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When the legendary screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote of Hollywood, 'Nobody knows anything,' he was referring to the alchemy of movie-making itself. But he might as well have been talking about the Academy Awards, a high-stakes annual crapshoot that makes fools of movie companies that claim to have figured it out.

The rewards are both uncertain and less impressive than people believe: An estimate by one economist suggests winning the best-picture Oscar is worth an average of only $3-million (U.S.) in direct economic benefits to a film. Still, independent film distributors and studios looking to prove their bona fides in order to attract talent for their next projects continue to covet Oscars.

And for years they believed there was at least one dependable strategy: Releasing a movie in the fall – ideally in the final weeks of the year – is the best way to ensure it stays top-of-mind for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

That approach underpins the frenzied film-festival season, which begins with the Venice festival in late August, ramps up with the Telluride festival in early September, and then kicks into high gear with the Toronto International Film Festival a few days later.

But over the past few years, as the fall crush has intensified with more films eyeing Oscar, industry veterans have begun to question the strategy of waiting in the wings in hope of fighting for an ever-diminishing shot at glory. This year, two films considered to be front-runners at Sunday night's Academy Awards have drawn the industry's attention. The Grand Budapest Hotel premiered at the Berlin Film Festival last February and opened in North American theatres in March; Boyhood premiered at last year's Sundance film fest and opened in theatres in July.

"It's harder than ever to successfully release a film in the fall," notes Mark Slone, the executive vice-president of theatrical distribution for eOne Films Canada.

"Last year [in 2013], you had very few films that premiered early." (All nine best-picture nominees were released after Oct. 10.) "Of the ones that kept their powder dry, if you will, there were a number that really underperformed because they just got lost in the mix. Her and Nebraska: They really were not great earners, considering what great movies they were.

"A lot of these films, particularly lower-budget ones – like, say, a Nebraska – really require word-of-mouth. People have to see them and tell their friends to see them. And I think you can get very lost when you have a strong independent slate in the fall frame. A quieter film can find itself lost, and not be able to break through again."

The distributors of Boyhood wanted to avoid that fate. "We had offers of major festival placement in the fall," says Hussain Amarshi, the president and founder of Canadian distributor Mongrel Media. "IFC, the U.S. distributor [which directed the film's North American release] decided to go out in the summer to avoid that bottleneck that develops around the fall."

The fall crush is a relatively recent phenomenon. Films dreaming of Oscar used to be released throughout the spring, summer and fall. Twenty years ago, Forrest Gump opened in July, 1994, and was still pulling in more than $1.5-million per week in North American theatres the following April, one month after scooping up five Oscars, including best picture. The following year, four of the five best-picture nominees – Braveheart, Apollo 13, Babe and Il Postino – opened before September, earning their spots on the Oscar red carpet without any help from the fall film festivals. (Sticklers will note that Il Postino had actually appeared at TIFF the previous year, before taking a long and winding road to theatrical distribution and awards season.)

About 15 years ago, conventional wisdom began to turn, congealing around the belief that the best spot for a shot at Oscar was to start on a short runway. American Beauty – which launched at TIFF in 1999 to great buzz, opened wide a few weeks later to strong box office, and went on to win best picture – was held up as the case study.

Of the 55 films nominated for best picture between 1999 and 2009, 47 opened in September or later. (The year 2002 saw a mad crush at the finish line, as all five nominated films – Chicago, Gangs of New York, The Pianist, The Hours and the second Lord of the Rings movie – opened in the final 14 days of the year.)

But, just as movie-going culture hit peak velocity – with hundreds of films subjected to blink-and-you'll-miss-it releases – the academy altered its rules in advance of the 2010 Oscars to permit up to 10 best-picture nominees. The result was immediate and striking: Four films that opened that year before September scored nominations, including the ultimate winner, The Hurt Locker, which had been released June 26. The following year, another four early releases – Inception, Winter's Bone, The Kids Are All Right and Toy Story 3 – scored nominations.

All told, of the 55 films nominated over the past six years, 14 have been released prior to September. That signifies a 75-per-cent increase over the eight early releases among the previous 55 nominated films, from 1999-2009.

Distributors are realizing that, in the current culture of abundance, when consumers can access movies on-demand on their smartphones, it may make more sense to market quality films throughout the year rather than during only one season.

"I think, especially after this year, with Boyhood and Grand Budapest, that spring/summer period is opening up," says Mr. Amarshi. "A film can come out at any given time, as long as it has legs to sustain a significant release in the cinema."

Mr. Slone of eOne believes there is now a fundamental shift under way, which augurs well for filmgoers hungry for quality during the normally fallow spring and summer months.

"I think what you'll see is the studios taking more of a lead from the independents, who have had to figure out how to use awards to augment small marketing budgets. It makes them entrepreneurs in dating, and I think the studios now are going to take note, and you may see more studios having the nerve to go a little earlier with quality stuff."

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Oscar is a history buff

Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have a median age of 62, according to a 2012 survey, which might be one reason they love movies set in the past: While most films released into theatres are set in the present, Oscar season is an annual trip down memory lane. Of this year's eight nominated films, four are set decades ago: The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma, The Theory of Everything. Last year's winner, 12 Years a Slave, was part of a field that included American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club; the previous year included Argo, Django Unchained, Les Misérables and Lincoln.

TIFF still matters

Last fall, after the Toronto International Film Festival forced distributors to choose sides between it and the Telluride Film Festival, which precedes it, many wondered if TIFF's power as an Oscar launch pad would be diminished. So far, it does not appear to have been affected: Three of the eight best-picture nominees appeared at TIFF (one, The Imitation Game, also played at Telluride; another, Whiplash, premiered at Sundance). And TIFF helped launch Wild, The Judge, Foxcatcher, Two Days One Night and Still Alice, which all scored acting nominations.

Netflix aims for Oscar (with an asterisk)

This is the second year in a row that a film playing on Netflix is in the running for a best-documentary Oscar. But as with The Square, the Arab Spring doc picked up after that film's screening at TIFF in 2013 and trumpeted as a Netflix Original, the company had nothing to do with originating the doc Virunga, an acclaimed film about endangered mountain gorillas in the Congo. Indeed, the film had played at more than a dozen film festivals, including Canada's Hot Docs, before Netflix scooped it up last fall and claimed it as its own.

Oscar may be gold, but this year he's all white

Every crop of Academy Award nominations brings some measure of dismay, but this year's shock was rooted in genuine outrage and perceived insult. Hollywood had seemed primed for a racial breakthrough: Selma, the best-picture nominee about Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1965 freedom march, had made African-Americans the central figures of their own historic tale. But the film ended up with only two nominations. And then, not a single African-American, Asian or Hispanic performer was among the 20 nominees in the four acting categories. The last time that happened? 1998.