In a typical year, the film world would be gearing up for the Cannes Film Festival, which was scheduled to roll out the red carpet for its glitzy opening night gala on May 12. I’d be headed to the French Riviera to see three or four movies a day and write about them. Some of those movies — like last year’s Parasite and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — would turn out to be awards season contenders all the way through February of the following year.
But the future of this year’s festival is unknown. It’s not happening in May, not least because French President Emmanuel Macron has the country on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic through May 11. And when that lockdown lifts, it will lift slowly. In the meantime, Cannes’s Palais des Festivals — a huge building containing auditoriums that’s home to the festival and other big events — has been converted into a homeless shelter during the lockdown.
It seems frivolous to fret about things like the Cannes Film Festival, with its star-studded premieres and all-night parties and seaside carafes of rosé, when people’s livelihoods and lives are on the line. There are always things more important than movies, and that’s especially obvious now.
But people are thinking about it anyhow because plans need to be made for one of the strangest movie seasons since at least World War II, a season that culminates every year at the Oscars. The next Oscars ceremony is still scheduled for February 28, 2021. That date seems likely to stick, even if the awards are broadcast to an empty auditorium.
The bigger question, though, is what movies that Oscars will honor.
Normally, the nominees consist of two big categories. There are “Oscar bait” movies that open in theaters, often late in the year, with name-brand actors and big-name directors attached. And there are films that make splashy festival debuts, usually in the summer (at Cannes) or in the fall (at Telluride, Venice, or Toronto), though sometimes a Sundance debut slips in there as well (such as 2017’s Call Me By Your Name).
Those two categories often overlap, especially as it gets later in the year. But while sometimes they share stylistic characteristics and genre markers (a rom-com or horror film, for instance, seems far less likely to get Oscar recognition than a historical drama), there’s one thing they always have in common: The nominees ran for at least a week in theaters in New York City and Los Angeles. (That’s why some movies release around Christmas for a week in those two cities, then don’t open wide till weeks after the New Year; they have to get a “qualifying release” in before the end of the eligibility year to compete at the Oscars.)
But the pandemic changes all of that, for one simple reason: Theaters in those cities (and across the country) closed on March 15. Six weeks later, they remain closed, and seem unlikely to reopen before the summer — and that seems optimistic. Even those that do re-open will find themselves with limited options, since most blockbusters and major releases have been postponed to at least the fall. (The first major studio release on the calendar as of right now is Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which Warner Bros. is still planning to open in theaters on July 17.)
Big theater chains need blockbusters to make money because they’re what people come to see. But studios need those movies to make a lot of money because they’re expensive to produce. They count on packed theaters across the world (including the all-important Chinese audience) to recoup their costs and then make a profit. A movie like Trolls World Tour might make a lot of money by heading straight to digital platforms — and frustrate theater chains in the process — but it’s also targeted at a big audience: stir-crazy children and their desperate parents after weeks of being cooped up at home. For now, at least, big movies are going to need big theaters.
In any case, if theaters are required — by local governments, their patrons, or just common sense — to institute social distancing measures, such as only selling enough tickets to fill theaters halfway and scheduling fewer screenings per day to allow for more stringent cleaning protocols, then making money is going to be difficult not just for the theater but also for the studios. Furthermore, if theaters can’t sell food (or try, but find that patrons are skittish), then their profits drop even more. Until they can pack out theaters, studios are unlikely to release their films; until studios release big films, theaters are unlikely to reopen.
It’s plausible that smaller, independent theaters that don’t show major releases would consider reopening before the big chains — and the fact that they’re often locally owned and operated improves their chances to do so, since the decision makers will be attuned to the status of the community. But they’re often already running on razor-thin margins, and have smaller theaters to begin with. The entire theater business is in a tough spot, and that situation doesn’t seem likely to change soon.
What’s more, the festival launch pads for many prestige movies are in limbo. Cannes is delayed, and if it runs at all, it’s unclear how many people will attend. Venice, Telluride, and Toronto — all of which happen within about a three-week stretch in late August and early September — have continued to insist that they’ll go forward in some form, but have been talking about emptier theaters and digital options. Other, smaller festivals (ranging from regional events to documentary-only festivals) are following suit. Without the buzzy premieres and the swarms of press attention, it can be hard for a movie to break out of the pack and generate interest from audiences and awards voters. So even if the major fall festivals happen in some form, they won’t have the same push they would in a “normal” year — and it’s plausible that this may lead some filmmakers to hold back from entering their films in the festival at all, biding their time until what they hope will be a more “normal” future.
