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How The Oscars Shape Hollywood’s Movie Calendar. A Statistical Analysis
Examining Oscar season: an annual showcase of cinematic excellence.
Intro: It's Oscar Season!
It's November, which means it's the time of year when the good movies are released. From now till January 1st, theatergoers will consume an onslaught of prestige pictures—films just thirsting to win an Oscar. We'll get maudlin biopics, heady indies, breakthrough foreign films, flicks over 2 hours that require multiple pee breaks, and Bradley Cooper sporting a fake nose (check the Maestro trailer to see for yourself). Yes, friends, it's Oscar season.
Gold Derby, Hollywood's premier Oscar prediction site, currently projects eleven films with at least a ~5% chance of winning Best Picture.
You may notice two striking features of this list:
Transformers: Rise of the Beasts did not make the cut—another snub for Optimus Prime.
Most of these films have release dates in October, November, or December.
Hollywood is a distinctive industry subject to intense seasonality, with a significant portion of its film calendar calibrated in pursuit of a 13.5-inch statuette. So today, we'll explore how Oscar glory drives entertainment's release schedule, the economic impacts of Oscar recognition, and the absurd politics of Hollywood's foremost popularity contest.
What is Oscar Season?
Warren Beatty famously announced the wrong Best Picture winner at the 2017 Oscars. The Academy's blunder, which made a mockery of Hollywood's "biggest night," seems even more ludicrous when considering the highly complex mechanics of the Oscar voting process—an elaborate three-month data-gathering extravaganza.
The Academy's voting process includes three separate phases:
Nominee shortlist voting begins on December 18th: This period enables The Academy to highlight a small set of potential nominees.
Nominee voting begins January 11th: This phase narrows a roster of possible honorees into a finite group of nominees.
Awards voting begins February 22nd: Academy members elect the winners.
As this long and arduous voting process commences, a curious exuberance subsumes the Los Angeles metropolitan area. A barrage of film advertisements appear, but they’re not aimed at moviegoers. These "For Your Consideration" promotions are targeted at moviemakers (Academy members) to remind them of films they may have already seen.
Oscar campaigning is in service of two objectives: 1) making sure voters watch a movie and 2) ensuring voters recall movies they have already watched. One of the most obvious strategies to accomplish the latter goal is to schedule a film's theatrical run in parallel with The Academy's voting window. As such, we see nominee release dates cluster at the end of the year, with over 50% of big-ticket Oscar nominees coming from movies released in October, November, or December.
Hollywood studios reserve the back half of the year for prestige pictures, but has it always been this way? The answer is both yes and no. Over time, the dynamics of Oscar season have evolved as the awards process became increasingly overshadowed by media spectacle. Ultimately, this evolution can be attributed to two phenomena: 1) the economic upside of Oscar recognition and 2) the warlike politicization of awards campaigning as formalized by Harvey Weinstein (yes, the awful Harvey Weinstein).
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The Oscar Industrial Complex
1998 is frequently regarded as the year that left an indelible stain on The Oscars. Going into awards season, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Best Picture award would go to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, a critical darling and box office sensation. Harvey Weinstein, desperate for Miramax's Shakespeare in Love to win The Academy's top prize, launched a $5M Best Picture campaign promoting the breezy historical comedy (though there are rumors he spent two to four times this amount). An aggressive PR battle ensued between Ryan and Shakespeare that featured over 250 "For Your Consideration" advertisements directed at Academy voters. Ultimately, Shakespeare in Love triumphed through the sheer might of Weinstein's scorched earth campaign.
Studios began mimicking the Miramax playbook, bombarding trade publications and billboards with "For Your Consideration" ads, hosting private screenings for voters, schmoozing geriatric Academy members at elderly homes, and releasing Oscar contenders in the back half of the year. Throughout Oscar history, we observe a slow-growing trend of top-line Oscar nominees from releases between October and December, with an acceleration of this trend in the wake of Weinstein's Shakespeare campaign.
