So many great films to see, so little time. Return of the King, Mystic River, Monster, House of Sand and Fog – all are Oscar contenders and all are showing now. Roger Ebert rates Monster as the best film of 2003 despite the fact that it opened – in NY and LA only – on December 24. Of the last 25 Best Picture Oscar winners, 12 were released in December and only 3 were released in the first half of the year. Why?
I think the main reason is the pull of the Academy Awards – this year the awards are on Feb. 29 and voting occurs in late January and early February. The studios figure, probably correctly, that Oscar voters have poor memories so a film that opens late in the year has a better chance of winning than one that opens early. (The theory is a little hard to test because of the self-fulfilling prophecy problem but I think there is some truth to it.)
The unfortunate result is to reduce total movie revenues. We and the studios would probably be better off if the good movies were spread throughout the year, giving us more time to see each one, but such a situation is not stable because opening late gives a movie an advantage even if that advantage tends to disappear when all the studios act similarly (the prisoner’s dilemma).
Can the problem be fixed? The Academy could ask for ratings several times a year although this would require rating on absolute scale (like 1 to 10) rather than just voting for the best film. A graduated tax based on release date would do it in theory but I’m not optimistic about the practice. What I’d really like to see is other organizations such as the LA Film Critics go to a fiscal-year award cycle and make their awards in July. I know, it’s an idea only an economist (or an accountant) would like.