On Sunday, February 9, 2020, history was made at the 92nd annual Academy Awards when, for the first time, a foreign-language film took the coveted Best Picture prize — along with three others including Best Director, Original Screenplay and the newly named Best International Feature. That movie of course was Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite from South Korea, which further made history by being the first and only Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner since Marty in 1955 to also become an Oscar-winning Best Picture. The feat was momentous and indeed a cause for celebration as I witnessed first-hand traveling after the Governors Ball to the packed-to-the-rafters celebration thrown by distributor Neon at the Soho House in West Hollywood. The place was so crowded on various levels you literally had to squeeze yourself into the room where Director Bong made his triumphant appearance, gave a quick address to the crowd, and then at well past 1 a.m. slipped out the back exit to another soiree.
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That kind of scene seems like it was years ago, yet it has been actually 10 months, occurring just about five weeks before Hollywood and most of the rest of the U.S. would enter a lockdown like the town, and the country, had never seen. The 2020 Oscar show itself dodged a bullet; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ board of governors had moved it some time back from a set late February date to the earlier Sunday in hopes of stemming a continuing freefall from the Oscars ceremony’s all-time low ratings two years earlier (the hostless 91st Oscars did rebound a bit, but the 2020 date change was already in place at that point), thus it was not in the eye of the storm that was about to shut down the industry and impact every other 2020 awards show in one way or another.
A real irony was that the U.S. and South Korea each reported their first known case of the novel coronavirus to the World Health Organization on the same day: January 20, 2020, just 3 weeks before the Oscars. There was bubbling conversation at the time about this new disease that seemed to be taking hold, but not nearly enough to stop the massive celebrations on Oscar night. And anyway, the Trump Administration and the president all but dismissed the medical threat. It all seems like a fever dream now as Covid-19 continues to take its toll around the world, with record cases being recorded every day as second and third phases and new mutations infect the planet making the virus more terrifying this winter than it was in the spring.
The Show Will Go On
Oscar’s problems in mounting the 93rd annual Academy Awards, now set for their latest spring date ever on Sunday, April 25, 2021, due to the continuing crisis, pale in comparison to the death and suffering caused by Covid-19. But as they say, the show must go on, and despite 60% of movie theaters currently closed in North America, more closures in Europe and other global hot spots, the movie release calendar in tatters or thrown directly to streaming and VOD platforms, the show will go on. Although this will likely happen in a way in which we have never seen the Oscars handed out before in their history, which includes all of World War II and a smattering of other major news events that briefly delayed the ceremony such as the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968 and an attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life in 1981.
Just how it will go on is a work in progress, with the Academy announcing earlier this month that its producing team will consist of director Steven Soderbergh, producer Stacey Sher, and TV events producer Jesse Collins (the latter also set for the 2021 Grammys and Super Bowl halftime show). In their statement after being selected, the trio they were “thrilled and terrified in equal measure.”
That is probably an understatement, though they should take heart that, despite meeting host Jimmy Kimmel’s prediction that they would be the lowest-rated in history, September’s Covid-affected Primetime Emmys show was surprisingly fresh, innovative and entertaining in mixing virtual awards presentations around the globe with a live base at Staples Center where Kimmel presided in front of no audience. The producers, not privy to the names in the envelopes in advance, even found ways to get those statuettes into winners’ hands at home or other locales as they were announced and we all watched on ABC. Of course, that network also airs the Oscars and you can bet they will be taking notes; the lessons learned at the Emmys will be applied to its awards-show crown jewel, an annual event that is a financial windfall for the network, the Academy, Hollywood trades and the entire lucrative business of awards season.