The 21st century saw the formalization of an Oscar industry. Soft influence gave way to ham-fisted propaganda. Studios increasingly began to employ teams of publicists and consultants dedicated to campaigning, with $50M to $100M of collective spending across the industry in a given year. The Oscar industrial complex arose from a hunger for prestige (people like winning popularity contests) and an emergent awareness of the financial upside driven by awards recognition.
In 2011, research firm IBISWorld found that Best Picture nominees experienced a 22% bump in box office following a nomination and an additional 15% spike for winning. A Financial Times analysis confirmed the phenomenon in a 2021 study of recent Best Picture winners.
The IBISWorld analysis found the Oscar bump most substantial for low-budget indies. Devoid of significant advertising budget, awards recognition can be the foremost driver of awareness for many arthouse flicks. Would small productions like Room, Amour, or Winter's Bone have garnered widespread viewership without the organic marketing of Oscar buzz? Probably not. It's important to note that nominees only capture this box office bump if their movies are in theaters when nominations are announced, further cementing the necessity of a later-year release.
The value of awards recognition also holds in the streaming era. Streaming service Reelgood observed a surge in viewership for awards contenders following the announcement of 2023 nominations.
Research firm Parrot Analytics estimated a 21% bump in streaming demand for 2022 Best Picture nominees. Netflix, now a fixture of the awards circuit, recognizes the benefits of Oscar buzz and strategically times its prestige releases to coincide with awards season, such as this year's Maestro and May December—both December releases.
Overall, the prospect of Academy recognition fosters a lopsided movie calendar. Analyzing Rotten Tomatoes data, we find November and December feature the fewest number of "rotten" titles—which is the service's designation for films with poor critical reviews (like Transformers: Rise of the Beasts).
November and December are for high-quality content, and the rest of the year operates without a uniform standard of excellence. As someone who enjoys Oscar movies, I find the narrowness of their release window frustrating. But Hollywood seasonality is not limited to prestige. From May to July, audiences are treated to high-budget blockbusters as studios capitalize on elevated theater attendance during these months. Additionally, we see a bump in average spend toward the end of the year driven by prestige pictures with high production value (Spielberg, Scorsese, etc.) and blockbuster releases targeted at holiday audiences.
As such, we can broadly divide the box office calendar into three distinct seasons: 1) Oscar season, 2) blockbuster season, and 3) all other times of the year. The "all other times of the year" bucket encapsulates six months, a non-trivial amount of time for studios to release content of lesser strategic value. At the same time, there is an exhilaration to Hollywood's seasonal movie clusters. This past year saw Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Barbie and Oppenheimer released in a two-week window, and prestige pictures like Maestro, American Fiction, Poor Things, Anatomy of a Fall, and The Holdovers released over the final three months of the year. Things could be worse.
Final Thoughts: The Unfortunate Necessity of The Oscars
Recent discourse surrounding The Academy Awards focuses on the ceremony's declining cultural relevance. Viewership dwindles yearly, and fewer nominees crack the annual list of top box office earners.
It's easy to dismiss The Oscars. Many deride the ceremony as a navel-gazing contest where individuals receive prizes for work they were already paid to complete (which isn't 100% wrong). The physical act of hosting and broadcasting an Oscar show glorifies celebrity culture, self-importance, and spectacle—the movies themselves often fall out of focus in favor of glitz and glamor. In short, The Oscars are not without issue.
But imagine a world without The Oscars, or at least the concept of The Oscars. On the one hand, high-quality movies would not be confined to November and December. On the other hand, without the incentive of Oscar recognition, there may be fewer high-quality movies produced. There are few reliable bets to draw consumers to movie theaters—right now, it's superheroes, Vin Diesel, horror movies, and Oscar films.
Having a system that rewards artistic accomplishment is a good thing. Everything surrounding this incentive structure—the politicking, the scheduling, the "For Your Consideration" ads—is an unfortunate consequence. Oscar season's existence is a bizarre quirk of an idiosyncratic industry, but it's the world we live in. The next two months of moviegoing will be excellent, so go to the movies and have a good time.
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