascinating... and Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan both have scenes of full frontal nudity!" -- causing interest to spread like wildfire ("I've heard it's unlike anything else out there!"). These sorts of films often result in acting nominations (which are chosen by actors, who tend to admire and reward risk-taking), but not much else.

Downside: Titillating content, in and of itself, is never enough to get a movie into phase two, so it better have more to it than just that.

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"The Chris Christie"

Definition: A film that few really expect to be in the running this year, but that could still surprise us.

Past Examples: Breaking and Entering (12/15/06); Factory Girl (12/29/06); Miss Potter (12/29/06)

2011 Examples: Butter (12/?), an entertaining light comedy starring Jennifer Garner that screened at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals and is set to be distributed by The Weinstein Company; In the Land of Blood and Honey (12/23), a low-budget indie written and directed by Angelina Jolie and set to be distributed by little FilmDistrict; The Lady (12/?), a quiet, understated historical drama directed by Luc Besson and starring Michelle Yeoh that played at Toronto, where its distribution rights were purchased by the Cohen Media Group; Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (12/?), a drama written by Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy, directed by Oscar nominee Lasse Hallstrom, and starring Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, and Oscar nominee Kristin Scott Thomas that premiered at Toronto and was acquired there for a considerable sum by CBS Films.

Upside: Low expectations.

Downside: Low profile.

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