True story: I still haven’t seen Call Me By Your Name yet. I know basically everything there is to know about the film, from its rapturous critical acclaim to its Tumblr fandom to that peach scene, but I’ve yet to actually sit down and watch it. The same goes for Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, The Post, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and I, Tonya. There are swaths of foreign language films that I still need to tick off my watch-list too. As a full-time pop culture writer with a specialty in awards prognosticating, these gaps in my knowledge can make my job a trying endeavor at the best of times. It’s not that I sat out watching them. By and large, I just can’t actually see any of them because their release dates are scheduled for the coming months. I may be able to say I’ve seen all the Best Picture nominees by the time the Oscars air, but it’s no guarantee.
This isn’t a problem unique to us Brits. For avid movie lovers around the world, but particularly in America, the scourge of awards season release delays puts a damper on our enthusiasm. How can you maintain your excitement for a film when it won’t be released for many more months? What’s the guarantee that you won’t be sick of hearing about it from every other end of the internet once it arrives in your local cinema? As much as I try to avoid ongoing conversations around hot-button movies before I get a chance to see it for myself, half the time it’s impossible because this outdated release scheduling system gives me no other options.
Studios and distributors stick to the old model because it has a long history of working out in their favour. I’ve talked before about the curious case of The Deer Hunter, which pioneered the specific leveraging of the Oscar race as a promotional tool for the film. By doing the most to appeal to a tiny but mighty demographic, the producers won the big awards and gave the film the kind of buzz it needed to reach wider audiences. Having the prestige of being an Academy Award winner drove viewers to the cinema to watch a hugely brutal 3-hours long Vietnam War drama they may not have been motivated to pay for of their own accord beforehand. Once a film is an awards winner, it becomes a must see.
That strategy continued well into the 90s, where the formula was perfected to an eerily effective degree. Do the festival circuit to establish buzz, get the film a short Los Angeles/New York release after Christmas for the appropriate critics and voters, reap the benefits then gradually increase the theatre count until it becomes the must see movie of the year. There’s an intense appeal to exclusivity: Hint at something truly wonderful then deny it for just the right length of time to those who are the most desperate to get their hands on it.
However, as we’ve seen from this year’s illustrious nominees, that’s a strategy that can backfire. Take Call Me By Your Name, for instance. That film did get a release at my local arthouse, but for five measly days. One of the most acclaimed movies of the year got less than a week in a busy month for viewers to check it out. If you missed it, then your window was shut, at least for another couple of months. In America, the film finally went wide in its release after 9 weeks, just before the Oscar nominations were announced. This proved fatal for its box office, and it grossed below expectations. Compare its numbers to The Shape of Water, another Oscar favourite film that went for a less contained release schedule, and its gross for last week was almost double that of Call Me By Your Name, even with relatively similar theatre numbers. I believe that Sony Classics bumbled the release of their hot young movie and that effected its awards chances on some level. Sure, the film has turned a profit and it got nominated for a solid handful of awards, but when you look at how it was projected to do, the picture is stark. By the time it finally went wide to audiences, the market was crowded with other films pulling similar tricks, the buzz had been more evenly spread around, and the spotlight was gone. Let me stress: The film is doing fine, but Sony Classics used this strategy for a reason, and it didn’t pan out as planned.
By contrast, other films from last year’s Sundance took different routes with their releases and saw fascinating results. Get Out was released in February - usually a dumping ground release date due to the lack of competition - and became one of the most profitable films of the year. People had the ability to see it with ease and they did so in droves. Dee Rees’s drama Mudbound was snatched up by Netflix after a stunning Sundance debut. We may never know how many people actually watched the film, but it’s safe to say that it reached more eager viewers from their own homes than it would have managed had some distributor stuck it in a handful of cinemas on both coasts and waited for awards buzz to move forward.
All of this leaves us with questions about who gets to see what film at each time and why. It also opens up bigger issues regarding piracy. It didn’t take long for screeners of Call Me By Your Name to leak online, and I’ve seen plenty of brazen Twitter users sharing links and Dropbox logins for their friends to watch those films they’ve heard so much about over the past few months. If you’re not in a major city, you may not get to see something like Phantom Thread until the DVD release. The more you keep telling people about these amazing films they can’t see, the thinner their patience grows. I don’t condone piracy, but can anyone be surprised that it flourishes around this time of year? Sooner or later, that carefully fostered exclusivity begins to look like snobbery.
I’ll eventually see all of the films I want to see. It’ll take time and planning and more patience than I’m used to, but it’ll happen. However, it’s become clear that the old, reliable ways of guaranteeing that Oscar win are losing their clout and leaving behind nothing but impatient prospective viewers. Would it hurt for distributors to just let us see the damn films?