Here we are, 33 weeks into the Oscar season, just 19 weeks away from the new 2019 campaign cycle, and 26 weeks from the Feb. 24 Academy Awards ceremony for the films of 2018.
If the math seems dizzying, that’s because it is.
With the advent of the new best popular film Oscar—details of which have yet to be worked out—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has joined the era of the Permanent Campaign. As with partisan strife, which now boils without respite between elections, the scramble for Oscars has suddenly become a year-round thing.
This year’s early favorite, Black Panther, was released by Disney and its Marvel unit on Feb. 16, more than two weeks before the last awards ceremony, on March 4. If all goes according to plan, Fox and New Regency should release their Ad Astra next Jan. 11. A science fiction thriller starring Brad Pitt, it could be a contender at the Oscar show on Feb. 9, 2020. But the Fox folks, if they play their cards right, could easily slip Pitt into the 2019 ceremony, as an early reminder that the next round of ballots are on the way.
Putting aside a seemingly general awards show fatigue, the Oscars are beginning to feel like a family that leaves the Christmas decorations out all year. The reindeer and colored lights are charming in December. By March, they’re getting old.
In fact, the recent decision to move the 2020 show up by two weeks, from an originally planned Feb. 23 date, was supposed to address that problem by shortening the season.
But the simultaneous invention of a best popular film Oscar means that it’s always campaign time. January and February—with their Martin Luther King and Valentine’s holidays—are already a launch pad for box-office hits like Black Panther.
But those months are likely to get busier. Because, if the rules defining popularity include a box-office test, early-year releases will have a built-in advantage. They have many weeks and months to meet any sales threshold that could only be more difficult for an equally popular film that tumbles into the market at year’s end, and doesn’t hit its ticket-sale marks until a subsequent year, after the Oscar voting is settled. (The Greatest Showman comes to mind.)
Inevitably, contenders will be looking at the first and second quarters, hoping to get that qualifying edge. If it’s a close call—say, with a delicately balanced, ethnic comedy like Crazy Rich Asians—extra weeks to sell tickets, and to campaign, will be especially important. An Asian-American romantic romp may or may not be a Best Picture. But it could be a Best Popular Picture nominee, if it has time to meet whatever performance standards the Academy may set.
Whether those standards are domestic or global could also become a factor. If a film lags here, but finds a long-haul audience around the world, it could conceivably become a Best Popular Picture candidate. Remember, for instance, The Secret World of Arrietty, a Japanese animated feature that didn’t do much domestically for Disney, but took in $146 million around the world. Then again, The Shape Of Water, a supposedly “small” Best Picture winner, took in more, both here and abroad.
Anyway, we can be sure of this much: We’ll always be in the middle of an Oscar season now. The head-scratcher is, which one?