MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

20 Weeks To Oscar: The (Shock) Corridor

January. May. August. September. October. November.

Last year: January. May. September. October. November.

2014: January. February. September. October. November.

2013: May. September. October. November.

2012: January. May. September. October. November.

Sense a trend?

These are the months in which movies that have gone on to get Oscar nominations (including assumptions about this season) were first shown to more than a handful of people in each of the last five seasons. A Sundance movie generally gets in. A Cannes movie has gotten in three of the last four seasons, with Loving as the only hope for that launchpad this season. There is one Berlin release (The Grand Budapest Hotel). And then the familiar Sept-Nov/Dec-release corridor, which could expand into August more than by a day of Telluride or Venice this year with the August release of Hell or High Water.

The summer window, aside from Cannes in early May and some arthousers sneaking after the commercial summer battlefield in late August, has all but closed. The March window, former home to movies like Erin Brockovich, is mostly closed to Oscar (Grand Budapest being the recent exception).

The last year of real Oscar release flexibility was 2009, which was the first year of the expansion to 10 films (later adjusted to “as many as 10 films” for reasons that are still foolish). There was a TIFF release from the year before that was released in the summer (The Hurt Locker), two Sundance movies (Precious and An Education), a commercial mid-summer studio movie (Up), two commercially-focused August wide releases (Inglorious Basterds, District 9), two TIFF launches, and two commercial launches in November and December.

In 2010, you had four summer release nominees, only one of which had an earlier launch (Winter’s Bone at Sundance). The other 6 nominees came from the fall corridor, only two of which debuted at Telluride/TIFF.

In 2011, the “as many as” rule launched for Academy and the serious shrinkage of the season began. Nine nominees. Two launches were at Cannes and the films were released in the summer (Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life). A third Cannes film was held for November release (The Artist). The Help had a straight commercial release in early August. And the other five? In the corridor.

So what does all this date-crunching mean?

I argue that it means that the business of award season has gotten sharper and more decisive. Flukes still happen. It is hardly impossible. But much the same way that indie films without distribution just coincidentally seem to be completed in the fall, just in time for Sundance applications, Oscar movies hold out until The Corridor is ready for them.

The August Strategy (releasing a solid, likable adult movie in August, before the hysteria starts, gaining a unique foothold) still exists… and looks like it may work this year for Hell or High Water and maybe for Florence Foster Jenkins.

Sundance is not an awards platform, but the top American independent film market, so it shouldn’t be a shock that there is a film or two there that, re-launched in The Corridor, can seriously compete for nominations.

Cannes is an odd bird. It has two faces. There is the commercial Cannes of Opening Night, where a studio can launch a commercial movie to the worldwide press as it heads into theaters in the weeks immediately following. And there is the sales market, where (like Sundance), some great, awards-competitive films can be found.

Going into 2017, there are currently only five films that will even inspire Oscar discussion on the schedule. There will be additions coming out of Sundance, likely released in August/September, and maybe a commercial Cannes opener that will open before The Corridor. But… Beauty & The Beast and The Zookeeper’s Wife in March, The Book of Henry in June, and Dunkirk and My Cousin Rachel in July.

What’s realistic? Dunkirk will be the rare summer movie that is nominated for Best Picture. Beauty & The Beast could get there if well reviewed and grossing $1b+. The Zookeeper’s Wife, which was fought over in the corridors of Focus for a 2016 Corridor release, will be well-loved by some but disappear by the fall. Henry and Rachel are smaller films that may change dates and are not likely to survive the summer releases.

And then, you can expect the same old, same old. One or two Sundance movies in serious play after re-launching at Telluride/TIFF. And The Corridor. Those movies are already being shown to insiders to determine early strategy.

Here’s what isn’t going to happen. No consultant is going to see a great movie in the next two months and tell the distributor to push the release (critical or commercial) into the spring or summer. No one wants to be the other summer movie to Dunkirk. No one getting paid by the push wants to risk seeing a title die a quick death outside of The Corridor.

Even the Sundance movies. People in the media are aware of how insanely precious Amazon was with screenings of Manchester by the Sea before the fall festival window… after it had premiered at Sundance in January. Why? Because it wanted the re-launch, not just a wide cloak of love for their film. Would Manchester have been better served by a media blitz just before the fall festivals, given the sense of inevitability around La La Land? Probably.

A quality late summer arthouse release can get traction simply by being seen by a large percentage of Academy members who are actually paying money to go to the movies, desperate for something they actually want to see. Word of mouth is more valuable than any advertisement (or Golden Globe).

