It doesn't have to be this way. The advent of streaming services means there's a viable way for general audiences to see these films at the same time as the Film Twitter elite, who often have enough time to calcify a film's reputation months before the general public even get a look at it. Beasts of No Nation was acquired by Netflix in 2015, who streamed it globally months before awards season really heated up. Amazon acquired 2016 Oscar contender Manchester By The Sea, and while they didn't make the film available online before that year's awards season, it's obvious that they could have. Mudbound - nominated this year for four Oscars - was acquired by Netflix, and went into limited release the same week it was made available for everyone via the streaming platform, in what seems like the most obvious model for solving a lot of these problems going forward.
Streaming behemoths like Netflix and Amazon have the money to both acquire and properly promote these sort of films - and, perhaps most importantly, they can make everyone an informed part of the Oscars conversation. The notion that the average moviegoer has no interest in arty, high-minded films is not only wrong, it's insulting. For one thing, we live in the era of prestige television, where shows like The Crown, Atlanta, and Big Little Lies prove people are interested in more than just empty thrills.
It should of course be acknowledged that the best way to see these movies is in theaters, and ideally everyone would both choose and have the ability to enjoy them that way. But the way we consume media is changing rapidly, and wide theatrical releases are often just not viable for smaller films. If someone has to drive several towns over - or even to a different state - to see Phantom Thread after it's already been nominated for multiple Oscars, perhaps it's worth considering a better alternative. VOD should be a perfectly reasonable middle ground for many of these films, especially the smaller indies like Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name.
But what Hollywood should really be considering is something far more radical. The Academy could sponsor something like a "For Your Consideration" streaming service, where cinephiles can pay a fee to stream the Oscar hopefuls and actually be part of the discussion about which movies are most deserving. For many reasons, it would be imperative that this have some sort of limited time window, with these films only being made available for a month or so leading up to the nominee announcements, so that they could still make money from a theatrical and VOD release later on. Alternatively, there could be a collaboration with a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon, who could host something like an "Awards Season Month," potentially for an extra fee.
The bottom line is this: there are relatively easy, practical ways to get more eyeballs on films like Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird, and these are films that deserve to be seen by people who aren't lucky enough to live in New York or Los Angeles - not months after their media hype has reached its peak, but right in the midst of it. People want to see these movies, they want to be part of the conversation around them, and Hollywood needs to realize it's in everyone's best interests to let them in.