Unlike the Emmys, which had a robust group of nominees since the TV season was largely unaffected in terms of content, the Oscars, and others like the Golden Globes, SAG, Critics’ Choice, BAFTA, etc., are a whole different bag and have seen a number of blockbuster titles and other contenders moved out of this year and into the future, when hopefully theaters will be re-opened around the world. Potential major contenders originally set for 2020 that have been shuttled to next year’s eligibility (or beyond) include Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story; the film adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights; Jennifer Hudson in Aretha Franklin biopic Respect; the Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark; Will Smith in the Williams sisters tennis drama King Richard; Denis Villeneuve’s anticipated Dune; the new James Bond entry No Time to Die, which had already launched its Billie Eilish theme song only to have the film pushed several times and finally (for now at least) into April 2021; Wes Anderson’s French Dispatch, originally planned to launch at Cannes 2020 and now likely waiting for another shot on the French Riviera in 2021 (if Cannes can even happen then); and many more.
Crafts categories are deeply affected, with such planned films exiting this season’s race including A Quiet Place Part II (Emily Blunt won a SAG Award for the first one), Top Gun: Maverick, Black Widow, Antlers, F9, Godzilla vs Kong, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Jungle Cruise, Minions: The Rise of Gru, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, The Matrix 4, The Eternals, Morbius and more, too many more, to name.
However, the formerly rigid Academy has done everything possible it seems to try to encourage producers to put their movies out there. On April 29, with their own theaters shut down and offices closed indefinitely, the organization dramatically altered Oscar eligibility rules “temporarily” in light of unusual circumstances by declaring any streaming or VOD debuts OK to go without the traditional seven-day qualifying run in Los Angeles and/or New York City as long as they could prove the film had originally been intended for theatrical release. The eligibility year was also extended to February 28, rather than the usual calendar year of 12 months, in order to make room for more potential contenders. On October 7, seeing many more movies fleeing 2020 release dates, AMPAS amended the new rule by allowing drive-in eligibility and other perks to make it easier for films to qualify.
In between these dramatic moves away from previous rules that preserved the sanctity of theatrical, the Academy threw in the towel June 15 and announced the 93rd Oscars would be moving from the end of February to April 25. Despite a false trade report, AMPAS still has not revealed specific plans about what that show will look like. Of course, when this Oscar telecast date change was made 6 1/2 months ago, a late April berth was seen as likely a time when life, and awards shows, might have returned to normal. Yeah, right.
Since Oscar season, as it is known, is a virtual cottage industry financially imperative to so many aspects of the business, other awards shows immediately jumped on the bandwagon and changed their dates and eligibility requirements to follow what the Academy had done. Thus it is also business not as usual for the likes of BAFTA, Critics’ Choice, SAG and the other guilds, the National Board of Review and the Golden Globes, which all adjusted to align with the Oscars.
(See the calendar below for a list of key 2021 movie awards-season dates.)
In fact, the Globes swooped in from their usual early January perch to take over the February 28 spot vacated by the Oscars. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are set to host that NBC soiree, but whether it will resemble the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the network’s self-proclaimed “Hollywood party of the year” is anyone’s guess. Fey and Poehler had committed to host before our world fell apart. Should be interesting, but NBC and the HFPA, like AMPAS, have so far given no clues as to what it will look like this time around.
Campaigning And Covid
Beyond the shows themselves, the entire ritual of campaigning has been thrown into chaos with none of the usual multitude of schmoozing opportunities at events, dinners, lunches, in-person Q&A screenings and the like. Even the Oscar season networking super bowl known as the Governors Awards, usually held in November, has no set date, if one is even possible.
Usually, the “season” begins in earnest with the kickoff of the late-summer film Festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto, followed in early fall by the likes of New York and London — but all of that this year looked like nothing that has come before. Because most of these — except Telluride, which canceled, and including an earlier-than-usual AFI Fest in October — managed to carry on in a hybrid virtual/live format (or in the case of Venice, even somewhat “normal” manner), we are looking at essentially an eight-month Oscar season rather than the six months we are used to (and even that is too long by most measures). Despite the fest shakeup, some distributors smartly decided to go this traditional route anyway, none more successfully than Searchlight Pictures, a master campaigner, which put all its eggs in Nomadland’s basket and won the top prize at Venice before hitting just about any fall fest — and there were many, both big and small, adjusting to the realities of life during Covid — that would have it, even if it has now delayed its actual opening to February.
