Thanks, Academy: An Earlier Oscars Date Will Hurt the Films That Need Help the Most


Of the many reasons why the Academy date change is a bad idea, the biggest one may be the damage it could do to independent films.

In 2020, when the Oscar ceremony takes its new residence on the second Sunday in February — the week after the Super Bowl, most years — it will have already impacted the entire awards calendar. Technically, it’s a move of little more than two weeks north from its current perch of February 24, 2019, but the consequences could be massive. Here’s a look at who stands to lose.

Greta Gerwig & Saorise Ronan70th Annual Directors Guild Awards, Press Room, Los Angeles 3 Feb 2018

“Lady Bird” helmer Greta Gerwig and Saorise Ronan at the DGA Awards

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Specialized Films Need Nominations Most

The awards cycle can turn a $5 million specialized release into a $20 million success, or even more. In the last year alone, “The Shape of Water,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “The Darkest Hour,” and “Lady Bird” all grossed close to $50 million, or more, riding the Oscar wave. Studio films can also see that bump, like “The Revenant” ($198 million, adjusted) or “Hidden Figures” ($177.8 million) but those are differences in degree. For the specialized industry, its ecosystem relies on it. Whole companies see their fates determined by betting right on awards.

Frances McDormand - Lead Actress - 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'90th Annual Academy Awards, Show, Los Angeles, USA - 04 Mar 2018WEARING VALENTINO

Frances McDormand with her Best Actress Oscar for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

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The Calendar is Critical

Specialized means not just a film’s content or audience, but also its handling — and the kid gloves required to ensure its box-office success. These experts can roll with the punches; back in 2004, when the Oscars moved from late March/early April to late February, they thrived. But even though this date change covers a smaller period, it has a bigger chance of hurting the cause.

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Awards-season films make the bulk of the money between Christmas Day and right before the Oscars. That’s when the older, Oscar-oriented moviegoing audience buy tickets. So when you compare February 9, 2020 to March 4, 2018, that’s a loss of three weeks-plus of invaluable playtime — and the revenue that comes with it.

Fewer Films Will Get Attention

This truncated calendar will also place the specialized contenders in a gladiatorial competition with each other as well as major Christmas films. Instead of spacing out releases, with time to go wider, more will go head to head at their widest points, reducing  grosses across the board.

There’s Nowhere to Go

Nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Screen Actors Guild serve as the awards-season starting gun. When the Academy last advanced the Oscar calendar in 2004, both groups moved their own announcements and awards accordingly. Technically, that could happen again, placing them just after Thanksgiving, but it would be nearly impossible for other groups to advance their announcements. The eligibility deadline remains December 31, and many top titles open later in the month. To think all contenders would be ready for voters by mid-November is absurd.

The Streaming Calendar is a Mess

An Oscar campaign is expensive, and the window of theatrical opportunity is narrow. However, much of the awards-cycle profit comes from carefully calibrated streaming availability. They bring a much larger revenue share to distributors, up to twice as much or more. Distributors demand at least 75 days of release before a title goes to higher-end premium streaming;  in recent years, this means many contenders start their second lives around February 9. This creates a conundrum: Many theaters will not play films that are streaming, so how will distributors take advantage of that key revenue source? Will they open films earlier, or rewrite windows? Either way, it means reduced less prime time for strong theatrcial grosses.

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The Law of Unintended Consequences Will Prevail

From top studio executives down to independents, a common complaint about the Academy and its Board of Governors is they don’t act in the best interests of the industry. It’s the Academy first — their own perception, and their ratings to satisfy the network executives who ultimately pay their bills. When the Academy expanded to more than five Best Picture nominees, it had nothing to do with the industry; it was in the hope of getting more blockbusters in the mix. That didn’t happen; instead, it’s largely meant more independent films make the cut. For the Academy, this date change may find a similarly unwelcome effect.

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