Why the Oscar Season Begins in September
If you follow the entertainment industry at all, you know that every September is when you start seeing a bunch of articles and predictions about the upcoming Oscar race. And you may be wondering, “Hey, the Oscars are in 2018. What gives?” Well, the Oscar race is about much more than the couple of months leading up to the ceremony—it’s a long, twisty, calculated road that involves special screenings, Q&A’s, critics awards, backlash, backlash to the backlash, and then of course the actual Oscars. So in truth, while the 90th Academy Awards won’t take place until March 4, 2018, the race is already well underway.
Any film released in the 2017 calendar year, in an actual theater, is eligible for the Academy Awards. But the window for the big “Oscar movies” is usually a pretty short (and crowded) period of time between September and December. September marks the starting point each and every year, and I’m here to explain why.
At the end of August, the Summer Movie Season has officially come to a close, and studios turn their attention to their fall and winter slates. A big part of this is a trifecta of film festivals that mark the official start of Oscar season, where some of the biggest movies from September, October, November, and December are unveiled for the first time.
The Venice Film Festival kicks things off during the final days of August, where films get a splashy European premiere and some major critics weigh in with the first assessments. It’s here where the first reviews for Gravity and La La Land hit. This is followed days later by the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, which is a far more exclusive and intimate affair attended by prestigious critics, filmmakers, actors, and other industry types. Telluride has its own premieres but also screens some of the same films that played at Venice, where movies are assessed by a different, more American-skewing group of tastemakers.
And then there’s the Toronto International Film Festival, which begins days after Telluride and plays host to a much larger program of films. A lot of the same movies that played at Venice and Telluride also play at TIFF, but TIFF is attended by a swath of critics from all over the globe, as well as regular moviegoers as Toronto residents are able to buy tickets to splashy premiere screenings. It’s here where, after the “prestige” takes at Venice and Telluride, the films have their “make or break” moment as they’re unveiled to a much larger group of people. So something like 12 Years a Slave or Dallas Buyers Club can really take off at TIFF, while films like The Danish Girl or The Judge falter and slow their Oscar dreams before the fall movie season even really begins.
These three film festivals are important to the Oscar season as they usually reveal the playing field. In fact, seven of the last eight Best Picture winners played at Telluride, so that film festival’s lineup serves as something of a “cheat sheet” for what may eventually take the top Oscar prize.
Of course movies released earlier in the year aren’t out of the running. Something like Grand Budapest Hotel or Mad Max: Fury Road can make a strong impression before September and, assuming the studio behind said film does the work to keep it fresh in voters’ minds, can go on to Oscar glory. But it’s an uphill battle of sorts, because voters are inundated with so many new movies in the October-December corridor that films released earlier in the year can start to fade. That’s why Warner Bros. has kept Christopher Nolan on the circuit for Dunkirk even though the film was released in July, and why Warner Bros. set up a special IMAX screening in Toronto during TIFF with Nolan in attendance. It’s all in the game, yo.
What happens after the festivals is also key, as the various Oscar pundits begin their prognosticating and studios—armed with honest critical reaction—know which films to put their big money behind as the awards season rolls on. Just a couple of years ago The Weinstein Company was convinced Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was its biggest Oscar player, but a surprisingly warm critical reaction to Philomena at TIFF changed their strategy and resulted in four Oscar nominations for that film.
There’s still always a long road to go, and a frontrunner in September is not always a frontrunner in December (just ask Gravity), but you can set your watches that every year, this month marks the official start of awards season because it’s where 70-80% of the major players are revealed for the very first time. As such, studios start to settle into the angles of their campaigns (and believe me, campaigning is a major part of winning an Oscar), and Academy voters get a heads up on which films they should prioritize when those sweet, sweet screeners come in. The ceremony may be months away, but baby, Oscar season is here.