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When does Oscar season start? It's already started

This time last year, a little film called THE HELP hit theaters, and almost immediately the chatter started. Traditionally speaking, it seemed just a little early for Oscar buzz to begin — even in better times, August is a nadir-point in box office revenue, when studios are known to shed the clunker titles they still haven’t released before the “more serious” fall and holiday seasons kick in. Still, THE HELP, a delightful film based on a popular page-turner, got an extremely healthy helping of Oscar buzz right from the start, and it carried Octavia Spencer all the way down the red carpet and into the golden boy’s arms.

In recent years, it’s been standard practice to release a film for just a few days at the tail end of the calendar year (often the week between Christmas and New Years), in only New York and Los Angeles, to qualify for Academy consideration. This was the case for EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE, as well as THE IRON LADY, which won Meryl Streep another golden boy herself. Of course, that late-game strategy has an added benefit: The sneak-peek release gets everyone talking about the new title just as Oscar season reaches full fever pitch.

Most often, films that are released earlier in the year are overlooked. This was the case with Ira Sachs’ (auteur of the upcoming KEEP THE LIGHTS ON) brilliant period piece MARRIED LIFE, which was released in March 2008 and should have received at least some Oscar buzz. But could this be changing, perhaps? Does 2012 have a HELP?

Last week, the latest Streep vehicle was released in theaters, the small and delightful comedy HOPE SPRINGS. The film is by no means revolutionary, but it has a very similar appeal to that of THE HELP: big-name stars, a message of female empowerment and an upbeat summer energy. Whether or not Streep’s (or Tommy Lee Jones’, or Steve Carell’s) performances are Oscar-worthy is beside the point. The point is, can we start talking about the Oscars yet? The answer, decidedly, is yes.

It actually makes perfect sense that the timing of Oscar season should be changing. Summer isn’t what it used to be: The dog days of summer reruns on TV are a thing of the past, now that premium channels like HBO, Showtime and others reserve the hot months for some of their most prized programming (ask any TRUE BLOOD fan how excited they are for this week’s Season 5 finale). Plus so many movies are now available on-demand and through other digital avenues that release dates aren’t what they used to be, either.

So maybe the Academy should update its expectations and the Oscar hunt should truly be a year-round proposition. It is Best Picture of the Year, isn’t it?

Photo credit: HopeSprings-movie.com