Surviving the pre-Bafta/Oscar logjam

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In their desperate rush to release awards contenders just before the major gongs are dished out, do film studios shoot themselves in the foot? Cath Clarke bemoans the pre-Bafta/Oscar logjam

Whatever your thoughts on the annual hoopla of frothy frocks and drippy acceptance speeches, the next few weeks are all about who’s winning what. But, if you want to stand even half a chance of keeping up with the awards, you’d best start by cancelling any plans for this weekend. On Friday, not one but three major awards contenders hit cinemas: ‘Frost/Nixon’, ‘Rachel Getting Married’ and ‘Milk’. And that’s just the start of it. Between now and February 6 (the date by which Bafta contenders must be out in cinemas), we are looking at the release of – take a deep breath – ‘Revolutionary Road’, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, ‘Doubt’ and ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’. Maybe put next weekend on ice too.

In America they call their version of this logjam the ‘December glut’, when the studios pack their Oscar hopefuls as close as possible to the Academy’s end-of-year deadline. Here in the provinces, we are getting the trickle now. It would be daft to knock this run of quality films. But does the kind of snarl-up we’re seeing this week do anyone any favours? No, says Clare Binns, who is programming director of City Screen, which owns London’s Picturehouse cinemas and programmes most of the non-multiplex screens in London, such as the Curzons, the Everymans and the Gate. ‘It’s more than the cinemas can cope with,’ she says. ‘It’s more than the audience can cope with. It’s stupid.’

Programmers and distributors complain that with all the best pictures rushed into cinemas in January and February, come March they are all out of quality films. You can see their point. Surely it’s madness to put ‘Milk’, ‘Rachel Getting Married’ and ‘Frost/Nixon’ up against each other in the same week? ‘What we end up doing is taking films off screens that are still taking great money and that audiences still want to see,’ says Binns. ‘Because we’ve got to bring the next one in.’

In America the December rush can be explained by the Oscars. But why are distributors here in such a rush to push the same films on us? The obvious answer is that after spending so much on a film, they don’t want to lose the momentum of an international release. Another big factor is that they want to get their pictures in the running for Baftas. Until a few years ago, Bafta had a loophole that meant a film could be shown for a week at a single cinema anywhere in the UK before the deadline, making it eligible. The distributor then forgot about it and put it on general release at some point after the awards. The new rules mean that all films in the running have to go out, on a proper release, by February 6. This, says Bafta, is better for viewers. ‘It changed in order to ensure the public had had an opportunity to see all the films featured,’ says a spokesperson.

This assault of quality films is particularly bad this year because there are no obvious front-runners for the top prizes. In 2008 we were looking at a two-horse race between ‘There Will Be Blood’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’. But, with this year’s competition wide open, distributors in America pushed their films as close as possible to the December cut-off point. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is one film that seems to have taken even its distributors by surprise. It wasn’t conceived as a major ‘awards’ film, but audiences got behind it. So much so that its UK release was brought forward from January 23 to January 9. Amid all this jockeying for nominations, just two big titles have fallen by the wayside: British director Joe Wright’s ‘The Soloist’, which has been moved back to September, and ‘Australia’. No nominations for Baz Luhrmann, but his leading man, Hugh Jackman, can console him with the booby prize: he’s hosting the Oscars.

One of the major casualties of all this wheeling and dealing are the indies. They already suffer from the sheer volume of films coming out every week and often have little choice regarding when they are released. Duane Hopkins’s brilliant debut, ‘Better Things’, is one film that might be lost among the week’s starrier releases. One way its distributor, Soda Pictures, is tackling the problem is by making it available on pay-per-view online services. ‘It doesn’t replace a theatrical release, but it does give audiences more options,’ says Soda’s Kate Gerova.

There are, of course, exceptions to the December rule: ‘Crash’ came out in May 2005 but went on to win at the Oscars in 2006. But what the studios fear most by putting out their films early in the year is that come December, when Academy members are ticking boxes, they will be forgotten. Just how carefully release dates are controlled came to light last year when a spat between movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and producer Scott Rudin went public in a leaked memo. These are men with fearsome reputations and both were producers on ‘The Reader’. In September, when director Stephen Daldry said his film wouldn’t be ready for this year’s Oscars, Rudin backed him. In the other corner was Weinstein, who wanted his Oscar picture. Weinstein won out and the film opened on December 12 – with Rudin removing his name from the credits. The result: Kate Winslet wins big.

As for us mere cinemagoers, we may struggle to see more than one of them. Bafta may say that changing the rules means we get to see the films before the awards, but anyone planning to do so will need a lot of free time and an IV coffee drip.

Author: Cath Clarke



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