It is amazing how many films were released during the holidays. You would think distributors would want to pace them out a little more because many of them seem to come and go in a week.
It is all part of a grand plan. There are key seasons to release films, especially the blockbuster films that are intended to make a lot of money. The industry calls them “tent pole” films because they often act as the film that holds up the studio tent, supporting other films that either fail or break even.
There appear to be generally two types of films these days, the tent poles that have budgets exceeding $100 million and the smaller relationship films which have budgets that rarely exceed $15 or 20 million. There are exceptions, of course, but big studios have generally decided they want to be in the tent pole business and it is often the smaller distributors that deal with the lower budget films. This is because it costs a lot to release films these days. Network ads run hundreds of thousands for one spot, and studios don’t use radio and newspapers as much as they used to. Social media is very helpful, as are billboards, but it seems to be the big TV ads that capture the big crowds. So smaller films that don’t make as much money have become the business of smaller operations that run lean and mean.
Good reviews drive the success of a smaller or relationship films (like “The King’s Speech” or “The Artist”) but there is nothing like an Academy Award nomination; an Oscar is the mother load. Other awards are helpful, Golden Globes, New York Critics, Spirit Awards (which take place the day before the Academy Awards and are limited to “independent Films” with budgets of under $20 million.) But the Academy Award is the biggie. Oscar voters tend to not give awards to the biggest grosser, perhaps because they feel they don’t need any help at the box office, unless there are stunning costumes, special effects or an acting turn that just can’t be ignored.
So how do you get the attention of the academy? The voters in the academy represent only people in the film business, about 6,300 of them, and they are a pretty jaded bunch. Distributors worry they have short memories. Nominations are voted at the end of each year and are announced earlier and earlier. This year the nominations were announced on Jan. 10 with voting opening up in December.
So what if you released your film last January—will the academy remember it? Common wisdom is that they won’t, no matter what you do. So as a result, most of the films that distributors feel have a shot for awards come out in the latter part of the year, starting around Thanksgiving. Not only is Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays a time when more people are going to the movies (because of school vacations), but it is much closer to academy nomination time; a perfect storm. Not that you can’t make a lot of money at other times. Summer is a great time to release big films and even January in 2012 saw the release of “The Devil Inside,” which grossed $100 million worldwide. I don’t think anyone, however, thought that film would vie for academy attention and January is often a time to “bury” a film.
Academy rules require that in order to be eligible for the 2013 Academy Awards, films have to play for seven days in a theater in Los Angeles County during 2012. So often distributors will release the film for a “qualifying run” for one week in November or December and then pull it for rerelease in the following year when there is less competition at the box office and maybe, just maybe, they will get a nomination or an award that will boost the box office of the film.
The glut of films released at the end of the year (there were about 20 released in December alone) also can generate a feeding frenzy. People, not just academy voters, want to see the films people are talking about, sometimes seeing two in a day.
But the real target of this rush of films is academy voters. Distributors want to get them any way they can, so much so that they let voters in to theaters and screenings for free. While Academy voters do get DVDs of the movies in contention, “screeners” they are called, there is nothing like seeing a film on the big screen to get the full impact. That’s why, for example, our own Malibu Film Society is getting all of the talked-about films. Suddenly studios and distributors have discovered that we are a great way to make films accessible to the multitude of academy voters who live in Malibu and don’t want to drive to town. Starting last year, distributors have one by one started offering films to the MFS that they want academy voters to see (we have a heavy academy voter list of members), so much so that executive director Scott Tallal has trouble scheduling them all.
So the release of films is much more of a science than one would believe. And now that the nominations are out, you can determine whose strategy worked.
E. Barry Haldeman is an entertainment lawyer with Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Mitchell in Century City and previously served as EVP of Business and Legal Affairs at Paramount Pictures.