The fall awards season used to be a game for me.
I started the “Chasing Oscar” series as part of my desire to evaluate every major Oscar-nominated movie. I got closer every year but could never quite see each one. There were often two barriers: access and time.
This year, streaming helped me see most of the Oscar nominees. Netflix released The Power of the Dog, the year’s most-nominated film. HBO Max offered the six-time winner Dune, King Richard, and Drive My Car. Spencer premiered on Hulu, while West Side Story landed on Disney+ and HBO Max. Best Picture winner CODA launched on Apple TV+. Only two of the ten Best Picture nominees were theater exclusives: Belfast and Licorice Pizza.
Access and Time: Where Oscar Season Falls Short
Streaming helped solve the access issue, but the time issue was still there. The fall awards season structure makes watching all the Oscar-nominated films very, very difficult. People often complain that because “nobody” sees the nominees, the Oscars are “out of touch” with the average person. There is some truth in the criticism. Even those with a vested interest likely struggle to see all the nominees in time. The uphill battle isn’t worth the time commitment for the casual viewer.
And so, the Oscars are trapped in a hell loop. Its cultural relevance depends on people seeing and engaging with the nominees. The awards season doesn’t offer enough time to see them, let alone the other contenders who miss the cut. Because voters rarely look outside the season, the general public feels justified in assuming the Oscars don’t matter to them. That assumption causes harm: to the Academy, the nominees, the film community and even the casual moviegoer. They miss out on a potentially amazing movie because it wasn’t “for them.”
Hollywood understands the existential threat, if the last six months are any indication. Movie studios have released several high-profile titles during what is usually a theatrical dead zone. Remarkably, these films are good, “critically acclaimed,” and “adored by audiences” good. They are the kind of good that powers awards campaigns. These films would be Oscar frontrunners if their distributors released them after September.
This hotbed of buzzy films begs the question. Are we seeing a shift away from the fall awards season? Will the Academy stand for it? If they don’t, can they survive it?
How The Fall Awards Season Works
The fall awards season calendar primarily exists for voters’ benefit. The Oscars eligibility period typically last from January 1st to December 31st of any given year. Studios figure their best Oscar shot comes from releasing as late as possible, so their films are fresh in voters’ minds. Release too early, and a movie risks losing momentum to others that come later. Other factors are at play: promotion, critical reception, media narratives, and even box office. However, timing is vital.
Oscar nominations are also a valuable marketing tool. Some films open small in New York and Los Angeles to be Oscar-eligible, and then open wide, using their nominations as a selling point.
The fall awards season calendar worked financially and culturally for a time. Every Best Picture Oscar winner from 1990 to 2004 ranked among the 25 highest-grossing films of their year. Only five were released out of season. The tide started turning in 2005, when Crash grossed $54 million, ranking 49th for the year. Since then, Best Picture winners have grossed significantly less and placed low on the year-end charts. In the last decade, only Green Book ranked amongst the top 40 highest-grossing films of its year.
Hollywood has experienced a seismic change in this period. Streaming services, social media, and leaps in television quality have given viewers an infinite amount of entertainment. As a result, movie theaters don’t command the cultural attention they once did. They are now the domain of IP-driven projects guaranteed to put people in seats. The prestige films that the Academy favors because they challenge and entertain, rarely fit the bill. In the content war, the fall awards season doesn’t function like it used to. It wasn’t a problem before, as the charts show, but Hollywood’s current state has made it one.
2022: A Weird, Exciting Year
Hollywood often clings to traditions long after they’re dead. However, 2022 is showing some signs of them letting go.
Everything Everywhere All at Once
The biggest industry story of the year so far is Everything Everywhere All at Once. The Michelle Yeoh-led film debuted at SXSW and quickly became a critical darling, with a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It initially opened small in March, but positive audience reception and runaway word of mouth helped it expand into wider release. Amongst Uncharted and The Batman, Everything Everywhere became a genuine phenomenon. It has grossed over $60 million domestically, more than double its budget.
Everything Everywhere has a fantastic awards narrative. It is an inventive indie darling that exceeded its modest expectations, headed by a vastly underrated movie icon who’s finally getting her Hollywood moment. Had Everything Everywhere come out in the fall, it would be a powerful all-around contender, including for Best Picture. However, conventional wisdom dictates that its spring release hinders its Oscar chances.
Top Gun: Maverick
Top Gun: Maverick faces a similar uphill battle. The Tom Cruise legacy sequel proved wrong assumptions that it would be a desperate nostalgia ploy. Its emotionally affecting story, jaw-dropping action sequences, and strong performances (particularly from Cruise) galvanized critics and audiences over Memorial Day weekend. In two weeks, Maverick has become Cruise’s highest-grossing domestic release ever. The film’s rapturous reception makes for a successful populist Best Picture campaign. However, voters might be turned off by its summer blockbuster status, which typically doesn’t translate to top-line Oscar success. Then again, Maverick’s appeal is its elevation of the blockbuster experience, showing that emotional heft and stakes can co-exist with popcorn entertainment.
Bats and Vikings and Elvis Presley
Two films don’t necessarily indicate a trend, but there are other early 2022 releases that could compete. The Batman could follow the Joker playbook, leaning into how its pulpy detective story underpinnings subvert the superhero origin story. The Northman might appeal to arthouse-loving voters who might appreciate Robert Eggers making a big studio project while staying true to his brutal sensibilities. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis just received a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes, suggesting it might replicate Moulin Rouge’s awards chances.
The Oscars’ Conundrum
The high-profile success of 2022’s spring/summer slate puts the Academy in an interesting position. The fall festival season is still happening. While there is buzz around presumed contenders like Avatar: The Way of Water and Babylon, other fall projects will likely have to fight for audiences’ scattered attention just as last year’s contenders did. Meanwhile, Maverick and Everything Everywhere will already exist in those same people’s minds.
The Oscars used to have some cover in their selections because studios generally agreed to hold their awards-worthy films until the fall. However, with the financial breakdown of the season calendar and the war for attention raging, Hollywood seems ready to push back. In their estimation, prestigious films can be released at any point and still be commercially and culturally successful. If Oscar voters ignore these prestigious early releases that many have seen or are at least aware of, it would be a damning indictment. It would prove for some that the Academy isn’t interested in rewarding the best films but instead rewarding the film studio most willing to bend to their whims and grovel for attention.
The Future of Oscar Season
The argument that the fall slate was just stronger than Everything Everywhere ignores how Hollywood operates. Several films should’ve been Oscars contenders but weren’t, and vice versa, because of backstage politicking and biases. Perception is the game in Hollywood, and right now, the Oscars are losing. It needs to prove itself as a judge of excellence, no matter when a film is released. It can’t afford to be restrictive to the most advantageous period, especially if studios aren’t willing to play ball.
The fall awards season won’t immediately collapse. However, this year could shift how the film industry perceives its projects and distributes them. It could also mark a significant milestone in the Academy’s desperately-needed evolution to restore its lost luster over the years.
Or the Academy could ignore Everything Everywhere and hasten its eventual demise.
*Data represented in the graphs courtesy of Box Office Mojo/IMDBPro*