By the time the campaign gets going in earnest, the Frances McDormand-starring drama will have racked up numerous honors to splash across its ads, thereby no doubt making this a must-view for Oscar voters as it hits theaters (hopefully) just before Oscar-nomination balloting begins and precursor shows reveal their winners. The festival influence this year is so topsy turvy though that Sundance (running January 28-February 3 in 2021) mostly online for the first time, could be a factor in the race with some films like Focus Features’ Land, directed by and starring Robin Wright, using the Utah launch to make a splash before its February 12 debut in order to get in under the wire for Oscars.
Regina King’s directorial debut for Amazon’s One Night In Miami, and the Oscar-friendly Kate Winslet-Saoirse Ronan drama Ammonite from Parasite distributor Neon, also widely hit the fest circuit in search of early momentum. The latter had actually planned an early Cannes debut in May, but after that festival got kiboshed, it had to alter its plans. Neither Cannes nor Telluride — enormously important fests in the awards scheme — took place physically, but they did release their planned lineup of films as a kind of seal of approval anyway. Telluride even went so far as to host a Rose Bowl drive-in screening of Nomadland with McDormand and director Chloé Zhao appearing for a Q&A. Drive-ins enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, providing a way to host an in-person premiere or campaign event while people stayed in their cars. It isn’t the optimum word-of-mouth opportunity Oscar hopefuls usually get but, for this year at least, it is the new normal of the season.
Regional critics groups like New York, Los Angeles and Boston stuck to their usual dates in announcing winners and between the three of them chose three different films for their top prize: Nomadland in Boston, A24’s March release First Cow in New York, and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe in L.A. — the latter actually a limited TV series from Amazon and never intended for theatrical, thus making the L.A. critics’ choice instantly irrelevant for Oscar season (hello, Emmys). The clear message from critics, per usual, is very indie minimalist-type films rule the day. If Oscar voters are influenced by this in a year they need more help than ever parsing the good from the not-so-good, the Academy will have an awards show that makes the Independent Spirits (taking place as usual the day before Oscar) pale by comparison in how obscure their winners will be in terms of mass audience appeal — or even movies viewers have heard of. It is a known fact that movies in which people actually have a stake, like a Black Panther, are the real drivers of Oscar ratings. For my money, the Academy should just say “ratings be damned” this year and stage the show like some sort of cinematic telethon, bringing on every major star in the world to plead the case for movies and the importance of movie theatres, even if the actual films that will be winning those Oscars this year were all viewed on TVs or computers.
And speaking of seeing movies on TV, this is where Netflix could come in with a widely watched group of Oscar contenders as that streamer aims to land its first Best Picture win, sporting a lineup that includes David Fincher’s Mank, George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky, Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sophia Loren’s comeback in The Life Ahead, and Ryan Murphy’s starry musical The Prom with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman among others. Along with Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, and a whole host of January and February releases coming as well, the streamer has a lineup that feels very Oscar-y just in terms of the names involved in these films.
Amazon (Sound of Metal, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, I’m Your Woman), HBO Max (which will house Warner Bros’ product and also Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk), Apple (On the Rocks, Greyhound, Cherry) and Hulu (Palm Springs) are also in the mix, making streaming the place to be for optimum exposure this year. The latter just made a deal to take Lee Daniels’ promising contender The United States Vs. Billie Holiday off Paramount’s hands (that studio also unloaded Trial of Chicago 7 to Netflix due to lack of theatres available). AMPAS has its own streaming site, organized alphabetically, that currently sports more than 150 titles for Oscar voters — but not always obvious bait-y movies (The Wretched, anyone?). Campaigners must pay $12,500 for the privilege of having their film on a site where anyone can be included if the price is right. For another $5,000, contenders can participate in “Scene at the Academy” where filmmakers dissect a scene or two from their film — virtually of course, a service in lieu of the usual in-person Q&As at the Covid-shuttered Samuel Goldwyn Theatre. Think of it like the extras you get with Blu-rays.
