Oscars: '12 Years,' 'Gravity' and the Perils of Being an Early Frontrunner

Films that are ahead of the pack in the fall can be in a precarious position, especially when December's shiny contenders ("Wolf of Wall Street," "American Hustle") arrive.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If you believe the words of the Bible, "Many who are first will be last, and the last first." But that's not always true of Oscar campaigns. Sometimes, movies that establish themselves as early frontrunners prevail all the way to the end, capturing Academy Awards. Other times, they fade during the stretch, and late arrivals, all new and sparkly, win the prize.

During the first week of December, the last unseen 2013 Oscar hopeful, Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, finally screened for the press and solidified its place in one of the more crowded contests in recent memory. (It hadn't screened earlier simply because it wasn't finished.) But it raises the question: When a studio has the choice, is it wiser to screen an Oscar hopeful early or late in the awards season?

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There are lots of incentives for a studio to show its cards early. Last year, Argo came roaring out of the gate at Telluride and Toronto and, though it seemed to lose momentum while attention turned to later arrivals like Lincoln and Les Miserables, surged to victory.

If you have a crowd-pleaser and release it in the summer, it might make more money than in the more competitive fall; Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine and Lee Daniels' The Butler certainly did well. And if you have a movie you're confident critics will get behind, then you can take it through the fall festival circuit and let it collect praise and buzz at each stop en route to its commercial release, which also drives up box office; that strategy has paid off for Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave and Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity.

The festival route also gives industry types plenty of time to watch movies that might not be the easiest of sells but will acquire champions once discovered -- see J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost, Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club, Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station and the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis. Yet another benefit: If early festival reactions indicate problems, there is plenty of time to tinker and try to rectify them, which is what the filmmakers behind August: Osage County, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Nebraska did this year.

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The downside is that it can become difficult and expensive to maintain and manage the excitement when films generate massive buzz among industry insiders months before the public can see them. Expectations among moviegoers can grow so great that a film simply never can meet them. Also, movies that had people buzzing early in the season -- such as Richard Linklater's Sundance standout Before Midnight and Baz Luhrmann's Cannes opener The Great Gatsby -- can fade from memory and get drowned out by later releases. (Everyone likes "shiny new toys," after all.)

Of course, there are always exceptions: Paul Haggis' Crash and Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker premiered at festivals the year before the awards season in which they were released -- and both went on to win the best picture Oscar. The Place Beyond the Pines and Mud hope to follow that trajectory this year.

Waiting until late in the season to show one's hand also has its advantages. It makes your film the one everyone gets excited about after they grow tired of the others. (Or you can copy the "sneak attack" approach employed for Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby and Letters From Iwo Jima and tell people a movie isn't coming out until next year -- then change your mind.)

A film released near or during the Christmas/New Year's window also can gross a considerable amount of money. That's certainly the game plan for the Dec. 13 release of David O. Russell's American Hustle, which skipped the fest circuit and screened to acclaim for the first time Nov. 24; the Dec. 20 wide release of John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks, which screened only at the London Film Festival and AFI Fest, both in the late fall; and the Christmas Day releases Wolf, Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which was teased at the New York Film Festival, and Peter Berg's Lone Survivor, which played only at AFI Fest. Such movies get a massive buildup right before their release that can raise awareness for commercial and awards purposes simultaneously.

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But there certainly are risks in the late game. If a movie takes incoming fire from critics, it is too late to do anything about it. And if it tanks at the box office, there is not enough time to reframe its image as anything but a disappointment.

The bottom line is that, whenever a film comes out, it needs at least two of three things to succeed: quality, buzz and money. None of the many roads to the Dolby has a toll that amounts to anything less.