Release Dates & Best Picture Winners: A Deep Dive

Every year around September – usually around the time of the Toronto International Film Festival – the film “Awards Season” goes into full effect. Pundits and fans alike are beginning to watch more and more of these films destined for glory, and predictions start to fly around the Twitter-sphere in sometimes realistic, sometimes outlandish ways.

Awards season always brings out the best and worst of film discourse and is sometimes incredibly hard to predict. You never want to release your movie too early, thus gaining the dreaded “early frontrunner” status; you also want your movie to release early enough before minds are made up and film fatigue starts to set in. Even though this “season” begins around September, there is a question: when is the best month for a movie to be released for it to win Best Picture?

To start this, we need to go back and figure out when the previous Best Picture winners had their wide release in the US. I am basing these dates on when each film was released to the general public, not when they had their limited release or festival run.

Wide Release Dates of Best Picture Winners Since 2000 (All dates found on IMDb):

  • 2021: Coda – August*
  • 2020: Nomadland – February ’21*
  • 2019: Parasite – November
  • 2018: Green Book – November
  • 2017: The Shape of Water – December
  • 2016: Moonlight – November
  • 2015: Spotlight – November
  • 2014: Birdman – November
  • 2013: 12 Years a Slave – November
  • 2012: Argo – October
  • 2011: The Artist – January ’12
  • 2010: The King’s Speech – December
  • 2009: The Hurt Locker – July
  • 2008: Slumdog Millionaire – December
  • 2007: No Country for Old Men – November
  • 2006: The Departed  – October
  • 2005: Crash – May
  • 2004: Million Dollar Baby – January ’05
  • 2003: Return of the King – December
  • 2002: Chicago – January ’03
  • 2001: A Beautiful Mind – January ’02
  • 2000: Gladiator – May

*I included the past two winners for the sake of keeping everything fair, but it must be mentioned that both ‘Nomadland’ and ‘CODA’ were both released still in height of the pandemic before a full year of theatrical opportunities.

What is the best month to release a film in to win Best Picture?

Based on this knowledge, the best time for Best Picture winners released from 2000-2010 was overwhelmingly later in the season with 6 of the 10 winners having their release date in either December or the following January. However, from 2011-2019 the script almost completely flipped with only 2 winners being released during or after December. In this time frame, a majority of the winners were released in November, with 6 of the 9 Best Picture winners having their wide release that month.

Given the recent history and pattern, November would be the best month to release a film if you want it to win Best Picture. Putting the quarantine years to the side, it is undeniable that 66% of the Best Picture winners had their wide release in November. The next question then becomes if the Academy will go back to the pre-pandemic pattern, or if a brand new one will arise.

Either way, here are the movies that fit the pattern that we could be seeing win Best Picture this season.

Best Picture Contenders Wide Releasing this November

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – November 11

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has already garnered ecstatic praise highlighting the performances, more serious tone, and the emotional weight of honoring the late Chadwick Boseman. It is going to be an uphill battle for the latest Marvel project, especially because the original managed to garner several wins from its 7 total nominations. However, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is setting itself up nicely to remain in the conversation throughout the entire season.

She Said – November 18

The newest in the niche (and easily done wrong) investigative journalism sub-genre, She Said covers the rise of the #MeToo movement in Hollywood and the fall of the most infamous movie producer in history, Harvey Weinstein. Covering the New York Times reporters (Jodie Kantor and Megan Towhey) who exposed the producer, this journalist venture is much more in line with Spotlight and All The President’s Men than it is with the recent Bombshell. Which, in terms of the Oscars, puts She Said in a fairly strong position. The only drawback is how recently the events that it depicts happened. Weinstein was exposed in 2017 and the book, written by both Kantor and Towhey, which covers the journalistic side of the exposure, was released in 2019. This quick turnaround wasn’t an issue for 1976’s All The President’s Men which was released only four years after the initial Watergate scandal, and two years after the book by the same name. However, with this being a subject that exposes the industry as a whole, there might be hesitancy from the exact industry She Said is trying to expose.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – November 23

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery finds its way on this list for one reason: it has a wide theatrical release. Not only is it the first Netflix film to garner a true wide release, Glass Onion, no matter what happens, will go down in history as the film that broke the barrier between Netflix and the major theater chains. While a limited week-long theater release might not seem like much, it paves the way for following Netflix films to show in the major chains all across the country – it’s already been announced that Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio will have a run in the major chains as well.* Glass Onion is the follow-up to the highly successful Knives Out. While Knives Out was only able to garner a single nomination for writer/director Rian Johnson in Best Original Screenplay, Glass Onion is already being touted as a contender for nominations across the board.

*’Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’ will have a limited theatrical run in Regal Cinemas on November 18, and is very much in the Best Picture conversation, but I chose not to add it given that this run will still be limited even if it is in a major chain.

The Fabelmans – November 23

Now we come to the film that I think has the best shot of this entire bunch: The Fabelmans. Steven Speilberg’s semi-autobiographical love letter to cinema is one that has already opened to stellar reviews. As of now, it isn’t a stretch to say this is the perceived front-runner for Best Picture. Recently, The Fabelmans walked away from the Toronto International Film Festival as the winner of The People’s Choice Award. Other than Best Picture, it is being seen as a front-runner for multiple other categories including Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. Thanksgiving is a popular time for families to go to the movies, and while Glass Onion is likely to take some of the initial box office money from The Fabelmans, it still should play out as an audience favorite going into this holiday season.

Given that we are still coming down from, and very much in, a global pandemic, it is hard to guess if this is a pattern worth noting. However, it is hard to deny the idea of release date patterns in the past, and if the most recent one does stick, we could be looking at one of these films as our next Best Picture winner.

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