The Academy has said this will be the last year for physical DVD screeners. In the future, films will only be downloadable on the screening site, which promises to overwhelm tech-challenged AMPAS voters. This understandably has drawn considerable angst and complaints from many Academy members with whom I speak, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the decision gets reversed. A number of members simply don’t know how to navigate a digital site like this, or don’t even want to try. And there are other reasons for keeping screeners. “I always put them on my kitchen counter so I am physically aware of movies I want to see. They are a good reminder,” one Producers Branch member said. “Maybe the Academy could just send the covers without the discs if it comes to that.”
Ready Or Not, Here It Comes
Bottom line: I have talked with a number of voters who are in the dark about the season anyway. Pundits like me may talk it up, but most just haven’t focused.
“What should I see? I am so upset that theatres are closed. There’s an AMC right down the street and it has been closed all year. Please tell me Chad Boseman is going to win Best Actor,” said one Oscar-nominated Acting Branch member who (other than Ma Rainey, apparently) hasn’t seen much and is waiting for physical screeners. She asked for film recommendations, which I am happy to supply to any Oscar voter in need. Another told me, “confidentially,” that their favorite film so far is Hillbilly Elegy and can’t imagine Glenn Close losing for it, but mentioned only three other films this year worth voting for at this point. Take heart, guys. I have seen about 20 movies coming out in the first two months of 2021 that are eligible (the Boseman supporter BTW had no idea movies would be eligible beyond December), and many of them are indeed Oscar worthy.
As for the presence of big studios, the behemoth entities that usually provide the movies the public actually sees in numbers big enough to warm the hearts of ABC executives, the pickings are pretty slim. Paramount as previously mentioned has handed all its most promising contenders to streamers, or moved them down the line. Disney has animation, notably the beloved Pixar holiday debut Soul which could be a Best Picture possibility in addition to Animated Feature, and not much else beyond Mulan and The One and Only Ivan in crafts categories, seemingly hoping to contend with the aforementioned Nomadland from Searchlight (a Mouse House property now since Fox was swallowed up). Big Sony is nearly AWOL, and will be repped largely by their Sony Classics division with Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Coleman in The Father, and Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit , both coming in February after earlier fest debuts.
Warner Bros has Tenet and Ben Affleck in The Way Back, with the mixed-reviewed Wonder Woman 1984 as first of its once-theatrical juggernauts to go the HBO Max route, a fate also awaiting Judas and the Black Messiah and The Little Things day-and-dating with theaters and HBO Max in time to Oscar qualify (watch out for the stealthy latter with an Oscar-winning trio of Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto). Universal has a real contender with Paul Greengrass’ News of the World starring Tom Hanks, and is campaigning Judd Apatow’s The King Of Staten Island and pre-lockdown Invisible Man, with Trolls World Tour and The Croods: A New Age in animation, while its Focus specialty division pins hopes on Promising Young Woman, Emma, Let Him Go, the aforementioned Land, and the critical favorite Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
It is actually not as dire as some may have thought, at least in terms of quality if not blockbuster contenders. With all the turmoil in the industry, and lack of theaters and opportunities to engage in-person, reason to cheer remains: a good movie is a good movie no matter how you may find it. One Oscar voter in the Directors Branch emailed me a hopeful statement over the holiday: “Despite it all there are such great movies around at the moment aren’t there? See you in 2021.”
Again, Hollywood and its annual awards season’s problems are small in light of what is really challenging our world at the moment. Perhaps Billy Crystal during a conversation we had this week put it best. The man who has been instrumental as a past Oscar show host (nine times he told me), gives us a little perspective.
“I think if anyone learned anything from the Emmys, which unfortunately ratings-wise didn’t do well, but I think they did a great job in producing that show, and Jimmy (Kimmel) did a tremendous job. It’s so hard to do at any time but to do what they did I thought was great and I hope by April, well, who knows if they will be able to do it?” he said. “The (pandemic) is out of hand, and it has touched all of us and continues to touch all of us. At this point, awards shows, God are we really thinking about all that when people are in such trouble? But it is something that everyone looks forward to all the time so I think it’s got to continue. How they do it, I don’t know, but I think they’ve got really good producers and creative people to hopefully create something spectacular that people will see.”
Time – and 2021 – will tell.