If this year’s best picture lineup is any indication, awards season might finally have become a 12-month affair, with the early-year festivals carrying nearly as much weight as the ones in the fall. Three of the eight nominees debuted at fests that took place before campaigning for last year’s Oscars had even drawn to a close. It’s still a big hurdle for a film to maintain momentum for a full calendar year.
And common wisdom says starting out strong too early in the season gives a film just one way to go: down. Yet Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which both debuted at the January 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which debuted at the February 2014 Berlinale International Film Festival, have managed to ride the praise all the way to best picture nominations.
The festival part of the Oscar equation isn’t exactly new, but the timing certainly is. May’s Cannes Film Festival has served for years as the unofficial beginning of the campaign trail—with gold fever ratcheting up during the fall fests of Venice, Telluride and Toronto—but more recent exhaustive Oscar prognosticating has seen Sundance and Berlin spur trophy chatter.
Festivals used to be just one part of an awards campaigner’s strategy—some might have said five years ago that they weren’t a critical part—and major studios didn’t raise the eyebrows of pundits when they opted out of the circuit. But now that every key part of the season is examined through the Oscar lens, every move is laden with meaning, particularly when a film is considered awards-caliber. It’s an endurance contest.
Take, for example, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, which has five Oscar nominations including director and both lead and supporting actor. The long-in-development dark drama originally was slated to make its world premiere as the closing-night film of the November 2013 AFI Fest, which has risen in prominence as an Oscar campaign launch pad. When Sony Pictures Classics made the bold move of pulling the film from the AFI lineup to give Miller more time to complete it, Internet rumblings about what it all meant for the film’s awards chances began making their way around. Despite how observers perceived it, the delay was a benefit, giving Miller the berth he needed to prep the film for a splashy Cannes debut that carried it through the season. It was simply a matter of doing the best thing for the film and ignoring the noise.
Though campaigners and talent know just how long of a slog the road to the Dolby Theatre has turned into, they’re also aware of how quickly the tide can turn. With that element of surprise in mind, here’s a look back at the season that was (with mention of precursor awards handed out as of press time). Click the center of the main image above to launch the gallery.