The show must go on.
Hollywood is limping into 2021, hamstrung by a pandemic that left many theaters closed, movies delayed, and productions struggling. There’s little doubt that the movie industry is in for some rough times ahead.
But if there’s one axiom to which the business clings, it’s that the show must go on. And so, the people who make, distribute, watch, promote, and write about movies are once again gearing up for the Super Bowl of film: the Oscars.
That’s right. In a few months, the Oscars are back albeit with some big changes. And if you have questions, you’re not alone. Here are some answers — and some bigger questions they raise, too.
First things first: The 2021 Oscars will take place April 25 in Los Angeles. And maybe on the internet?
The annual Academy Awards ceremony, a.k.a. the Oscars, has always been held in Los Angeles, which is the home of the American movie industry. (From 1953 to 1957, the ceremony was held simultaneously in LA and New York City, but given the era, it was a technical nightmare.) At present, there are no plans to change the show’s LA setting in 2021.
But the awards are usually held in late February or early March. In 2020, the Oscars were held in early February, in an unusual attempt to shake up the lengthy, expensive campaigns, akin to political campaigns, that most studios run for the films they hope will win awards. (Remember the 2020 Oscars? Parasite won Best Picture. That actually happened.) The ceremony was slated to return to a late February date this year.
However, in June 2020, with no end to the pandemic in sight and theaters closed across the country, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took a gamble and postponed the 2021 ceremony, pushing it back two months, from February to April. The organization most likely hoped that by the turn of the year, the pandemic would have subsided, movie theaters would be more widely open — particularly in the key markets of Los Angeles and New York — and that it would be possible to show movies in theaters and hold an in-person ceremony.
Now, it’s 2021, and it seems clear that ... well, some of that may sort of happen, if we’re lucky.
Movie theaters seem unlikely to reopen in any meaningful way — that is, to reopen at all, or to be able to operate at more than a modified capacity — before late spring or early summer. And that’s if vaccine distribution goes well and infection rates plummet. So part of the Academy’s risk-taking hasn’t paid off, and most Oscar voters will watch eligible movies on disc or via streaming platforms at home.
And yet it’s possible the ceremony itself might benefit from the later date. The Dolby Theater (which has been the home of Oscars for decades) will almost certainly not be packed with filmmakers and movie stars, as per usual. But it seems plausible the ceremony will be presented in a hybrid format, perhaps with some vaccinated stars in attendance in Los Angeles, some at satellite locations in other places (like New York), and others alone at home or in studios, using the kind of technology the Emmys employed last fall. Many, many film industry awards are given out during the lead-up to the Oscars, including the televised and widely watched Golden Globes (slated for February 28 instead of early January this year), so the Academy has had some time to watch other ceremonies and see what works.
But that leaves lots of questions unanswered. The Oscars haven’t had a host since 2018; will a more distributed production require one to give the event a sense of continuity? Will there still be singing and dancing numbers? What kind of tone will the event strike? And will anyone watch?
The answer to the last question is an important one because the Oscars telecast is the main way the Academy makes money. For years, viewership of the awards has been dropping, mostly for the same reasons that viewership of all TV live broadcasts has been dropping — even the Super Bowl. People aren’t used to watching live anymore. Many don’t even have an easy way to watch network TV. With regard to the Oscars, specifically, potential viewers often don’t feel the need to watch all or even part of the telecast, since they can catch the highlights on social media the next day. And the feeling of unfiltered glimpses at stars is less tantalizing when those same stars are tweeting and Instagramming from backstage.
But decreasing viewership means a decrease in ad revenue, and though the Academy’s broadcast contract with ABC isn’t set to expire until 2028, any decline in money and attention is bound to have an effect when both parties return to the negotiating table.
Did enough movies come out in 2020 to even have the Oscars?
Yes! Lots and lots and lots of movies came out in 2020, almost entirely on streaming platforms. Most of them weren’t traditional Hollywood blockbusters or didn’t have buzzy red-carpet premieres at film festivals.
In a typical year, movies must open in theaters and run for at least a week in both New York and LA to be eligible for the Oscars. (There are a handful of exceptions for international films, documentaries, and short films.) But in April, with theaters closed everywhere, the Academy shifted its rules to allow films that premiered only on streaming services to qualify for Oscar nominations, provided they had planned to open in theaters before the pandemic prevented them from doing so. (That means Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is eligible, but the Hugh Jackman movie Bad Education — which HBO acquired at a festival and always planned to premiere on TV and streaming — wouldn’t be.)
At least eight to 10 new films were released in the US every week in 2020, some from big name directors (like David Fincher and Judd Apatow) and others from filmmakers more used to seeing their work in specialized art-house contexts (like Kelly Reichardt and Lee Isaac Chung). So, plenty of films will be able to compete at the 2021 awards, even though far fewer films were released theatrically in 2020 than in a typical year. And the silver lining is that you can watch almost all of them at home (in the US) right now.
