Thousands of films have tried, but so far only 83 have succeeded in being named best picture of the year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This exclusive club includes quite a bit of diversity — everything from great films like “The Godfather” to hilarious films like “Crash” — but they all have one thing in common: they all managed to win the top prize at the Oscars. How can your film follow in their footsteps? Here is a handy timeline to assist you.
The Timeline for Winning Best Picture
Early in the year prior to your scheduled release: Buy the rights to an inspiring novel about someone overcoming a huge obstacle with dignity and determination. Alternatively, you may find a true story about such a person overcoming such an obstacle in such a fashion. The ideal story is one that is set in the past and involves someone who is English, disabled, or insane. The story should also appeal to old people. Movies about the Internet are risky; movies about old-timey things like Shakespeare and Nazis are better.
Spring of pre-release year: Get a director and some producers onboard who have previously been attached to Oscar-winning films, or who at least have been in the vicinity of Oscar-winning films. As long as their names were in the credits somewhere on something that won an Oscar, that’s good enough to brag that your film is “from the people who brought you…” whatever it was.
Spring of pre-release year: Get a lead actor or actress whose name produces a scent that makes people say, “Mmm, what’s that smell? Oh, it’s OSCAR!” Choose from this list: Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks, Colin Firth, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, Geoffrey Rush, Helen Mirren, Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts, George Clooney. Do NOT choose anyone from this list: Jim Carrey, Kevin James, Anna Faris, Brendan Fraser, Shia LaBeouf, Skeet Ulrich, Jennifer Aniston, the monkey from “Hangover 2.”
Summer of pre-release year: In order to get Entertainment Weekly to acknowledge your movie’s existence, start the rumor that you might cast someone from “Twilight.”
Summer of pre-release year: Let everyone know how much preparation your star is going through to get ready for the role, whether it’s gaining or losing weight, learning to dance, mastering a foreign language, becoming a licensed airplane pilot, or living with an obscure jungle tribe for six weeks. Academy voters aren’t interested in movies that were easy to make, as such films are a reminder to them that their jobs are not very hard.
Fall of pre-release year: Shoot the film, ideally in some exotic or desolate location. Not only will this look beautiful on the big screen, it will also enhance your film’s reputation as one that was expensive and painstaking to produce.
December of pre-release year: Make sure the people who compile “movies we’re looking forward to next year” lists know about your film, and know that they should be looking forward to it. If you’ve followed all the steps so far, this should already be accomplished. If not, get your star or director on a couple talk shows to mention that he or she has a movie coming out “next December.” To Academy voters, “next December” is code for “Oscar contender.”
Spring of release year: If there were any complications that forced you to do reshoots or that involved firing someone, suppress those stories.
Early September: Have your world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, aka Oscar’s opening night party. If you’re feeling especially saucy, you might also play at the Telluride Film Festival a week earlier, though you’ll still claim Toronto as your premiere.
Mid-September: Start an ad campaign humbly touting the good reviews and audience buzz from Toronto, even if there was only one review and the “buzz” consisted of two studio interns who liked it. The key to getting Academy members to like your film is to make them think that other people already like it.
October: Host a few screenings for carefully selected audiences. By “carefully selected,” we mean “elderly.”
Late November: Send DVD screeners to members of critics’ organizations so they can consider your film for their awards and top 10 lists. Remind them that they’re not allowed to review the movie until it’s actually released, but that in the meantime they can feel free to give it prizes.
Approx. December 1: Buzz should be building as pundits begin compiling their end-of-the-year lists and Oscar predictions.
Approx. December 5: The backlash will begin. Your film, which the vast majority of people will not have seen yet, will be called “overrated” and “overhyped.” Relax. This is normal.
Approx. December 20: Release your film in New York and Los Angeles. Do NOT open it in other cities yet, as this would allow common people to see it.
Approx. December 23: After opening weekend in New York and Los Angeles, buy TV commercials declaring your film “the hit of the season,” “the most talked-about movie of the year,” or “the one that’s got everyone raving.” These ads should maintain that “critics and audiences agree” about your film, even though they don’t.
Approx. January 1: If any critic has written that your film is an “Oscar contender,” pull that quote out and run it in huge type in ads everywhere. If no critic has written any such thing, see if you can find someone who will. (Helpful hint: Peter Travers will.)
Early January: Having piqued everyone’s curiosity by appearing on end-of-the-year lists and so forth, now is the time to finally let regular people see your movie. Release it in 1,500 theaters with a massive publicity push. Academy voters will have mostly made up their minds by now, but a last-minute surge of popular acclaim might help push them into your camp. On the other hand, if your movie is unappealing to the average moviegoer, now is when that fact will be discovered. Brace yourself for that possibility and plunge ahead. In a perfect world, you’d be able to get your Best Picture Oscar without actually having to let anyone but the Academy see your movie, but we’re not there yet.
Approx. January 25: The Oscar nominations are announced. Your film is nominated for Best Picture. Have a drink or five!
Approx. February 2: The studios behind the other Best Picture nominees will try to create controversy by questioning the authenticity of your film. They will say it distorts historical facts or is insulting to one minority group or another. Dismiss these charges as baseless, and make sure your competitors have similar allegations made against them.
Approx. February 28: The Academy Awards are presented in a live telecast. If you’ve done your job correctly, there will be no suspense about who’s taking home the big prize. Congratulations! Your existence has been validated.