Everything We Know About the 2021 Oscars

It's going to be an unprecedented awards season this year, so here's our in-depth breakdown of what to expect.

by | October 2, 2020 | Comments

Oscar trophies
(Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images)

Typically this time of year, the awards season begins to take shape, and while we have new glimmers of hope courtesy of One Night in Miami and Nomadlandmany niggling questions remain unanswered. Which films are in contention? Will theaters be open in time to screen contenders? Will the current films on the calendar hold their dates?

In truth, the entire season is in jeopardy, depending on how you look at it, with so many questions still left unanswered after most of the major film festivals have concluded. On the precipice of an unprecedented season, we thought we would kick off our awards coverage with a detailed breakdown of what we know — and what we don’t — about the 2020-2021 season.

A Disruption in the Timeline

Bong Joon-Ho winning the Oscar for Best International Feature Film
(Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Earlier this year, the Academy announced that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they would be pushing back the deadlines and ceremony date for Oscars 2021. The show, which will air live on ABC Sunday, April 25, 2021, was originally scheduled for February 28, 2021. Coinciding with the Oscars celebration, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, initially scheduled to open to the public on December 14, 2020, will open on April 30, 2021.

With this change, the Academy also announced that the eligibility period will extend to February 28th, 2021. The extension was made in the hopes of giving theaters more time to return to normal, but as the COVID-19 crisis continues, the chances of that happening are rapidly dwindling. Other awards contests like the Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards, and Independent Spirits have followed suit and moved to later dates, which line up with Oscar season, though most of the major critic groups, like the NYFCC and LAFCA, have chosen to keep a calendar year eligibility. The Oscars have also removed the theatrical screening requirement, allowing for VOD releases to compete if they were intended for a theatrical run. The extension is a significant change but should have little effect on which films are in contention, but the VOD option may usher in quite a few non-traditional Oscar hopefuls. Be sure to bookmark our 2020-2021 awards calendar if you want to keep up to date on all the award show changes.

The Netflix Season

The Trial of the Chicago 7
(Photo by Netflix)

As digital screenings will be the way this year, many are dubbing it the Netflix Season. As the streaming giant is not beholden to traditional box office considerations they are the studio best equipped to navigate these uncertain times, and their awards slate is quite ambitious. Netflix recently picked up the Best Actress contender Pieces of A Woman, starring Vanessa Kirby, as well as Euphoria creator Sam Levinson’s quarantine-filmed Malcolm & Marie, adding the pair to their already crowded roster of nearly 20 films set to compete in 2021.

Previously released films like Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods and I’m Thinking of Ending Things are very much in the thick of contention for several categories, and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Radha Blank’s Sundance winner The Forty-Year-Old Version are scheduled to hit the platform soon. Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, David Fincher’s Mank, and George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky are in post-production and remain undated, but pundits are banking that they will bring the goods. A-list casts acting in “awards-friendly” source material is precisely what Oscar voters love.

However, with a handful of strong candidates and no need to consider box office viability, Netflix can carefully plot out their release calendar to drum up timely buzz as often as possible. The recent tragic death of Chadwick Boseman will likely have a significant impact on the release of Viola Davis’ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but the August Wilson adaptation is still expected to join the titles mentioned above in what will likely be a Netflix vs. Netflix race in several categories. In short, Netflix is in the driver’s seat this year with the most competitive titles and release date flexibility, so it might be a foregone conclusion that they will be the big winner on Oscar night no matter what happens next.

A New Campaign Playbook

Taika Waititi and Bong Joon-ho
(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

This year’s Emmys taught us that the typical campaign strategy playbook has been thrown out the window. The glitzy Hollywood parties and cocktail mixers will likely be completely absent from the season with a few exceptions. Also, with limited theatrical/drive-in releases, the post-screening Q&As that typically drive ticket sales and buzz are also not possible.

More importantly, though, the festival calendar has been nearly removed from the equation entirely. The Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival, normally critical for a film’s long-term chances, have been able to proceed with virtual screenings and drive-in events, but the typical post-premiere buzz that is generated was decidedly muted. That buzz only affects audience interest in the films, but it also marshals the attention of voters, something that will be difficult to command given the limitations of COVID-19.

After they were forced to cancel their yearly event, the Telluride Film Festival put on a large A-list drive-in event to premiere Nomadland simultaneously with Venice and TIFF. Venice continued with the scaled-down slate, but each festival’s place as a key piece of the awards landscape has been considerably affected. Awards strategists and studios, therefore, have been relying on virtual events and catered meals sent directly to industry professionals and voters as a way to keep their films top of the mind.

