How Do Late-Breakers Fare at the Oscars?

Yesterday, we got our first trailer for Damien Chazelle’s hotly anticipated fifth film, Babylon, and it looks every bit the raucous and riveting classic Hollywood epic we expected it to be. Set in Hollywood during the transition from silent films to talkies – and focusing on a mixture of historical and fictional characters – the film will undoubtedly be one of the biggest awards contenders this year, but as a “late-breaker,” are the odds against it for the top prize?

Every year, most of the major awards contenders come from the film festivals (Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Telluride, TIFF, and NYFF) or they’d simply premiered prior to the fall, often during the summer (Inception, The Help, Dunkirk, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, etc.). A late-breaker, in contrast, is a film that avoids the fall festivals and doesn’t have a wide release until the end of the year – usually, in December (AvatarDjango Unchained, The Revenant, 1917, etc.).

It’s not impossible for a “late-breaker” to receive a Best Picture nomination, but it is at a disadvantage compared to early-year releases and fall festival premieres, as you’ll see below, in this list of the number of “late-breakers” in every year’s Best Picture line-up since it expanded in 2009:

2009: 2 (Avatar, The Blind Side)

2010: 2 (The Fighter, True Grit)

2011: 2 (Extremely Loud & Incredibly CloseWar Horse)

2012: 3 (Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Zero Dark Thirty)

2013: 2 (American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street)

2014: 2 (American Sniper, Selma)

2015: 2 (The Big Short, The Revenant)

2016: 2 (Fences, Hidden Figures)

2017: 2 (Phantom Thread, The Post)

2018: 2 (Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice)

2019: 2 (1917, Little Women)

2020: 2 (Mank, Judas and the Black Messiah)

2021: 4 (Don’t Look Up, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, West Side Story)

On average, about two late-breakers per year make the Best Picture line-up (with last year being an anomaly due to COVID impacting many films’ post production timelines and pushing their release dates back). However, even when a late-breaker does get nominated, it seldom ever wins. In fact, though some have come close – The Revenant and 1917 come to mind, in recent memory – they’re almost always bested by a contender from earlier in the year (Venice premiere Spotlight and Palme d’Or winner Parasite, respectively). The last late-breaker to actually win Best Picture was 2006’s The Departed, which eschewed film festivals to instead debut wide on October 6, 2006.

Before that, we saw a string of late-breaking winners from 2001-2004 with A Beautiful MindChicagoThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and Million Dollar Baby (all of which debuted in late December), but, as you can see, it’s… been awhile. Why is it so hard for a late-breaker to win Best Picture these days? One word: momentum. There’s almost always a Best Picture frontrunner (or two) that emerge from the early year releases and the fall festival crop, and since these films are seen sooner, they’re able to campaign for a longer time and better build up their narrative. When a late-breaker arrives onto the scene, it’s at a considerable disadvantage to try and make up this lost time to topple the massive momentum many of these films are heading into the televised awards season with.

Now, these films may nab a few huge wins on the way to the Oscars as voters see them for the first time and then have them at the top of their mind when they go to make their choices for ceremonies like the Golden Globes or the BAFTAs (both the aforementioned The Revenant and 1917 were victorious with these two groups, and swayed many into thinking they had won the race entirely), but they’re often “flash in the pan” successes – as the saying goes, “the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.” Slow and steady wins the race, and being a late-breaker may get you some gold here-or-there, but rarely the Oscar glory you really desire. So, with that being said, what films have the potential to be late-breakers this year – and do any look like winners?

