The Oscar nominations might be announced in January, but the campaign for them begins, in earnest, in September of the year before, ramps up in October and November, and reaches a fever pitch in December. The movies you're watching in theaters right now were screening way back then for critics and industry professionals in hopes of influencing the Oscar conversation — which can mean big box office for otherwise niche titles.
But if you hear about these various organizations, you might find yourself wondering, "Who are all of these groups, and why are they giving best film prizes several weeks before the year is over?" What we're living through right now is "Oscar precursor season," and it can seem never-ending if you're paying attention to it.
Here is a brief primer to this time of year.
What is an Oscar precursor?
These are awards that either aim to predict what the Oscars will go for, or aim to influence the Oscars' choices with their own picks. There are a handful that match up better with the Oscars than others, and thus Oscar predictors tend to take them more seriously. But make no mistake — there are literally hundreds of best film awards given out this time of year.
The most famous Oscar precursor is probably the Golden Globes, which became famous because they have a ceremony on TV where celebrities get drunk.
Why do the Oscar precursors matter?
If you're the kind of person who is really into film, they're interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, they winnow down the number of possible Oscar contenders to a more manageable number of films. Hundreds of movies are eligible for the Oscars every year, including many, many good or at least intriguing films. Most Oscar voters can't watch all of them, so the precursors are a good way of suggesting that, hey, maybe these films are the ones to watch.
Alternately, if you're a huge fan of a particular film and want it to win Oscar glory, the precursors can be a way to either get your hopes up or have them dashed. In particular, this stage can be devastating to smaller films that stayed under the radar. Unless they have a huge promotional push, or critics really get behind them, they tend to disappear.
Finally, the precursors work as alternate takes on the Oscars. The Academy Awards get it wrong more often than they get it right, so you may be someone whose tastes line up more often with a certain critics' prize or with the Golden Globes. Having lots of different choices is almost always a good thing.
What are the most important Oscar precursors?
It's hard to say. The precursors tend to fall into three broad categories: critics' prizes, large-awards-body prizes, and industry prizes. Making matters even more complicated is the fact that there's lots of overlap among these categories. The Golden Globes, for instance, are voted on by critics, but there are so many voters that their taste tends to skew toward the middlebrow rather than the edgy. And the Screen Actors Guild has the largest voting membership of any of these bodies (even larger than the Academy Awards' voting membership) but is also very much an industry prize.
Okay, what are critics' prizes?
This is just what it sounds like. Critics get together in small groups and vote for their favorites of the year. This usually entails lots of arguing and horse-trading as critics try to convince other critics to compromise on their top pick to support some other pick that is less odious than a film that seems to be gaining momentum.
Essentially every city with even a handful of film critics (as well as a few states and general regions of the country) has an organization that bestows prizes, to say nothing of various online groups that do the same. But you really only need to care about three of these groups if you want to predict the Oscars: the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (because it reflects the city where most industry folks are still based), and the National Society of Film Critics (because it makes esoteric choices that can sometimes provide a struggling film or performance with a last-minute surge).
What about the Critics' Choice Awards?
Yeah, you'd think with that name it would be an important one, but no. These are voted on by a large organization called the Broadcast Film Critics Association. It's made up of journalists and a handful of critics from all over the country, and it tends to be relentless in trying its very best to match up with the Oscars, note for note.
The Critics' Choice Awards can be classified as part of the large-awards-body prize category, and are actually the only Golden Globes imitator to gain a real foothold in the past 20 years. The voting setup — lots of voters who are called critics but are closer to traditional industry and celebrity reporters — is very similar, and both ceremonies are televised.
Plus, the Globes are seen as one of the two or three most important predictors of the Oscars, and the Critics' Choice Awards would dearly love to be seen as such, too.
Also in this group (sort of) are the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, which used to be the British version of the Oscars, largely honoring British film, and are now basically just another attempt to predict the actual Oscars, honoring many American films but with better accents from the presenters.
Okay, so what about those industry prizes?
Basically around this time of year, all of the Hollywood trade unions also hold awards to honor the best work in their respective practices. These are voted on by everybody who's in the union, whereas the Oscars are only voted on by the narrower intersection of union members who are also in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. So while the industry prizes are usually the best predictor of the Oscar nominations and winners, they don't always match up exactly.
When it comes to industry prizes, it's kind of cool to see what, say, professional sound designers think is really great sound design. But the prizes with the most impact on the Oscar for Best Picture come down to four groups: the Producers Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America, and the Screen Actors Guild. The SAG Awards, in particular, are notable because actors are the largest voting bloc within the Academy. So their preferences are good to know.
Are there other important organizations?
There are a few more that are worth paying attention to. Namely:
The National Board of Review: The NBR is wacky, because nobody knows precisely what it is, even though it's been giving out awards since 1932. Its membership is secret, limited to around 100 selected film professionals, scholars, and critics in the New York area. However, the movie it selects for best film is almost always nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, so it's worth paying attention to in that regard.
The Film Independent Spirit Awards: Originally intended to honor independent films that were passed over by the Oscars, the ISAs have increasingly become important Oscar predictors, because the Academy Awards have turned more and more toward independent film to find movies worth honoring.
The American Film Institute Awards: Selected by a small panel of critics, scholars, and professionals, the AFI doesn't pick a best film but, rather, a list of 10, which are then honored in a ceremony where each film receives an individual moment in the spotlight. These were televised exactly once, and nobody watched.
The Golden Satellites: These almost never match up with the Oscars, but they produce the most reliably goofy nominations. Particularly in Oscar season, when it seems like every awards body is honoring the same exact things, the Satellites, no matter how bizarre, can seem like a breath of fresh air.
What about film festivals?
These are sort of important, but mostly in the sense that they allow little-known films to be seen by critics and professionals, thus carrying them to possible future glory. In that regard, the most important festivals are Utah's Sundance Film Festival (held in the winter and honoring independent film), France's Cannes Film Festival (held in the spring and honoring the best of film from all over the world), and the Toronto International Film Festival (held in the late summer and often used as a springboard for potential Oscar contenders).
Festivals in Venice, New York, and Telluride, Colorado, are also important, as is LA's AFI Fest in mid-November. Many of the films shown at these festivals will be better than those that win Oscars, but they're also often weird and experimental — and thus exactly the sort of thing that doesn't win Oscars.
The actual competitive Oscar season generally isn't seen as beginning until after Thanksgiving, when the NYFCC and NBR kick things off by bestowing their prizes.
How long does all of this go on?
Months and months and months. As mentioned, this all starts in earnest in September, and the Oscars aren't until late February — all of these awards have to get out of the way before those are held, or else lose any relevancy they hope to have. These awards will all be given out at lavish galas, the better to get stars to attend, and many of the ceremonies will be shown on television.
But if you want an exact list of dates, here's a calendar. Notice how all of the organizations are referred to by their acronyms? If you ever get really into the Oscars, you'll know what all of those mean instantly and become really popular at parties.
And how can people be honoring the best films of one year when that year isn't over?
Most critics' awards are given out in December, which can seem like the voters are ignoring a huge movie month. But film critics see movies in advance and have usually seen the year's major releases by early December. There are exceptions. In 2015, for instance, Star Wars: The Force Awakens didn't screen until after most major critics' prizes had been handed out, but even though it was warmly reviewed, it wasn't the sort of film that would win awards.
Don't begrudge critics honoring the best of the year in December, though. January is coming, and that's usually a dumping ground for many of the worst movies out there, all of which they will have to see and review, so that you don't have to. Let them have their moment. It's the least you can do.