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Can a Release Date Predict an Oscar Winner?

Conventional wisdom holds that Christmas is the peak season for awards movies—but the past decade of winners proves differently. Here is what 83 years of data reveal about Oscar release dates.

Ringer illustration

By its IMDb page alone, The Post should have been an Oscars juggernaut. Steven Spielberg directing a historical piece with modern-day political resonance starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks sounds like a Mad Libs movie pitch — yet on Christmas weekend 2017, there The Post was in limited release. The film, which depicts The Washington Post’s coverage of the Pentagon Papers in the face of potential legal ruin, received a warm critical response (88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and a decent box-office return (over $79 million domestically at the time of publishing). The Ringer’s K. Austin Collins deemed it another Spielberg “master class.” And yet, as awards season has swelled the profiles of a number of 2017’s more esoteric films, the year’s most obvious trophy bait is dying in darkness.

The Post received just two nominations for Sunday’s Oscars and is unlikely to win in either category. Per GoldDerby’s prognostications, The Post is tied with the lowest odds in the Best Picture race, at 100-to-1, while Streep is the biggest underdog in the Best Actress category, at 80-to-1. Neither Spielberg nor Hanks received an individual nomination at all. There are a number of possible explanations for this apparent disappointment. The Post is old-fashioned Oscars material for a new-age Academy; it’s not as strong a movie as other classic journalistic fare like All the President’s Men or 2016 Best Picture winner Spotlight; it’s received criticism for historical inaccuracies, particularly from The New York Times. But the movie’s likely ceremonial shut-out is as much a matter of timing. (Which is ironic —The Post, of all movies, should know the importance of a deadline.)

An Oscar contender requires a strong plot, moving performances, and a robust marketing campaign, but the calendar matters, too. When the Oscar nominations were announced, Vox noted that The Post opened “so late in the calendar year that it struggled to woo voters for the various industry guild awards (the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, etc.) to even see the film”; this meant that it “fell off the map” and never was able to gain momentum. There’s a historical basis to suggest The Post isn’t an anomaly in that respect. Over the past decade, studios have been most successful releasing their most promising Oscar fare a bit earlier in the year, rather than saving it for Christmas.

This year appears to be no exception. Along with The Post, Phantom Thread is the only other late-December film that has a chance at one of the four biggest awards: Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Actress. And while Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film has a chance at Best Score and is the favorite in Best Costume Design, it is a distant contender in the more prestigious categories, including Best Director, where Anderson, like Streep, is the biggest underdog with 80-to-1 odds.

The other big-category nominees, from Get Out to Dunkirk, received earlier releases in the 2017 calendar, and many, like Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, emerged in the recent sweet spot of October or November. Those two months have seen the release of the past seven Best Picture winners — which is a notable change from the traditional, if not totally scientific, definition of prime Oscar movie season as a Christmastime affair. In a year with a particularly unpredictable and open-ended Best Picture race, the movies’ release dates themselves might provide the most predictive clue.

Broadly speaking, the relationship between a movie’s release date and Oscar bona fides has progressed through three distinct phases. Phase one lasted for roughly the first half century of the Oscars. During this stretch, no single release-date pattern emerged. The number varied by year, but about half the winners in the Big Four awards categories went to movies with release dates from January through September, and half went to movies with release dates from October through December. For every Lawrence of Arabia (released in December 1962), there was a Godfather (March 1972). (Release dates throughout this piece refer to a film’s first release date — which is often limited to cities like Los Angeles and New York — according to BoxOfficeMojo and IMDb.*)
*The one exception is 2015 Best Actress winner Still Alice, which came to theaters in January 2015, for which its September 2014 film festival showing is the date being used.

By the late 1970s, though, that balance began to tilt, until not a single one of the 20 Big Four awards from 1987 through 1991 went to a movie with a pre-October release. (Dead Poets Society and Goodfellas, for instance, were two pre-October releases that lost Best Picture during this span.) Movies from the first nine months of the year have been Oscar surprises more than stalwarts ever since: They’ve won only two of the past 20 Big Four prizes (Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine, released in July 2013, and the aforementioned, asterisked Julianne Moore for Still Alice) and haven’t won more than seven of 20 since 1997–2001. The graph below shows this trend, with the line denoting the percentage of the 20 Big Four winners from the previous five years that saw a pre-October release.

