How Hollywood’s release race is killing directors and costing Oscars

Barry Hertz on the pressure for filmmakers to be quicker, faster and stronger

Leonardo DiCaprio stars in Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (Paramount)

On Monday, Paramount Pictures finally announced a release date of Dec. 25 for The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s latest drama with muse Leonardo DiCaprio. The picture—which follows the Gordon Gecko-like rise and fall of a Wall Streeter in 1980s New York—has been touted as an Oscar contender ever since casting was announced two years ago. But its presupposed glory was cast into doubt in September, when Scorsese delivered a three-hour-plus cut of the film that the studio deemed too long for release, forcing the director back into the editing bay.

For a while, it seemed as if Scorsese may have stayed in there forever, or at least past Dec. 31, the cut-off day for Oscar consideration. Fortunately, whatever intimidation tactics or piles of money Paramount threw at Scorsese worked, as the movie—the studio’s lone hope at awards glory this year, unless Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa suddenly wins over Academy voters’ hearts and minds—will indeed make the awards-qualifying cut-off.

Other would-be 2014 Oscar contenders haven’t been so lucky, though. Just a few days prior to The Wolf of Wall Street’s triumph, Columbia Pictures announced it was bumping The Monuments Men to February 2014. When the trailer dropped a month ago, it seemed the picture was a sure-fire awards contender. The historical drama—in which George Clooney both stars and directs—has Oscar written all over it, from the stellar cast (Matt Damon! Cate Blanchett! Bill Murray! That Clooney guy!) to its Second World War setting, always popular with the older Academy set. Yet as its December deadline neared, the post-production process proved to be too tight.

“We just didn’t have enough time,” Clooney told the Los Angeles Times, noting the effects work was in particularly rough shape. “If any of the effects looked cheesy, the whole movie would look cheesy. We simply don’t have enough people to work enough hours to finish it.”

It’s not only Clooney who’s suffering, though. Foxcatcher, a drama based on the true story of Olympic wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, was also bumped from its Oscar-friendly November berth to an undefined 2014 slot. Sony Pictures Classics, which is behind the film directed by awards-friendly helmer Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball), simply said “it supports the decision of the filmmakers to allow for more time to finish the film.”

And proving that three films makes a trend, The Weinstein Company earlier this fall announced that its Nicole Kidman-starring Grace of Monoco would move from its winter 2013 spot to an undetermined date next spring, also reasoning that director Olivier Dahan (La Vie en Rose) needed more time.

It’s not just prestige-level movies that have been facing a time crunch. Earlier this year, director Justin Lin dropped out of the seventh (yes, seventh!) Fast and Furious film after Universal demanded a too-quick turnaround from the sixth installment (yes, sixth!). Lin’s departure shows that when it comes to films not destined for awards glory—unless things drastically change among the Vin Diesel die-hards at the Academy, that is—it’s easier to just opt for a quicker, possibly cheaper director (in this case, James Wan) than accept a late delivery.

The same thing happened with the second Hunger Games film, with original filmmaker Gary Ross leaving the sequel after Lionsgate insisted on a too-tight production schedule. (Fellow journeyman director Francis Lawrence stepped in, and the film is due to open later this month.)

What all the delays show, though, is that studios are now seriously underestimating the time it takes to turn around a film. In the hunger for more product—whether to feed the awards beast or the ever-bloodier box office—filmmakers are getting increasingly squeezed.

Why the sudden urge to move quicker, faster and (theoretically) stronger? Unsurprisingly, it all comes down to money. Certain release dates have always been a hot commodity for studios—just look at Will Smith’s campaign to dominate the July 4 long weekend, which he successfully did in 1996 (Independence Day), 1997 (Men in Black), 2002 (Men in Black II) and, to a lesser degree, 1999 (Wild Wild West).

Now, though, studios are marking their territory years, almost decades, in advance. Witness Columbia’s latest batch of Spider-Man sequels, which the studio has marked for 2014, 2016 and 2018 dates. Or Disney’s Marvel universe slate, with an ambitious batch of films planned from this November’s Thor sequel all the way to 2017’s third Avengers film (and no, part two of the Avengers has yet to even shoot a second of footage).

All the advance planning—which ostensibly scares competing studios away and whets the appetite of ever-insatiable fans—means that the time crunch is more severe than ever, with directors facing post-production turnarounds that would be unheard of just a few years ago.

Only now, with the punting of Monuments Men and the like, do studios seem to be running up against the brick wall of reality. Essentially, they’re finally discovering that films take a hell of a lot of time to produce. Although Scorsese, master that he is, managed to pull things off, Hollywood would be wise to start slowing down, lest their huge franchise blockbusters suddenly find themselves stuck in the editing bay, with no superhero in sight.

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