Why the Oscars Timetable Change Is Bad for Movies (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst argues that the shift to earlier nomination voting will make it harder for small films to catch on and for big December releases to be seen before ballots are due.

The Academy's calendar changes that were announced on Tuesday — moving up the close of nomination voting from Jan. 13 to Jan. 3 and the noms announcement from Jan. 15 to Jan. 10, but moving back the start of phase two voting from Feb. 1 to Feb. 8, nearly a month thereafter — might not seem that significant at first glance. But make no mistake: they could have a major impact on awards season and on the viewing experiences of the Academy's own members.

The Academy claims that it made these changes as part of "an effort to provide members and the public a longer period of time to see the nominated films" during phase two. This it will do. But what it left unsaid is that Academy members are less in need of a longer phase two, during which they are working from a short checklist of must-see films (the nominees), than they are of a longer phase one, during which they are ostensibly expected to scour the entire field of films released during the calendar year and pick those that are most worthy of being called Oscar nominees.

In recent years, Academy members have often told me that they barely have time to watch even the most high-profile films that they were invited to see at screenings or on screeners prior to the close of phase one, let alone smaller gems from distributors that lack the finances to compete with the majors when it comes to promoting films. Now, thanks to the shortening of the phase one period by 10 days, there will be considerably less time for those smaller films to break through the noise and catch on through word-of-mouth buzz. This will likely result in even more nominations for films from studios that can afford to spend big money during phase one on dinners, parties, advertisements and other forms of promotion.

I'm sure that this was not the primary intent of the Academy in making this decision. More likely, the board of governors wanted to try to grab back some of the thunder that has been stolen in recent years by the ever-increasing number of awards shows and film festivals that have been scheduled during the run-up to the Oscars -- among them the Indie Spirit Awards (first held in 1984), the Producers Guild of America Awards (first held in 1990), the Screen Actors Guild Awards (first held in 1995) and the Critics' Choice Awards (first held in 1996). Thanks to them, by the time the big show finally rolls around, much of the general public has already seen their favorite stars on one red carpet or another and can tell you which film or person is most likely to win the major awards because a pattern has already emerged.

The new Academy calendar does address that concern, to an extent, by putting the Oscar nominations announcement before the Golden Globes ceremony, and in so doing stealing some thunder from that show. But if the Academy wanted to minimize other shows, it could done so in a better way: namely, by moving the entire phase one and phase two up on the calendar (which would have drained those earlier events of much of their importance, since they'd either have to take place prematurely, before many contenders were released or, anti-climactically, after the Oscars had already taken place). The Academy also could have announced a change of plans months ago, rather than after many studios -- large and small -- had set end-of-the-year release dates for their contenders that now leave those films' Oscar prospects in jeopardy.

Just hours before the Academy's announcement, for instance, Universal announced that it had decided to push back the release date of its big contender, Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, from Dec. 14 to Dec. 25, reportedly because the studio hoped that opening it over the holidays would help it to find a larger audience amongst both the general public and Academy members.

Now, however, we know that voters will need to pack a ton of screenings into their holiday break if they are going to factor the end-of-the-year releases into their voting decisions before returning their ballots by Jan. 3. More than a half-dozen top contenders are set to be released around that time. Among them: Peter Jackson's The Hobbit (12/14), Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (12/19), Michael Haneke's Amour (12/19), Juan Antonio Bayona's The Impossible (12/21), Judd Apatow's This Is 40 (12/21), David Chase's Not Fade Away (12/21), Walter Salles's On the Road (12/21), Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (12/25), Anne Fletcher's The Guilt Trip (12/25), Gus Van Sant's Promised Land (12/28), plus the aforementioned Les Miserables (12/25).

I'm not sure that it's realistic to expect that many Academy members will get to all of those before the deadline. But I am pretty confident that the folks at Universal wish that they could take back that press release right about now.

If this sort of a timetable is retained for next year, then more studios will simply release more of their awards films earlier in the year -- probably around the Thanksgiving weekend, which is when Ang Lee's Life of Pi and David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, among other contenders, will be released this year.

But this year, the studios that locked themselves into December release dates are almost certainly going to have to do something that they really hate doing in order to make sure that Academy members have time to see their films -- namely, send out screeners of and/or stream their films before they open theatrically. The studios and filmmakers associated with these films would much prefer that they be seen on the big screen, not only because they can be most fully appreciated that way, but also because private viewings exponentially increase the risk of someone pirating the film, which could severely hurt a film at the box-office.

But, really, what other choice do they have?