As long as this Chicago winter might feel, it's a mere blip compared with the ongoing movie awards season.
The Movie City News website runs a column called "20 Weeks to Oscar," which translates to about 38 percent of the year — yet if you count back 20 weeks from the March 2 Academy Awards telecast, you reach only mid-October. The Oscar buzz actually has been at full volume since at least early September, when Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, won the festival's audience award and was widely anointed as the front-runner for best picture.
Or you might have started the clock even earlier, in mid-August, when "Lee Daniels' The Butler" generated a strong box office and much Oscar talk, even if all of that momentum had faded by last week, when the movie got shut out of Oscar nominations.
So it's no wonder you may be feeling awards fatigue by now, what with so many group prizes and top 10 lists announced at year's end — the Golden Globes having been handed out Jan. 12, the Screen Actors Guild Awards taking place last Saturday, the Producers Guild of America Awards following last Sunday, the Directors Guild of America Awards coming up this Saturday and the main event, the Oscars, still more than a month's worth of hype and speculation away.
Awards season, we thus conclude, is lengthy.
But is it good for movies?
The naysayers might start with the reduction of art to a series of horse races. So much of the "12 Years a Slave" tweeting and commentary out of Toronto viewed the film through the prism of an Oscar ceremony then six months down the line, rather than digesting it as a work of, you know, cinema.
"Suspend the betting, close the books, and notify the engraver: I've just seen what will surely be this year's best picture winner, and it's '12 Years a Slave,'" Kyle Buchanan declared on New York magazine's Vulture site Sept. 7.
In Chicago late last year to promote "August: Osage County," actresses Julianne Nicholson and Margo Martindale expressed concern that viewing every movie in the context of its Oscar prospects sets a sort of false standard. In contrast to "those little quiet movies that sneak up on you," Martindale said "August" was "coming out of the gate with such expectation that, you know, it makes it a little daunting."
As it happened, "August" bagged Oscar nominations for actress (Meryl Streep) and supporting actress (Julia Roberts) but nothing else — a disappointment in light of the film's cast and pedigree as the adaptation of Steppenwolf veteran Tracy Letts' Pulitzer- and Tony-winning darkly comic family drama. Then again, given the tough material and so-so reviews (its 65 percent favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.com is more than 10 points lower than that of every best picture nominee, all of which are above 90 percent except for "The Wolf of Wall Street" at 77 percent), you can't assume that "August" would have fared better in an awards-free world. It has grossed more than $19 million after two weekends in wide release.
And "August" at least has been part of the conversation, as has the Coen brothers' Oscar-jilted "Inside Llewyn Davis," which took the National Society of Film Critics' top prize Jan. 4.
The larger point is this: People are still talking and arguing about the relative merits of artistically ambitious films such as "12 Years a Slave" and Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity," both released in October, as well as more recent party-joiners such as David O. Russell's "American Hustle" and Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street." Given that the year's first few months tend to be a new-releases wasteland, with months of high-concept/franchise films to follow, such a focus on quality is welcome.
"Award season is what movie lovers live for," Hollywood Elsewhere blogger Jeffrey Wells said in an email. "Without award season the market for adult-appealing, review-dependent films would be much less vibrant. Award season, or the celebration of any and all films that aspire to do more than resort to CG-driven comic-book/superhero plots, is the only thing keeping good movies alive."
Strategy PR/Consulting President/Founder Cynthia Swartz, an Oscar campaign veteran, said a key benefit of awards season is that the buzz around a film can double as its marketing campaign.
"Awards seasons give you an opportunity to create a certain kind of noise," Swartz said. "You have to balance that with how crowded the marketplace is and whether you think you'll survive in that marketplace."
Much of that noise is created by distributors who buy ads in the Hollywood trades as well as mainstream publications such as The New York Times and Los Angeles Times (a Tribune Co. newspaper), which also cover these awards races. Awards season is an industry unto itself, though Movie City News editor David Poland noted that over the past several years the studios have been spending less aggressively to chase prizes.
"Their strategy is make money on the movie first and win awards second," Poland said.
It so happens that all nine current Oscar best picture nominees are still in the theaters and were ranked in the North American box office top 25 last weekend, according to figures from the entertainment-industry research company Rentrak. Several of these films added screens and boosted their grosses following the Oscar nominations announcement. "Gravity" and "Captain Phillips" each added 789 locations, "12 Years a Slave" added 647 and "Dallas Buyers Club" added 294; although "American Hustle" actually dropped 425 locations, it had a box-office uptick of 19 percent, Rentrak figures show.
A textbook example of a film riding the Oscars wave was the Weinstein Co.-distributed, Russell-directed "Silver Linings Playbook," which had grossed $35.7 million in North America when last year's Oscar nominations were announced and wound up at $132 million.
"New life is being breathed into all of these films because of all of this attention,," Rentrak senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian said.
It's telling, though, that each of the 2013 best picture nominees came out in October or later, with acclaimed earlier releases getting shut out ("Fruitvale Station," "Blue Is the Warmest Color," "The Spectacular Now," "Frances Ha") or landing a sole screenplay nomination ("Before Midnight").
Northwestern University English associate professor Nick Davis, who teaches film, tweeted last week that despite the recent change increasing the best picture nominees from five, the number of movies represented in the top Oscar categories actually has been on the decline, with a mere 11 movies included in this year's top six categories (picture, director, and lead and supporting actor/actress).
"You actually have to go back to 1981 to find an Oscar race when there were this few films in contention," Davis said over the phone. (Ten films occupied the top categories that year.)
Davis said he would like to see "fewer formal award ceremonies and events that only seem to confirm an existing list of 'contenders' and encourage voters to limit their choices to what's perceived as being nominated everywhere else." He'd also prefer distributors to release their best work throughout the year instead of cramming it into the last three months, thus encouraging snap judgments over opinions that have had time to sink in.
Still, in this otherwise bleak winter season, audiences now are catching up with smart, adult-minded films and debating their relative excellence, with five more weeks to see the Oscar contenders, as well as other films that perhaps deserve to be in the race. That's not a bad way to spend your entertainment dollars and energies, unless you'd rather focus on the box-office triumph and artistry of "Ride Along."