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (November 11, 2022)

Letitia Wright as Shuri in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Many were completing discounting the possibility that Black Panther: Wakanda Forever would repeat its predecessor’s Oscar success until that tremendous teaser dropped and shut us all up. Sure, it remains to be seen if the film itself features the same raw resonance as this fantastic first look, but with Ryan Coogler once again at the helm, I see little reason to doubt him right now. This sequel already looks like a stronger tech contender than the first film was (it should repeat Black Panther‘s nods in Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, and potentially Best Original Song, and it looks like a player in Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Visual Effects this time around too), though with likely little above-the-line support – and more competition for the wins in these tech categories than it had in 2018 – it could fall just short of a Best Picture nomination. Can it also recapture the cultural zeitgeist like the original Black Panther? That movie was a MOMENT, and while we know Wakanda Forever will be BIG, it’s how big that’s the question (moreso critically than commercially). But, with the film doubling as both a fond farewell for T’Challa and the late, great Chadwick Boseman, there could be an emotional draw here that we can’t underestimate.

Avatar: The Way of Water (December 16, 2022)

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in Avatar: The Way of Water

What ever happened to “never doubt James Cameron”? I get that it’s been over a decade since the first Avatar, but everything we’ve seen from this sequel – and everything others have seen as well – is nothing short of staggering, and given the additional technical advancements Cameron and co have seemed to make here (he’s not simply rehashing what worked with the original visually), I fail to see a world in which this isn’t the most technically impressive movie of the year. Below-the-line support alone should be STRONG (it’s in contention for Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound, and Best Visual Effects noms – and you should jot it down for the win in VFX already), and while I did just say that below-the-line support isn’t always enough with Wakanda Forever, with a technically revolutionary blockbuster like Avatar, it very well could be. This is actually a movie that could benefit from the late-breaking status as opposed to being hampered by it – The Way of Water will likely be one of the last movies that awards voters see before the holidays, and they could be so impressed by the visual wizardry (and perhaps even swayed by its potentially boffo box office…) that it’ll find itself all over their ballots simply thanks to being the “shiny new thing” they can’t stop thinking about.

Babylon (December 25, 2022)

Margot Robbie in Babylon

To say it simply, there’s no way Babylon isn’t getting nominated for Best Picture. So even though it’s a late-breaker, it will be one of the “two” that seem to get in every year, and Black Panther and Avatar will have to duke it out for that second spot. There’s no way awards voters will pass up the latest film from Damien Chazelle, starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, shot by Linus Sandgren, edited by Tom Cross, and scored by Justin Hurwitz – especially when it’s literally about the industry. However, ever since my first official Oscar predictions of this awards season, I’ve put forth this theory that Babylon is this year’s The Revenant1917. And I still suspect that, when it drops on December 25 (and screens for select critics and voters in the weeks before), everyone is going to be so stunned by Damien Chazelle’s three-hour-long coke-fueled ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood that it could nab a few major awards wins right off the bat (and not just for the film itself, but for its director and actors as well), leading many to believe that it is “our winner.”

And who knows! Maybe Babylon will be the movie to break this stat that’s been against late-breakers ever since the early 2000s. But aside from assessing the history of late-breakers in this article – and analyzing which films from this year could upset the awards race at the last moment – I’m also writing this piece to say that we shouldn’t throw the Best Picture trophy at Babylon too soon, because let’s be honest – the race is never that easy. That’s not to say it still can’t pick up some big wins when all is said and done – The Revenant won Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Cinematography, while 1917 prevailed in Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects (and films like The Blind SideThe FighterDjango UnchainedLes MisérablesThe Big ShortFencesBohemian RhapsodyJudas and the Black Messiah, and West Side Story have all scored major acting and/or writing wins despite being “late-breakers”), but it’s something worth noting as we look at the chances for Babylon specifically going forward this season.

Written by
Though Zoë Rose Bryant has only worked in film criticism for a little under three years - turning a collegiate passion into a full-time career by writing for outlets such as Next Best Picture and Awards Watch - her captivation with cinema has been a lifelong fascination, appreciating film in all its varying forms, from horror movies to heartfelt romantic comedies and everything in between. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, she made the move to Los Angeles in 2021 after graduating college and now spends her days keeping tabs on all things pop culture and attempting to attend every screening under the sun. As a trans critic, she also seeks to champion underrepresented voices in the LGBTQ+ community in film criticism and offer original insight on how gender and sexuality are explored in modern entertainment. You can find Zoë on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd at @ZoeRoseBryant.

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