Did I read something about a rule change aimed at increasing Hollywood diversity as well? Does that affect this year’s films?
There is indeed such a rule change, but it doesn’t affect this year’s films.
In June 2020, with the country roiling under protests of racism and police brutality against Black people, the Academy said new diversity and inclusion standards were coming, designed to foster an industry more reflective of America at large. In September, it announced what those standards would be.
You can read about the Oscars’ new diversity and inclusion standards in depth here; they don’t take effect until 2024, which right now feels like it’s a century away. But in essence, the Academy established standards for movies aiming to qualify for Best Picture that require either a diverse cast and crew or for the studio or distributor to implement diverse hiring and career development practices. Or both, of course. (The new standards do not disqualify movies about white guys from winning Best Picture despite what you may have heard.)
Okay. How have the eligibility requirements changed then — and how do the new requirements factor into films’ Oscar strategies?
In a typical year, movies are eligible to win Oscars in most categories as long as they had the aforementioned one-week theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles between January 1 and December 31 of the previous year. So usually, the 2021 Oscars would cover films released between January 1 and December 31, 2020.
But when, in June, the Academy decided to delay the 2021 ceremony, it also expanded the corresponding eligibility window. Now, films released in theaters — or on streaming platforms after their theatrical plans were thwarted — between January 1, 2020 and February 28, 2021 are eligible for the 2021 awards. In essence, the Academy decided that 2020 was 14 months long, instead of 12. (Thanks, folks.)
As I argued back in June, this decision seemed to betray the Academy’s real goals: to make sure the “right” films — those with established stars and big-name studios behind them — had a chance to win Oscars rather than simply honoring the best movies that came out in the calendar year. But it’s hard to blame the Academy. Theatrical exhibition is under siege from streaming services; movie production is struggling because of the pandemic; it’s impossible to know what the future holds. I still think the Academy should have left the cutoff date at December 31, even if it delayed the ceremony, but its reasoning, however frustrating, is understandable.
The result has been a variety of release schedules that might look strange from the outside. Most critics’ groups in the US — including the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics — set the cutoff date for their respective awards December 31. (I’m a voting member of both the NYFCC and the NSFC.) So, a number of distributors and studios opted to launch one-week runs in “virtual cinemas” or actual theaters that would qualify their films for those awards, which are often seen as harbingers of future awards success. Then they delayed the films’ main release dates into 2021, the better to attract and hold Academy members’ attention as voting begins in March.
Meanwhile, some films didn’t bother to release before December 31 at all, opting instead to forego other industry award opportunities and bow as close to the February 28 deadline as possible. French Exit (starring Lucas Hedges and Michelle Pfeiffer), The Father (starring Anthony Hopkins), Supernova (starring Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci), and a handful of other films are slated to debut in January and February. Usually, November and December are prime times to premiere films with Oscar dreams, so perhaps January and February will function the same way this year. Or maybe fatigue will set in. It’s anyone’s guess.
So does all of this mean First Cow has a shot at winning Best Picture?
Yes. Tiny indie films that normally wouldn’t even be part of the Oscar conversation — like First Cow or The Assistant, for instance — have a better shot at earning awards notice in 2021 than they might have in a more crowded year.
But even then, it’s a very long shot, since there will still be plenty of buzzy films led by stars in contention, from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, a slew of films scheduled for nationwide release in January and February. Among those films are Regina King’s directorial debut One Night in Miami; News of the World (starring Tom Hanks); the Sundance award-winning Minari; Promising Young Woman (starring Carey Mulligan); and Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (starring Frances McDormand). Most of these titles debuted at festivals earlier in 2020. All of them were only briefly available for public viewing via theatrical release (virtual or otherwise) toward the end of the year, with wider releases still to come. And all of them stand excellent chances of landing various Oscar nominations.
But there’s another factor working in the small and unconventional Oscar movies’ favor. Even with a 14-month eligibility window, some of the mid-budget buzzy movies that would usually be part of the conversation had their releases delayed long enough to push them out of contention. For instance, a number of “prestige” films, like Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, was originally slated for 2020 release but delayed into 2021 and beyond. Normally, The French Dispatch would be looking for Oscars recognition in addition to box office revenue, but now it and other films like it are waiting out the pandemic. Their absence clears the way for other films that might otherwise have been overlooked.
At the very least, thanks to the ongoing uncertainty of rising Covid-19 case counts and a slow-going vaccine rollout, we know the big Oscar campaign trail system won’t be operating as usual. And without its glamorous red-carpet premieres at international film festivals, star-studded luncheons and meet-and-greets, endless public appearances, and a lot more, the playing field may be slightly more level.
Most modest indie movies normally wouldn’t have even the hope of a shot at a nomination. And they still may not. But as with everything right now, the shape of the 2021 Oscars is still very much up in the air. And that could mean we’re in for the most interesting Oscars race in a long time.