So… what’s wrong with The Corridor and its dominance?

Many people seem to believe that the problem is that all the good movies are thrown into the fall and winter and that misshapes the artistic pleasures of the year. I am too jaded for that notion. There are a lot of great films released all year long, though we in the business of seeing them early, have usually seen most of the quality January-April product many months before release.

My problem with The Corridor is that the period has become desperate and grabby. The smartest and the most simplistic players are stuck playing the same game… using fake awards events (high and low) and all forms of screening/dining contraptions and terrible hackneyed advertorial that not even ad buyers expect to be read. Voters aren’t really expected to break the plastic on the trade or open the paper envelope around The Envelope.

Literally tens of millions are being spent on the basis of, “If they are doing it, we better be doing it,” in an arena where there is little direct confirmation of the value of said advertising. (By the way, this known unknown is also the basis of most of the revenue that keeps this website going.)

And a big reason why there is so much being spent so ineffectively is that we are all jammed into The Corridor. It’s as old a principle as cramming for a math test. If you did the work in the weeks before the test, you don’t need to cram. But now, by design, the only period that is counted as highly valuable is The Corridor, so cramming is the only real option.

Reality is, The Corridor also makes sense financially. As expensive as advertising and events are inside The Corridor, it is still a narrow path that can be coordinated with the theatrical release. If you have a spring or summer release, going into the awards fight means additional spending, which is why so many award campaigns for first-half movies are attached to Home Entertainment campaigns, to keep the spend connected to a direct revenue benefit.

As a result, there is this big pot of money in The Corridor and there are all sorts of people and companies scheming to get the biggest share of it possible. As a result, there is a hierarchy that develops that has nothing to do with effectiveness or certainly the quality of the promotions. And as a result of that, the quality of the same promotions lessens because that quality is not the priority… perceived promotional value is.

In other words, there is pay-to-play on both sides. The side promoting their movie is paying money for both ads and events and the associated costs to get the biggest bang for their bucks (they hope). And the side that is being paid and given the benefits of the expenditures is selling their perceived integrity in order to not only get revenue, but to continue the perception that they create value. In fact, the creation of that perceived value is the primary goal.

You may recall the old idea that the central idea of television networks was to sell eyeballs to advertisers, not TV shows to the public. Most of the media around the award season now exists to sell alleged influence to advertisers not to engage in truth-connected journalism for the narrow swath of public which it allegedly serves.

The monster feeds on itself. There is no space for real consideration of what anything means. It is a mechanical operation.

I have written in other contexts about entertainment journalism, there is so much publicity to cover, there is very little actual journalism, if only because there is no time in the day after covering everything you are fed. Likewise, the genius in awards consulting in 2016 is in picking the films to work for/with and the management of the game. The illusion of magic is over.

Don’t get me wrong. The awards consultants are almost all brilliant. But the days of drawing outside the lines are pretty much over. The last “big move” made by an awards consultant was the choice to send DVDs to all members of SAG for Crash. That was more than a decade ago. Now, it’s picking which movies to represent and then managing the many, many players and egos and budgets involved so that your audience — Academy voters and to some degree, media — don’t notice.

There are boundaries to success in The Corridor just like any other endeavor. Junk in still leads to junk out. So the films that go into the machine and come out the other side are almost all of real quality, whatever our personal preferences. This is one of the reasons I HATE the whining about this or that movie being unworthy. We all get so high and mighty when given a bully pulpit. (I should know.)

But the magic is seeping out of the award season, year by year, fake award show (that everyone participates in) by fake award show, $80,000 cover by $80,000 cover, faux news story by faux news story. And as a result, the magicians are not making the effort on award season anymore, because magic just doesn’t play anymore.

I loved the magic. I still love the movies. There is great pleasure in the work that we get to see and the filmmakers we get to engage.

But this is the first year ever when The Golden Globes are being hosted by the airing network’s late-night host and the Oscars by its airing-network’s late-night host. (And The Grammys are going this way too.) The machine will out.

Of course, overcompensation could be even worse. In a few weeks, a TV game show host and con artist will host the inauguration.

Maybe The Corridor isn’t so bad.

One Response to “20 Weeks To Oscar: The (Shock) Corridor”

  1. Bob Burns says:

    It is a wonder that, in this internet age, no one reports the actual campaign…. names the names of the people running these campaigns, shows their faces, puts them on the record, reports the events and describes the moves as the campaigns unfold. Sure, the publicists’ ad money keeps a lid on things, but year after year, nothing?

    Says a lot about the power exercised by publicists over the Oscar pundits and reporters.

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