Big Budget Exodus Creates an Indie Lover’s Paradise 

Timothee Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in Dune
(Photo by Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Entertainment)

A few days ago, Disney announced an adjustment to their film calendar, shortly after Universal and Warner Brothers had done the same: West Side Story, The French Dispatch, Candyman, and A Quiet Place II all vacated their dates. Currently, the only viable big-budget awards options still on the calendar are Dune and Disney’s animated musical Soulboth of which are still expected to hit theaters. However, the chances of that are still in question as theaters are still largely closed in New York and Los Angeles. This lack of studio options could set up an “indies first” season, which would be an interesting turn of events after films like Joker, Black Panther, Mad Max: Fury Road, Bohemian Rhapsody, and 1917 brought blockbusters to the Best Picture race in recent years.

Though many may lament the lack of studio releases, there’s an equally vocal contingent that’s celebrating the chance to have a true indie season. This year’s Oscars may closely mirror the season’s penultimate event, the Independent Spirit Awards. There are only a handful of films left on the schedule with budgets over $20 million, but there is a legitimate chance they all could still vacate their dates. This may be the first time in recent memory without a single big-budget Best Picture nominee.

(Photo by Plan B Entertainment)

Despite the pandemic, 2021 has already seen a promising crop of Oscar-worthy films, but most films in contention this year had to forego a traditional theatrical release to go straight to VOD.  Sundance favorites like Minari, The 40-year Old Version, and The Father have not been released yet but are almost certainly contenders. Small indie releases like Never Rarely Sometimes AlwaysThe AssistantMiss Juneteenth, and First Cow could battle it out against fall releases like Nomadland and One Night in Miami, giving multiple films from female directors a chance to pull nominations. And those are just the dated titles. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Mank, Promising Young Woman, The French Dispatch, and Pieces of a Woman are all on several Oscar shortlists, though we still don’t know if they will release in time for this year’s contest.

On the studio side, Disney’s Soul and Dune are the most likely options for a big-budget Best Picture nominee, but the chances both stay the course and release as scheduled is still very much in the air. It is very reasonable to think that Dune, Wonder Woman 1984, and Soul will all follow the lead of No Time to Die, which very recently fled 2020 for an April, 2021 release, in which case the indies will undoubtedly dominate in most of the major categories.

Will It Happen?

The Oscar Trophy Statue
(Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

Though it is the most unlikely scenario, there is a question about whether or not the season will actually happen. Yes, that would be extreme, but let’s break it down. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is a non-profit organization chiefly dedicated to honoring, preserving, and helping shepherd the art of motion pictures. The organization’s biggest fundraiser to help achieve that mission is the fees they earn from their contract with ABC to broadcast the Oscars; the Academy earns the majority of its operating budget from this one event. So in that respect, the Academy’s true top priority is not film preservation but keeping ABC happy and the ratings high so that they don’t lose their biggest revenue source. This is not a cynical statement, just a cold hard fact. That fact was also partially the motivation for things like the recent membership changes, the telecast, and the ill-conceived “Popular Film” Oscar.

With a pricey new Academy museum currently under construction and awards show ratings in steady decline, the Academy is acutely aware that relevance is important. If the Oscars cease to be a premiere advertising event, their contract will not be as valuable, or worse, they could lose it altogether. This is a reason to hold the show no matter what, but if the lack of marquee names and big-budget hits leads to lackluster viewership, the results could be catastrophic for their revenue prospects. If they don’t proceed with the season, it would certainly be damaging, but the Board of Governors who run the Academy might decide that skipping a year and coming back strong would be a better bet.

The Emmys’ double-digit decrease in viewership for their socially distant ceremony last month was also a worrying sign, but coupled with the Oscars’ 20% decrease in viewership from 2018 to 2019, it’s hard to imagine there’s any scenario that won’t see a significant audience drop-off. If that’s likely to happen, the case can be made just to bite the bullet and put on a variety show to celebrate the Academy and push the competitive ceremony to 2022. For this, they would have to pool all eligible films from both 2020 and 2021. Admittedly this sounds far-fetched, but if we see a rise in COVID-19 cases, lockdowns, and production issues, we may end up with the same number of eligible films during that two-year time period. Moreover, if theaters are still shuttered and studios are still holding films, 2021 may look more like 2020, and if it does, will the show go on?

In end, the decision lies with the Board of Governors, and if they believe that their revenue, relevancy, or brand will be severely damaged by a limited season, they might vote to pull out altogether. This is the nuclear option and the least likely, but it wouldn’t be the first time that the Academy has had to back off on a plan. Let’s not forget the Popular Oscar was a real thing — until it wasn’t.

