LOS ANGELES — Timing isn’t everything when it comes to the Academy Awards — but it helps. Two big fall films — Martin Scorsese’s box-office success ‘‘The Departed’’ and Clint Eastwood’s faltering ‘‘Flags of Our Fathers’’ — are bookends for the benefits and hazards of releasing acclaimed films early in awards season, when they could either get a jump on front-runner status or be forgotten come Oscar time.
Driven by glowing reviews and word-of-mouth that it’s a return to Scorsese’s old mobster form, the cops-and-gangsters epic ‘‘The Departed’’ opened the first week in October and has shot past $100 million at the box office, becoming the director’s biggest hit ever.
The World War II Iwo Jima saga ‘‘Flags of Our Fathers’’ followed two weeks later with similarly positive reviews. But it opened with modest audiences and has limped to a $33 million return, about a third of the eventual haul of Eastwood’s last two movies, best-picture nominee ‘‘Mystic River’’ and best-picture winner ‘‘Million Dollar Baby.’’
Two months into its run, ‘‘The Departed’’ still is drawing fair-sized crowds, coming in at No. 15 on last weekend’s box-office chart. Meantime, ‘‘Flags of Our Fathers’’ already has dropped out of the top 20.
Not that box-office receipts are or should be a gauge for a film’s Oscar merits. But everybody likes to back a winner, Oscar voters included, and commercial underachievers often end up fallen soldiers come nominations morning.
As good and ambitious a film as it is, ‘‘Flags of Our Fathers’’ now has the stench of a noble failure. Why audiences largely have passed on the film is a puzzle, though perhaps its grim, realistic combat footage is too painful a reminder of the military quagmire in Iraq.
‘‘Mystic River’’ and ‘‘Million Dollar Baby’’ debuted in limited release in December and rode a wave of accolades into wider release as Oscar season heated up, the awards attention feeding their box-office performance, their commercial success in turn polishing their Oscar glow.
Would ‘‘Flags of Our Fathers’’ have fared better following the same release pattern? We’ll never know.
On the other hand, ‘‘The Departed’’ cruises toward the Oscar nominations Jan. 23 looking like a movie that’s in for the long haul, like such best-picture winners as ‘‘American Beauty’’ or Eastwood’s ‘‘Unforgiven,’’ which both came out in late summer or early fall.
Throughout the year, Hollywood executives brood over the best time to release their films to maximize their commercial prospects. Decisions over timing are especially tough late in the year, when studios release the bulk of their prestige films, adult-oriented dramas whose financial fortunes may climb or crash depending on how the movies fare in the Oscar derby.
Best-picture nominations and wins can extend the shelf life of a movie in theaters for weeks or even months, adding tens of millions of dollars to its final take. The trouble is: Everyone’s chasing the same dollars and the same awards, leaving theaters overloaded with films that people do not have the time or energy to see.
The deluge is at its worst in December, the month that conventional wisdom dictates is prime time to release awards contenders.
It’s the last-shall-be-first philosophy, the notion that the 5,800 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have short attention spans and will not recollect anything they saw way back in September, October or November when it comes time to cast Oscar ballots.
‘‘Shakespeare in Love’’ swooped in back in December 1998 to bump off early front-runner ‘‘Saving Private Ryan’’ for best picture. Other December arrivals that took the top Oscar include ‘‘A Beautiful Mind,’’ ‘‘Chicago’’ and, of course, ‘‘Million Dollar Baby.’’
But exceptions abound. ‘‘Gladiator’’ was released in the spring, 10 months before the Oscars, and ‘‘The Silence of the Lambs’’ came out a year before the ceremony, yet both took the best-picture prize.
At the Oscars last March, virtually everyone expected December release ‘‘Brokeback Mountain’’ to win. In one of the biggest Oscar upsets ever, ‘‘Crash’’ — released the previous May — came away with best picture.
In the awards autopsy that followed, analysts talked about ‘‘Brokeback Mountain’’ ‘‘peaking’’ too soon, performing well commercially and dominating earlier awards but waning at the finish, when people were tired of hearing about the gay-cowboy romance and were looking for a best-picture alternative.
A few years ago, the Oscar ceremony was moved up to late February, about a month earlier than before, shortening the awards season and making the year-end dash even more of a scramble as studios jockeyed their films to find the right slot to catch the most critical attention.
Like ‘‘The Departed’’ and ‘‘Flags of Our Fathers,’’ more films have come sooner in the fall to avoid the Christmas rush and try to get a leg up on the competition. ‘‘Brokeback Mountain’’ aside, it’s tough to cut into the momentum of a film that gets in early and hangs tough.
That’s not to say ‘‘The Departed’’ is a favorite at this point. After a brilliant first two acts, the film meanders through its closing chapter, concluding with abrupt and even repetitive violence.
It’s a viable best-picture contender, and ‘‘Flags of Our Fathers’’ could suddenly re-ignite if it catches a wave during the crush of honors from critics groups and other Hollywood prizes announced in December.
As a nice reminder of ‘‘Flags of Our Fathers,’’ Eastwood’s companion film — ‘‘Letters From Iwo Jima,’’ telling the story of the Pacific battle from the perspective of Japanese troops defending the island — has been bumped up to Dec. 20 release, making it eligible for the Oscars.
‘‘Letters From Iwo Jima’’ had been scheduled for February, but arriving a month before Oscar nominations come out, it could call renewed attention to ‘‘Flags of Our Fathers,’’ underscoring Eastwood’s remarkable achievement of delivering two epic war films just two months apart.
Then, of course, the spirited ‘‘Dreamgirls’’ — starring Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Chicago-native ‘‘American Idol’’ finalist Jennifer Hudson in a scene-stealing role — could pull a ‘‘Chicago’’ as another musical arriving in December and knocking off all the earlier contenders.
In the end, it would be nice to think that the best film will win, and all the machinations over when to put the movies out are just empty gestures by the Hollywood suits.