Knowing all of this, both the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (which gives out the Oscars) and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (which awards the Golden Globes) announced on April 28 that their rules would temporarily change for this awards season. Both groups decided to suspend the requirement that a film actually has a theatrical release from March 15 until a to-be-determined date. (It seems likely the groups will move in lockstep on the determination of that date — likely the day that theaters in New York City and Los Angeles reopen — and that other awards-giving groups, like guilds and critics’ groups, will follow.) When theaters do re-open, the Academy determined, they’ll broaden the theatrical eligibility from just New York City and Los Angeles to New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, and the Bay Area, at least for this year. (The Golden Globes have always been tied to Los Angeles only, and the HFPA hasn’t yet indicated that they’ll shift that plan.)
Because the contracts that filmmakers and talent agree to before production, or with distributors when the film is acquired, usually stipulate the theatrical release plans, it’s relatively simple for the groups to determine who will be eligible for awards. The Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots sci-fi horror flick Vivarium, for instance, was headed for theatrical release, but moved to on-demand release; it would be eligible. On the other hand, a movie like Bad Education, starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney, had been acquired by HBO with no plans for theatrical release; under these rules, it wouldn’t be eligible.
There are some sticky points that will require some further tweaking — for instance, the eligibility rules for documentaries include the film having played at certain festivals, many of which were canceled. And the best international feature film selections currently must have received a theatrical release in their home country, which may be impossible in some countries right now. (The president and CEO of the Academy indicated to the Hollywood Reporter that the organization is waiting to see which rules will need further changes based on an uncertain future.)
There’s a very possible scenario in which theaters don’t fully reopen in 2020, at least not in cities where awards voters live. Festivals don’t happen, or happen in reduced ways, and filmmakers hold off premiering their movies. Blockbusters don’t open at all again until some time in 2021, and the year’s best movies are largely drawn from more obscure, independent, or world cinema releases that might ordinarily have been drowned out by the bigger, buzzier movies.
In that case, films that managed to open to acclaim early in the year, like the indies The Assistant or Never Rarely Sometimes Always, might actually have a fighting chance by the end of the year. A torrent of virtual theatrical and on-demand releases have been coming out since late March and show no signs of stopping; it’s possible that smaller movies which looked to make modest profits in a handful of art-house theaters around the country could make it to awards season, especially with other, bigger movies cleared out of the way.
But even if, somehow, everything suddenly gets fixed, and by summer people are able to go to theaters — and that’s a big “if” — this awards season will still be strange. Not only will the coronavirus still be a threat to many, even if effective testing and treatment are available; the changes that the pandemic prompted in the industry give a glimpse into a possible future that nobody particularly wants. (And that’s not even considering what will happen to 2021 and beyond if film production doesn’t resume soon.) Being able to gather in theaters and at festivals are the lifeblood of the movie industry, a vital part of not just moving films toward eventual awards but also getting them in front of audiences. The communal experience, the excitement of being part of something, is what movies are all about.
Yet bits and pieces of this experience have also been hopeful. The business of winning awards is a big one, and it rarely favors the smaller players, the riskier artists. Watching smaller films take the stage as the big films wait on the sidelines has been exciting. Seeing people in places outside New York and Los Angeles get to watch movies at home that they’d normally only get access to months after theatrical release — and then talk about them and discuss them — has been heartening. No filmmaker wants their movie to only be seen on a small screen, but on the flip side, they are glad when their movie is seen.
In my most hopeful moments, that’s what I want: for the filmmakers and artists and smart creative businesspeople who keep the industry ticking along to find a way to succeed, but also to find ways to get movies into more people’s hands. The industry has long been exclusive, and the awards cycle perpetuates that. Yet while I find the long Oscars campaign season and the very idea of art competitions frustrating, I see why they matter — they help people figure out what’s worth watching, in a deluge. Maybe, if we’re very lucky and also very deliberate, this period of reckoning in the industry will help clarify why we make movies in the first place. It’s a business, sure. But it’s also a way to celebrate and cry and feel what it is to be human, together. And if two months (so far) of protective pandemic measures have made me sure of anything, it’s that the need for those experiences isn’t going away.