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

Tag Cloud

spanish rotten Pride Month San Diego Comic-Con finale stop motion 4/20 Black History Month Endgame PlayStation MTV Marvel Studios supernatural Film robots mockumentary Country Mary poppins Apple TV+ Arrowverse movie FXX Classic Film CW Seed concert Amazon Prime Video dark Year in Review Rom-Com YouTube Winter TV casting hispanic Western Food Network batman Rocketman Superheroes The Purge ESPN Interview BET Awards Starz name the review nature composers series Shondaland A24 obituary Quiz Trophy Talk cops IFC Films Sneak Peek DC Universe rt archives Creative Arts Emmys all-time History Action 007 aliens australia TV Land Netflix Christmas movies Spectrum Originals LGBTQ Amazon Studios Discovery Channel boxoffice romance Mary Tyler Moore Esquire harry potter based on movie BET Sundance FX on Hulu APB Nat Geo Thanksgiving indie 72 Emmy Awards Logo TCA 2017 Hallmark remakes Television Critics Association talk show Video Games BAFTA nbcuniversal Lucasfilm versus Freeform Academy Awards Awards indiana jones cancelled TV series Pixar toy story emmy awards cults fast and furious a nightmare on elm street politics CNN YA technology stoner Drama Set visit DC Comics archives independent Britbox doctor who sag awards green book Paramount quibi Masterpiece DGA french Grammys renewed TV shows Brie Larson Certified Fresh Oscars kids Shudder TCA Winter 2020 Character Guide YouTube Red Pop American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Christmas movies blockbuster Captain marvel canceled TV shows spider-man Family Ellie Kemper dceu TCA 2019 Amazon Extras breaking bad social media Reality Competition festival BBC America 45 Television Academy halloween Comedy Podcast Christmas GIFs Ghostbusters critics war dogs natural history cancelled TV shows what to watch SXSW Turner Classic Movies halloween tv Holidays USA Network Dark Horse Comics comedies The Academy black Election satire FOX Pet Sematary historical drama miniseries cartoon TBS Syfy Mystery TV spinoff comiccon Marathons Comedy Central CBS Showtime zombie 2018 news President Heroines AMC Anna Paquin Martial Arts E3 ID medical drama worst VICE IFC stand-up comedy animated jamie lee curtis Comics on TV Red Carpet transformers latino Musicals scorecard Epix Song of Ice and Fire canceled OneApp hollywood deadpool Trailer cancelled richard e. Grant mission: impossible foreign Tubi psycho Lionsgate ratings Fox News Stephen King Turner streaming Crunchyroll classics travel ITV Writers Guild of America tv talk Summer ghosts unscripted discovery sports OWN Sundance Now revenge die hard Watching Series Teen VH1 Mary Poppins Returns Schedule dramedy 2017 superhero Cartoon Network Acorn TV Chilling Adventures of Sabrina directors Women's History Month thriller Kids & Family MCU ABC GLAAD franchise ABC Family Reality biography Cannes Marvel Television Rock video on demand Toys documentary Film Festival cinemax spain The Witch zombies reboot worst movies spanish language werewolf The CW video period drama RT History Binge Guide Spike Nominations game of thrones Netflix vampires 2020 japanese Pirates Superheroe Vudu movies binge facebook crime drama Rocky X-Men sequels Cosplay RT21 2016 Biopics Warner Bros. 21st Century Fox zero dark thirty chucky best Amazon Prime adventure Black Mirror New York Comic Con cooking parents YouTube Premium Chernobyl Photos cars Fall TV 24 frames Funimation TCA Awards SDCC Emmy Nominations USA WGN criterion nfl GoT Star Trek justice league Premiere Dates elevated horror true crime Disney+ Disney Plus italian toronto slashers screenings SundanceTV A&E Baby Yoda docudrama Sci-Fi comics crime documentaries witnail El Rey mutant children's TV reviews scary movies james bond science fiction See It Skip It asian-american festivals Tumblr television theme song Valentine's Day south america Opinion joker rotten movies we love Disney Bravo Countdown films football dc Polls and Games psychological thriller Disney Plus crossover TNT diversity Holiday National Geographic 71st Emmy Awards Disney streaming service Sony Pictures free movies Ovation Trivia Mudbound cancelled television TLC Avengers Animation romantic comedy CMT NBC First Look strong female leads adaptation Winners HBO Go dragons Sundance TV E! comic HBO Max NYCC crime thriller Elton John Hallmark Christmas movies Box Office TruTV political drama PaleyFest hist disaster TCM comic books Hear Us Out Music screen actors guild cats book Best and Worst blaxploitation WarnerMedia DC streaming service Nickelodeon Apple singing competition Spring TV Crackle Marvel Super Bowl police drama serial killer Mindy Kaling VOD spy thriller TV renewals game show Paramount Network laika Tomatazos FX Apple TV Plus christmas movies 2015 twilight LGBT Columbia Pictures anthology Lifetime venice MSNBC anime HBO Horror Emmys sitcom award winner Tarantino space DirecTV Fox Searchlight universal monsters TIFF Awards Tour Star Wars teaser PBS Adult Swim Universal Disney Channel Walt Disney Pictures BBC One Calendar Peacock 20th Century Fox golden globes Musical Pop TV Fantasy sequel Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Infographic BBC Travel Channel The Walking Dead First Reviews The Arrangement CBS All Access child's play Comic Book Hulu