By Jeremy Martin

Pity the early bird films that get released in the first half of the year. Because when it comes to the Oscar race, the early movies are far too long forgotten to get the statue. Seldom do they even get a nomination. In the eyes of awards givers, they may as well not have even existed.

In the last twenty years, only five films that were released before the fall have gone home with the Best Picture Oscar. The last one was nearly five years ago – “Crash” was released in May of 2005. Five years earlier than that, “Gladiator” was released in May of 2000, becoming the rare film that is both a big summer, popcorn hit, and a hit with critics and awards givers. Allow me to go back another five years – “Braveheart” was released in May of 1995. A pattern emerges…

Given that logic, though, we’d be due for an early summer hit to sweep this awards season. “Star Trek,” anyone? Yet all indicators point to more of the same, where an overcrowded fall and winter season of “serious” films will edge out some equally good films that had the misfortune to be released early in the year. Looking at the Golden Globes, the only film released prior to the late-year gold rush is “The Hurt Locker.”

The Academy has a unique opportunity to break all kinds of barriers with its expansion of the Best Picture category to a list of ten films. Many think that the decision was meant to level the playing field so that a wider variety of genre films (which often get released earlier in the year) might have a shot. “Star Trek” and “The Hangover” being prime examples. But also something like “Julie and Julia” or “(500) Days of Summer.” Those last three all made the Golden Globes cut in the Best Picture – Comedy category.

But take a look at any year end “Best of” list, then refresh your memory, and you’ll notices some arguable absences. “State of Play,” for instance – big, Oscar winning stars in a political thriller. The formula worked well for “Michael Clayton.” But “State of Play hit theaters in April, and despite its consistently good reviews, no one’s talking about it. “In the Loop,” “Sugar,” and “Moon,” are all films that have a critics rating of 89% per or more from rottentomatoes.com (meaning 89% of the reviews were good). Yet where are they now? Do the critics even remember that they saw and liked them?

The bias doesn’t just fall to the Best Picture category, either. Take “Sunshine Cleaning” which had the potential to be this year’s “Little Miss Sunshine” (and not just because it features the word “sunshine” and is from the same producers). Emily Blunt’s performance is emotional, nuanced, and from the heart – she’s great in it. She’s receiving equally rave reviews for her performance in “The Young Victoria” and got a Golden Globe nomination. But if the release dates of the two films had been reversed? Would we her performance in “Sunshine Cleaning” (which actually came out in March 2009) be singled out instead?

Judd Apatow’s script for “Funny People” is layered, honest, raw, and, yes, funny. If the film had been marketed and released in the fall or winter as an adult drama along the lines of “Terms of Endearment” would we be talking about it more than we are, since it was released in the summer as if it were a broad comedy? The shutout of “The Informant!” points to an even more disturbing trend that the window for getting awards recognition is still shrinking. That film was released in September 2009 and features a smart, funny script about a complex scandal that is blown open by an even more complex man – played to perfection by Matt Damon. Great script, great performance, great movie. And still…nothing in terms of awards.

I get a few awards season screeners, and the studios don’t even bother to push the films that came out in the early part of the year. It’s as if the awards are pre-determined in advance, and the release dates set accordingly. Only “The Silence of Lambs,” way back in 1991, and was released in February was able to stick in the minds of the awards powers-that-be. The steps to its success should be studied and utilized, so that all the fine films that come out throughout the year can have a fighting chance.