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Early released films hope to be part of Oscar party

Films released early in the year face special challenges getting the attention of Oscar voters. But 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Crash' proved it can be done.

December 27, 2012|By Randee Dawn
(Danny Schwartz / For the…)

When the Golden Globe nominations were announced in mid-December, no one really expected to hear from a little film that hit U.S. theaters the previous March. But "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" scored three nods: a best picture slot and for its actors Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt.

Few were as surprised about hearing that title announced as producer Paul Webster (who also has "Anna Karenina," which got only one Globe nomination, in the awards season melee). "I was so shocked," he says. "When we sold the film to CBS [Films] in Toronto, that was explicitly part of their pitch for the film — that it would be in awards season. It's a good sales line. But I'm delighted to say that this film apparently has a really long tail."

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Awards season is a noisy, busy time, with dozens of high-class movies climbing over one another to grab the spotlight, their backers hoping to convince voters to see their DVD or attend their special screening. But there's a special kind of award strategy for films that release early in the year, and occasionally they hit it on the head. Although Oscar's best picture honors don't often go to early-release films, there are exceptions. And when that happens — "The Hurt Locker" (opened June 26, 2009), "Crash" (May 6, 2005) — it can raise hopes for all early birds.

"There's a backlog of films to see this time of year," says Graham Broadbent, producer of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," which opened May 4. "Those movies released right at this moment have to be forceful in getting people's attention — they have to work harder to do a first-time viewing. We only have to remind people that they've already viewed and enjoyed our film — so it's a slightly easier position to be in."

"Marigold" isn't alone; many films that are released early in the year can expect a second chance come awards season if they score with the right audience. "Spring or summer hits that appeal to the academy demographic naturally will be revived for a second wind, geared with a home entertainment release in the fall, or by putting the film out there with screenings and talent Q&As," says one longtime award strategist.

The mix of what works is different for every film, says Lea Yardum, another award strategist, this time for Paramount Pictures. "Costs have to be weighed out, and it's a different recipe for every motion picture," she says. "Your spices are the same, but the way you lay them out will affect the stew."

One common practice is four-wall distribution, in which studios rent out entire theaters ostensibly to hold open seats for guild members and other important voters. Four-walling has been around for years and gives studios multiple chances to remind audiences of the film's existence. "If a movie is sort of quiet and gets a Globe nomination, that's a great time to put it back into the theater," says Yardum, "because you can advertise against that nomination. It's new news."

Other strategies studios employ include getting actors and other filmmakers out in the public eye again, at parties, at Q&As and doing interviews with the media. "The Grey" and "End of Watch," which opened in January and September, respectively, are also getting fresh play from Open Road Films, says President Jason Cassidy. He adds that they've started up new screenings for both films, expanded "Watch" by around 1,000 screens and made a big push on the DVDs.

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DVDs are one area in which early films have a particular advantage, since by the time fall rolls around most are heading for a home entertainment debut anyway. If those mass-market commercial DVDs, complete with fancy graphics and bonus footage, can be prepped to also go out to guild voters, studios can save thousands by keeping the plainer, title-treatment-only academy DVD screeners to a minimum.

And this year, academy ballots are going out earlier, which could make it even harder for the late releases to be heard over the din of awards season. Yardum notes that, "from having talked to the members that are out and about a lot, many haven't seen the later-breaking films." This means that some of the biggest pictures may go unseen, at worst, or will be poorly digested, at best.

"We have a little more oxygen now," says "Salmon's" Webster. "So many releases get packed into the last two months of the year, and they seem to cancel each other out. I'm not so sure it's a good idea for everybody."

And the combination of earlier ballots, a particularly crammed December endgame and some real quality films from earlier in the year may mean that some of the earliest guests at the party may have a fighting chance.

"I was in a meeting with a producer about another film the other day, and he said, 'I'm so excited about my "End of Watch" screener. I never got to see it in theaters,'" says Cassidy. "It's our job to get people to see these movies and see the work. At the end of the day, it's not about the marketing or the release. It's about getting people to see the work."


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