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 Nomadland, many 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Soul, both 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.
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 Always, The Assistant, Miss 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.
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.