Silence and the Fate of the Late Release

By  · Published on September 28th, 2016

What a very late release could mean for Martin Scorsese’s new movie.

Martin Scorsese’s long gestating passion project Silence has been at the top of almost every list of most anticipated movies of 2016. However, just up until a few days ago, it did not even have a release date set. Paramount announced on September 26th that Silence will indeed get an Oscar qualifying release date with a limited release starting on December 23rd before going wide in January. The film is based on the 1996 Shusako Endo novel of the same name about a Portuguese Jesuit missionary who, along with other Christians, is persecuted in 17th century Japan. In typical Scorsese fashion, the film has an all-star cast of Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, and Adam Driver. Many pundits speculated that Silence would premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, but it was not completed in time, though Scorsese promised it would be completed by October.

That late December release date is interesting because it means that Paramount has an incredible amount of faith in the film’s Oscar chances. Oscar movies tend to be released right around late fall and early winter which is just before the year’s Academy Awards eligibility cutoff date. Studios behind these movies do this so that the films will remain fresh in Academy voters’ minds, be able to generate word of mouth buzz, and qualify for, or even win, all the appropriate precursor awards. The fall film festivals are a huge asset to films coming out around November and early December because they have that word of mouth buzz baked in. By the time they actually premiere, voters have heard so much about them that they already have a preconceived opinion. When a movie does not get released until around Christmas or New Year’s, there is not a ton of time for that excitement to be drummed up. The success of those movies is based on a preexisting fanbase or last minute praise.

A case can be made for the late release date method with Million Dollar Baby being the prime witness. Clint Eastwood’s boxing drama snuck right in almost at the last second with no pre-release publicity, focus group or festival screenings, and a December 15th limited release date and a wide release date seven weeks later. Right before it was released, the frontrunner was another Scorsese film, The Aviator. Most people looked at The Aviator as the year that the Academy would finally honor the legendary director and the film with the top prize as it had won big at the Golden Globes and the PGA. However, once Million Dollar Baby had its first screenings, critics and pundits realized that the 2004–2005 Oscar race had been completely rewritten.

Ironically enough, Martin Scorsese had another late release with high hopes set out for it with 2013’s Wolf of Wall Street which premiered on Christmas Day of that year. It opened at number five in its first weekend and became Scorsese’s highest grossing film worldwide. One might remember 2013 as the first year of the “McConaissance” and 12 Years a Slave, but just at the last second Wolf of Wall Street made a big play for top prizes. While it did not win many precursors due to that Christmas Day release date, the film landed on many top ten lists and star Leonardo DiCaprio made a big play for top prizes. DiCaprio scored the Golden Globe and the Broadcast Film Critics award for Best Actor in a Comedy before losing to peak Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club. In the end, 12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club just hit all the right notes in Oscar campaigns while Wolf of Wall Street was likely too controversial for some of the older Academy voters. I want to think that if it had come out earlier, voters would have had some time to really think and meditate on the film rather than just make first impression decisions.

Maybe Scorsese just does not have good luck when it comes to late release movies, but perhaps Silence will play out just like Million Dollar Baby did and come in at the last minute to sweep the whole Oscar game right out from frontrunner La La Land’s feet. With this day and age of Internet culture, I do not even know if that would be possible. The expectations and pedigree of this film are already so high that the second a trailer is released, we will devour and dissect every second of it. Whatever the case, Scorsese and Paramount know what they are doing and Silence will surely make a huge splash when it comes out.

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