Why do we get Oscar movies late?

Carljoe Javier
If you're frustrated about Oscar films reaching Philippine movie screens late, our expert attempts to explain why. Read on.

NO LONGER A DREAM. Oscar-nominated 'Les Miserables' is now showing in the Philippines. Photo from the 'Les Miserables' Facebook page

MANILA, Philippines – When the Oscar nominations were released on the morning of January 10 in the US, only two of the 9 films on the Best Picture list had gotten theatrical releases locally.

READ: Live Blog: Reactions to Oscars 2013 nominations

Why just two? 

Now, I won’t discuss here how we should have a much broader range of films, local and international, getting popular releases. That’s for another column.

For now, let’s focus on why we get to watch the nominees late, and sometimes only after they’ve already won Best Picture.

Hollywood releases generally follow a schedule. Oscar hopefuls are most mindful of this schedule. 

READ: Guess who: Predicting the new Oscar winners

Don’t release early in the year, like spring.

If you do, then even if your film is strong, it might be forgotten because it was released too soon.

Summer is for big blockbusters, and rare is the blockbuster that has the power for Oscar contentions — usually these are the big effects-driven movies, those that have new technical innovations, or crowd-pleasers that might also draw critical attention.

In this year’s list, only “Argo” has that strong crowd pull that might allow it to stand up among summer giants like superhero and disaster movies.

READ: ‘Les Mis,’ ‘Argo,’ ‘Homeland’ top Golden Globes winners

Autumn is a slow season. It’s time for quieter movies.

If you’re shooting for an Oscar nomination you usually do an American theatrical release during the winter, near enough to the nomination period so that your film is fresh on the mind and you are still generating buzz. 

What does this mean for us here in the Philippines? And is this a good thing?

First off, let’s appreciate how we are, in general, following international release schedules.

Whereas in years past we would usually have to wait weeks or months for new Hollywood movies to be released here, now we get them at the same time, sometimes even getting films a day or so ahead of the rest of the world.

We were watching “Avengers” before people in the West were. And what did they get for it? An extra scene of the team eating shwarma. It goes to show that, in general, we are plugged into the global film distribution apparatus. 

READ: [VIRAL] Thor and the Avengers hangover

We have piracy to thank for that.

I am not saying that piracy is a good thing, though it did force many industries to rethink the way they interacted with consumers. This has caused a radical change in the way that the content industry does business.

There are some good outcomes of piracy:

  • Movie companies found it was wiser to release films here simultaneously with the West, seeing that viewers like us would resort to other means if we were made to wait for theatrical releases.
  • The drop in the cost of DVDs. While these used to be expensive (and new releases still often are), their prices have dropped so that they could compete against pirated DVDs. Now we can get great entertainment sometimes for as cheap as Php100. 

So in general we’ve got movies on time. Yay. But why is it that a lot of Oscar nominees in particular get delayed?

First off is the lack of an audience. Sending over prints costs money, getting a film rated costs money, putting the film in theaters costs money, promotions cost money. And especially for the smaller films, indie films, and foreign films, there is lack of money and interest here in our market.

Sure, you might say, “Well all my friends and I would totally watch that movie.” But that probably wouldn’t be enough to sustain a run. For a time there was the Glorietta Art Film, which devoted a cinema to such films. And as far as I know, some Ayala Mall cinemas sometimes do show these smaller Hollywood movies.

On the whole though, it’s very hard to push a small film, no matter how critically acclaimed. Take a moment to consider how much more difficult it is for Filipino films. Even the critically acclaimed “Thy Womb,” released during a film festival meant to promote local cinema, was pulled due to lack of viewership. 

READ: Mendoza to Noranians: Watch ‘Thy Womb’

The commerce aspect of film distribution is inevitable. While it would be awesome if artistry were all that local distributors had to consider, we know that’s not the case. It’s why we get so many crap action, horror, and romantic comedy films.

Because even if they are crap, they are bankable. Whereas artistic films are of the hit and miss variety. They might be great, but without enough buzz, there’s no way they are getting butts in the seats. 

This accounts for some of the delayed releases. If a film gets an Oscar nomination, then that might be enough buzz to justify a local theatrical release. Sometimes it takes a win, like “Little Miss Sunshine,” which got a limited theatrical release here. After being nominated for 4 Oscars and winning two, it got released in more theaters. 

Speaking of buzz, there’s another reason why others get delays. A lot of us will have noticed that there are a number of big films that have had to wait. I know a lot of my friends have been writhing in agony as they waited for the release of “Les Miserables” while the rest of the world has been abuzz about it. 

READ: Lea Salonga on ‘Les Misérables’

The simple answer: the MMFF. Now let’s expand:

The Metro Manila Film Festival institutes a lockdown on theaters so that only local movies are shown from its start, December 25, until early January (this year January 5). Now if you’re releasing a big film, you can release before December 25, and then re-release after the MMFF. That’s what “The Hobbit “did. But the thing is, not all films are as big and powerful a draw as “The Hobbit.”

READ: Tolkien lawyers sue ‘The Hobbit’ studio

It’s basically a matter of movie companies marshaling their resources. If you are going to mount a marketing campaign for a film, and then cut it off in the middle of the run, then you will have wasted all that precious buzz you generated. The options are release early enough before the MMFF that you have gotten the most of your buzz, or wait until after.

The option of the early release is a problem because you can’t release too early ahead of other countries, even if the film is ready. In fact, the smart thing to do is to market aggressively as the MMFF runs. After a couple of weeks with only the MMFF for viewing choices in the Metro, then your well-marketed Oscar contenders are a most welcome option to viewers.

Take the MMFF then as a bit of a boon.

READ: Nora Aunor wins 8th MMFF Best Actress award for ‘Thy Womb’

It provides local films with an opportunity to be shown exclusively (though we all hope that the general qualities of the MMFF would improve). It also allows us to get excited for a lot of great films. 

We have to wait a few more weeks than the rest of the world. But for the most part, we’ve caught up in our viewing options. While it would also be nicer to have access to the foreign film nominees, documentaries, and other smaller films, I think it’s a start.

Perhaps the next step, rather than hoping distributors and local cinema operators gamble and that they start showing more artistic films even if at a possible loss, we should start thinking about other distribution modes that can be refined and that we can turn to.

Next column, I’ll talk about my dream movie theater. – Rappler.com

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(Carljoe Javier doesn’t know why people think he’s a snarky film critic who spends his time dashing the hopes of filmgoers. He thinks he’s not all that bad, really. He teaches at the State U, writes books, and studies film, comics, and video games…Then again, those people could be right.)

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