As movies with an earlier release date waned in the Academy’s consciousness, Christmastime movies thrived. From 1986 through 2005, half the Best Picture winners had a release date of December 15 or later, and 35 of 80 Big Four winners overall (43.8 percent) belonged to movies with so late a release. The Christmas rush yielded a majority of the topline winners in 1986, 1989, 1990, 1994, 1998, and each year from 2002 to 2005. Studios flooded that sliver of the calendar with their best Oscar bait, creating a self-fulfilling set of circumstances; with the most qualified movies receiving a late-December release, those weeks were more likely to produce Oscar winners, thereby reaffirming their attraction, and so on. All the bolded titles on this chart had a release date of December 15 or later.

But a calendar change to the Academy Awards in 2004 ruined this bit of scheduling savvy. Since the late 1940s, the annual event had occurred in late March or early April, but 2004 marked a shift to a late-February or early-March ceremony. One less month for movies to build momentum has seemingly made all the difference; while Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (released on December 17, 2003) and Million Dollar Baby (December 15, 2004) still triumphed at the first two Oscars with an earlier ceremony date, in the 12 years since, not one Best Picture winner has come out on December 15 or later. Just five of 48 Big Four winners (10.4 percent) — Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood, Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady, and Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant among them —were from movies released that late in the year.

Instead, the ideal release date — like the Oscars ceremony itself — has shifted a month earlier, to October and November. While those two months hosted just 20 of 80 Big Four winners (25 percent) from 1986 through 2005, they’ve produced 29 of 48 Big Four winners since (60.4 percent). All the bolded titles on this chart had a release date in October or November.

Even expanding the Christmastime segment to all of December — which historically doesn’t add many new winners but at least folds in the likes of La La Land, which won Best Director and Actress last year after a December 9 release — doesn’t change the narrative much; October and November have never before dominated the trophy case by so wide a margin.

This trend helps explain why predictions for this year’s ceremony are so down on The Post and Phantom Thread and so high on films with earlier release dates. Guillermo del Toro is a heavy favorite to win Best Director for The Shape of Water (December 1 release), and GoldDerby’s favorites for Best Picture, Actress, and Actor (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and its lead, Frances McDormand, for the first two, Darkest Hour’s Gary Oldman for the third) all received November releases. While prospective contenders with earlier releases like Get Out (February) and Dunkirk (July) are perhaps experiencing a late surge, they’re also not favorites because they might have the opposite problem as The Post: They premiered so early in the year that they were largely overtaken in the conversation by awards season. (Get Out’s surge, in many ways, is a result of it reclaiming a hold on that conversation.)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a particularly illustrative example, as it was released on November 10, giving it two months to gain awards-season momentum — and awards-season controversy. The film won big at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs and is now a favorite to win Best Picture and Actress. It can also be argued that Three Billboards has also seized the (questionable) political relevance narrative that The Post might have snatched had it come out first.

To use the most recent anecdotal evidence, Moonlight — last year’s eventual Best Picture winner — was released in October, while La La Land opted for a Christmas-leaning December 9. But if the 2017 Oscar ceremony taught us anything, it is that nothing at the Academy Awards is certain. This year it is possible that a February movie will win Best Picture for the first time since The Silence of the Lambs in 1992, or that the preferential ballot will tip the biggest award toward the summer blockbuster in the mix. But it seems unlikely that The Post, or any other Christmas movie, will take home a major award. Assuming next year’s films learn the lessons of this year’s Post, another self-fulfilling cycle will emerge, and prestigious awards will become even further concentrated in October and November. And the cycle will continue, until the Oscars’ next structural change mandates a new schedule all together. Until then, the lesson for would-be Oscar winners is simple: Don’t wait until Christmas to release your movie.

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