Can ‘The Post’ or ‘The Shape of Water’ break Oscars curse against December releases?

The Oscars ostensibly award the best movies of the year, but they usually end up honoring the best movies of the fall. That’s when studios tend to release their biggest contenders in the hopes of leaving a strong impression on voters right before they mark their ballots. But how late is too late? Recent history has shown that if you want to win Best Picture you’d better get out of the gate before December. No film released in the last month of the year has won Best Picture since “Million Dollar Baby” (2004). Can this year’s top December contenders, “The Shape of Water” and “The Post,” break that curse?

We thought “La La Land” would buck that trend last year. It was released on December 9, but it had screened at festivals throughout the fall and became such an overwhelming frontrunner that it seemed nothing would stop it. Alas, it was thwarted at the last minute by “Moonlight,” which opened November 18. In general, November appears to be the Oscars sweet spot. Of the last 12 Best Picture winners, seven had at least a limited release in November. Three others were released in October. And the last two were out by the summer. Check out the release dates for those Oscar champs below:

– “Moonlight” — November 18, 2016
– “Spotlight” — November 6, 2015
– “Birdman” — October 17, 2014
– “12 Years a Slave” — November 8, 2013
– “Argo” — October 12, 2012
– “The Artist” — November 25, 2011
– “The King’s Speech” — November 26, 2010
– “The Hurt Locker” — June 26, 2009
– “Slumdog Millionaire” — November 12, 2008
– “No Country for Old Men” — November 9, 2007
– “The Departed” — October 6, 2006
– “Crash” — May 6, 2005

“The Shape of Water” opened on December 1. “The Post” will be out on December 22. Other late releases with awards potential include “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (December 15), “The Greatest Showman” (December 20), “Downsizing” (December 22), “Phantom Thread” (December 25),”Molly’s Game” (December 25), and “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” (December 29). Based on how early precursor awards have gone “Shape of Water” and “The Post” seem to be the strongest Best Picture contenders among the last-minute openings, and both have shown some signs of vulnerability.

After sweeping the Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe nominations, “The Shape of Water” under-performed at the SAG Awards, earning acting nominations for Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins, but not for its ensemble cast. “The Post” also performed well at Critics’ Choice and the Globes, but it didn’t receive a single SAG nomination, so it’s probable that it wasn’t seen by enough voters in time to make the cut.

Other films have felt the similar sting of late releases. Martin Scorsese opened “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) and “Silence” (2016) at the very end of December in their respective years. Both screened too late to be considered by the SAG Awards, and though “The Wolf of Wall Street” recovered enough to pick up five Oscar noms including Best Picture, “Silence” never gained traction and only ended up with a bid for its cinematography.

Quentin Tarantino also tried to squeeze in a couple of films too late for the SAG Awards: “Django Unchained” (2012) and “The Hateful Eight” (2015). “Django” recovered well enough to earn a Best Picture nomination and win prizes for Best Supporting Actor (Christoph Waltz) and Tarantino’s original screenplay, but “Hateful Eight” was left out of the academy’s top category altogether.

But even in years when early voters had time to see the December films they have fallen short at the finish line. The last two Oscars ended in upsets, with November movies taking down December movies: “Spotlight” over “The Revenant” and then “Moonlight” over “La La Land.” That could be good news for this year’s November openings, especially “Lady Bird” (November 3) and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (November 10), both of which received SAG nominations for their ensemble casts — no film since “Braveheart” (1995) has won the Best Picture Oscar without a nomination in the top race at the SAG Awards.

But there is one bit of good news for December releases this year that could be crucial: the Winter Olympics. The upcoming games take place in February, so the Oscars are moving out of that month to March 4. That extra time could give movies like “The Post” and “Shape of Water” the chance they need to build and build, and maybe win the gold.

Be sure to make your Oscar nomination predictions so that Hollywood studio executives and top name stars can see how their films are faring in our Academy Awards odds. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on January 23. And join in the fierce debate over the 2018 Oscars taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our film forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.

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