Late March, or April? When it comes to changing the February 28 date for the 2021 Oscars, the question is no longer if, but when. That will be determined at the Academy Board of Governors’ Zoom meeting on Thursday, June 11 (pushed back from today, June 9).
Those in the awards business will be grateful for the breathing room, but now the questions begin. How does that change the eligibility period? Will the Globes stick to their usual early January date? Those other date changes will set the tone for an overhauled awards season. They will also allow the industry to start doing something it once took for granted: Plan.
However, there’s another, even larger, question that needs to be addressed — and it’s one that the Academy can’t answer. Whatever the Oscars date turns out to be for 2021, what kind of priority will it be in a time when the industry must spend the rest of 2020 trying to recover from the economic impact of COVID-19?
Awards season is often criticized for its superficiality; right now, that criticism is particularly resonant. Campaigning for Oscars is less crucial than getting back to work, reopening offices, theaters, and production companies, and returning to some kind of revenue-producing enterprise. While celebrating industry achievement is key to the economic ecosystem, those awards can only exist if there’s an industry to celebrate.
Calls to the various guilds about whether they would consider moving their dates, for example, yielded a series of responses ranging from “It’s premature” to “We don’t have time to think about this now.” While the PGA, DGA, and SAG plan to mount 2021 award shows and have altered their eligibility rules to accommodate the pandemic, at this point they are more worried about supporting members who are out of work and figuring out how the hell to keep a set safe. In all likelihood, they will follow the Academy’s lead.
Distributors will have to expend energy tracking the exhibition business. On June 12, California theaters can reopen at 25 percent capacity; will audiences follow? Will “Tenet” get theaters up and running July 17? They may need to pay more attention to these fundamentals than to awards campaigns.
While Focus Features is invested in a theatrical model, the company was pleased with early returns on “The High Note,” which went straight to PVOD. Would Focus want to follow suit with Sundance hit “Promising Young Woman,” or would it favor a pricey awards launch? (Or, both? The Academy changed its 2021 rules to allow streaming-premiere Oscar submissions for films that planned a theatrical release, and Emerald Fennell’s debut was originally scheduled for April 17.) Star Carey Mulligan earned glowing reviews and in a year with fewer movies on display, she could be a strong contender.
Even heavy Oscar-spender Netflix, which has flourished during the lockdown, has not committed to sending talent to fall festivals to support films like David Fincher’s “Mank,” which boasts a starry cast including Oscar-winner Gary Oldman. Right now, there isn’t much Sunset Boulevard traffic driving by their billboards.
What are the Oscar optics for a company like Disney? It furloughed many of its staff, including members of the movie marketing and publicity teams. The company may think twice about Searchlight’s awards budgets for films like Wes Anderson’s valentine to journalists, “The French Dispatch,” which was supposed to world premiere at Cannes. Will it turn up in Venice or Telluride or Toronto or New York? Even if it does, those festival editions also have to adjust to current circumstances — whatever those may be. It’s hard to be a darling of the festival circuit when the circuit is forced to mull safety ramifications.
The Academy can’t afford to not have the Oscars. With the impending date change, as well as permitting some streaming titles to compete, it is clearly leaning into helping filmmakers get what they need. This could benefit lower-budget films with more time to play in theaters, especially since campaign overspending may not play this Oscar season.
Talent has become accustomed talking to journalists from their couches on Zoom; how keen are they to dress up and leave their homes? And if they do, what’s the audience’s appetite for watching it? Just as all entertainment media has adapted to the exigencies of a politicized and sensitive period of protest, and a society badly in need of reforms, a stripped down, smaller-scale Oscars might fit the bill.
Why not make the Oscars a big charity benefit that raises money for those in the industry who are in need? “They should do what the TV Academy did after 9/11,” said one veteran press agent. “Business attire, no fancy gowns or jewels, no huge red carpet. Be aware of the environment they’re in. It’s not about tooting their own horn, or wearing a million jewels. People are hurting. We’d get slammed across the wall. Unemployment is going to end and a lot of people may not get their job back. They need to help people.”