Ready Or Not, Here Comes Award Season

By  · Published on September 8th, 2015

Universal Pictures

Yesterday afternoon, after a particularly enjoyable jog around the neighborhood, I plopped down on my couch to watch another episode of Mr. Robot. We recently declared Mr. Robot to be one of our breakout shows of Summer 2015 and this episode was no exception, inspiring the typical mix of technophobia and disgust at the show’s depiction of misuse of power. And then a curious thing happened. During one of the short breaks on the USA Now app, in a blatant lack of respect for the Gregorian calendar, was a Christmas commercial. Retail giant K-Mart – perhaps out of arrogance, desperation, or creative genius – had once again paid for a September commercial to tell me that, sure, we’d be crazy to think about Christmas at this time of year, but they’ll be here when the time is right. And so now all I can think about is that commercial and Christmas in September.

And while I sat on my couch and had a premature anxiety attack over the holidays, many film critics across the country were doing the same thing for a very different reason. This past weekend marked the 42nd annual Telluride Film Festival, which to many marks the unofficial kick-off to the 2015 Hollywood award season. From Friday to Monday, film critics flew from all over the world to watch future Oscar contenders such as Carol, Steve Jobs, and Black Mass. More than a few of these reviews weighed in on the chances for actors and filmmakers to make the Academy shortlist for award season. Would Steve Jobs overcome audience fatigue regarding our favorite innovative genius? Will Black Mass make us forget at least two of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies? Is the world ready to talk about award season nonstop?

Once award predictions are out of the bottle, there’s no use in trying to shove them back in. And despite the idea that Oscar talk – much like Christmas commercials – seems to be hitting us earlier and earlier each year, there really is no downside for Hollywood and film blogs to kick things off as soon as possible. Sure, many people who love good movies hate to see fall titles be reduced to award math – or watch smaller titles get pushed out of the public conversation in favor of those looking to throw advertising money around for an award season push – but award season talk is here to stay, so we might as well address the type of math that studios will use to keep us interested for the next several months.

To know how the next few months will go, it’s important to understand the logic that film distributors use with their release schedules. One helpful visual is a Hype Cycle. Gartner, Inc., a technology research and advisory company, created the Hype Cycle as a means to visualize the way the new technology is adopted in the public sphere. As you can see below, each new technology – or new movie, to fit our own purposes – is followed by a period of its highest visibility, only to see a period of downfall as people become overexposed to what is being offered. Soon thereafter, though, the new technology (film) becomes something of the industry standard and settles into its final, steady position. While this is not a perfect parallel to marketing math, the same general premise applies. Release early, peak early. Release late, run the risk of hitting a marketplace at its least interested.

Therefore, in the months leading up to award season, each studio will do its best to position its properties at the point of the Hype Cycle where it can have the greatest effect. Some films with better odds at Oscar gold may choose to release early and settle comfortably into the Plateau of Productivity by the time that award season is in full swing. Others, hoping to find a competitive edge in the system, may time their release to hit audiences at the Peak of Inflated Expectations. For many movie fans, the films themselves are all that matters; for others, the strategy and marketing position of award season competition is most of the fun. Regardless, each prestige film released between now and Christmas has been thoroughly vetted to maximize its chances of taking home the gold.

And this process can scale up, too. Rather than apply the Hype Cycle to individual titles, we can expand this to apply to award season as a whole. We might role our eyes at the first mention of awards in 2015 in September, but the Hype Cycle shows that the first few mentions of award season are bound to only improve and increase the appetite for audiences to hear more about possible Oscar contenders. It is only after a few weeks of this conversation that audiences will push back, fatigued with an ongoing conversation that hits long before the awards shows themselves take place. This, too, is part of the consideration. Should Hollywood release films in November release date to play it safe? Open in October to beat the rush (and serve as counter-programming against more traditional genre fare)? Rub up against Star Wars and other blockbusters during the holidays? Each release date comes with a consideration, and studio executives – and award prognosticators – are keyed into the choices being made.

Of course, none of this means you have to immediately get swept up into Oscar talk. Just because K-Mart tells me to put a new television on layaway in September doesn’t mean I have to rush out to do so (even if it’s just because I can’t really remember where the nearest K-Mart actually is). There are genuine fans of award season, for both the strategy and the gamesmanship that it entails, but there are also plenty of opportunities to see alternate types of movies between now and the end of the year. We have an entire October to spend with Halloween movies, a September that might deliver a few ‘tweener gems, and a December that promises fun movies both big and small. Yes, it might be “ridiculous” to think about Telluride’s films as 2016 Oscar contenders, but it’s just as ridiculous to think that those are the only films left. The game is afoot; play it as you will.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)