The Pandemic Changed The Oscars This Year, And Maybe Hollywood Permanently
As much as Hollywood loves sequels, it has zero interest in repeating the industry’s past year, even if the pandemic may have fundamentally transformed the Academy Awards for the better.
While COVID-19’s effect on show business pales in comparison to the nearly 600,000 American deaths, its impact very likely will be lasting — not only in how we consume movies, but also in how we define movies themselves.
Even as digital technology has revolutionized how we consume entertainment, theater owners have clung to a primordial model that gives moviegoers no agency and choice.
The casualties of the pandemic aren’t limited to noteworthy theater chains that have served their last tub of popcorn: the most recently fallen include the Alamo Drafthouse (which hopes to return after a bankruptcy restructuring), and the ArcLight/Pacific chains. More broadly, the victims include a century-old distribution framework whose upending was long overdue.
When stay-at-home orders and social distancing essentially rendered that exhibition system not only unworkable but also outdated, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences promptly rewrote one of its cornerstone Oscar rules: No longer must a movie premiere in theaters to be Oscar-eligible; video-on-demand and streaming debuts would now qualify as well.
Even if the academy said the switch, announced a full year ago, was a “temporary exception,” its potency could be hardly that brief. As recently as two years ago, Steven Spielberg likened a film premiering on a streaming service to a “TV movie” that should compete for an Emmy and not an Oscar.
Academy Award voters see the divide quite differently, and believe quality trumps release platform. Only one of this year’s best film nominees comes from a major studio (“Judas and the Black Messiah” was released by Warner Bros.), and the two companies with the most nominations by far were streamers — Netflix, with 35, and Amazon, with 12.
Just as striking: the people who made and starred in those Oscar-worthy films. While the big studios postponed many of their planned 2020 movies sometimes, by more than a year, their delayed slates nevertheless were scarcely as diverse as this year’s contenders.
Thanks mostly to inclusive productions from streamers and independent distributors, a record nine actors of color are nominated for acting Oscars.
And if several prognosticators are right, and if Academy voters mimic the SAG Awards results, four non-white performers could win this year’s acting statues: Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman for lead actress and lead actor from “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Daniel Kuluuya from “Judas and the Black Messiah” for supporting actor, and “Minari’s” Yuh-Jung Youn for supporting actress.
And even if the Oscar rules are ultimately rewritten, the academy won't be able to rewrite what happened this year.