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The 2021 Oscars are moving to April due to the pandemic. Should they?

The ceremony’s shifting eligibility window suggests that Hollywood has rigged its own system.

The Oscars are moving to April.
Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the elite organization of film industry professionals that votes on and hands out the Oscars — announced on June 15 that the 2021 ceremony would officially be moved to Sunday, April 25. The ceremony was previously scheduled for February 28.

Since much about the Covid-19 pandemic remains unclear, from treatment and vaccine timelines to the safety of large gatherings in early 2021, there’s no telling what form the ceremony will take — it could be held virtually, presented with a limited in-person audience, or some other option. But the decision is the first in a very long chain of dominoes.

The Academy also announced other changes. The group had already decided this past April, after movie theaters had shuttered due to public health concerns, to temporarily allow movies released straight to streaming services to be eligible for the awards. (This provision is temporary and will be lifted at a yet-to-be determined date; the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which gives out the Golden Globes, made a similar decision.) This means that films such as Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, which premiered on Netflix on June 12, are eligible; in the past, nearly all films had to play in a theater in New York and Los Angeles for a minimum run of one week to qualify for consideration.

But in the June 15 announcement, the Academy also decided to extend the release window for all movies by about eight weeks. Normally, films must be released by December 31 of the previous year to qualify for the Oscars. But for the 2021 ceremony, films must be released by February 28, 2021, to qualify. (Until the Academy decides to reinstitute the theatrical distribution restriction, those movies could be released on streaming platforms or in theaters, or, likely, some combination of both.)

Other pieces of the Oscar calendar have moved, based on these decisions . Short lists of potential nominees in certain categories (including Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature) will be announced on February 9 — which, incidentally, is the one-year anniversary of the 2020 Oscars ceremony, even though it feels like it’s been a century and a half. (Special committees draw up a “shortlist” in the documentary and international feature film categories, on which the broader membership votes to determine which five movies will advance to nominee status.) Then, the nominations will be announced on March 15, rather than in January.

The new dates for the 2021 Oscars are mostly good for the people who already benefit from the Oscars

For the people who run arduous, expensive Oscar campaigns, this is likely good news. 2020 looks catastrophic for the usual awards cycle, which begins in May at the Cannes Film Festival (first delayed, then canceled for this year) and ends after a battery of fall festivals in Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York and a flurry of year-end releases designed to set films up for favor with Academy voters. Filmmakers and actors whose films are in serious contention for awards spend the time between the December 31 deadline and the Oscars (normally a period of about six to eight weeks) furiously shaking hands, attending luncheons and Q&As, and trying to get people to watch and, more importantly, cast votes for their film.

The National Board Of Review Annual Awards Gala - Inside
Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, and Bruce Springsteen at the National Board of Review Annual Awards Gala in January 2020 — one stop on the long Oscar campaign road.
Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for National Board of Review

This year, however, everything is in a state of chaos. The fall festivals are still planning to run, with various modifications; the Telluride Film Festival, for instance, recently announced that the September festival will begin a day earlier to reduce crowding and spread out the events. The organizers of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) have talked about implementing social distancing measures and reducing their film slate. Outdoor screenings have been discussed as part of some of the festivals, reducing the risk of virus transmission. TIFF and festivals like Venice also plan to host official selections from the canceled Cannes Film Festival (where last year’s Oscar winners Parasite and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood premiered).

These festivals are important to the awards season largely because they can “launch” a movie’s campaign, much like a politician kicking off a political campaign with a showy event and announcement. They generate early buzz for a performance or a screenplay. They get the ball rolling.

But the reduced and confusing festival circumstances for the fall make planning an Oscar campaign (which can cost millions of dollars) difficult — especially since nobody really knows whether those festivals will be allowed to go forward, particularly if there’s a resurgence of the virus. (The SXSW Festival, which was slated for mid-March, was still talking about moving forward until it was effectively canceled by decree of the City of Austin just a week before its start date.)

Of course, an effective treatment or vaccine could emerge, and some festivals could move forward as usual. Nobody knows! In 2020, it feels like most anything could happen. (And in 2021, too; should nothing else change, the 2021 Oscars will take place three full months after the conclusion of Sundance 2021, and barely three weeks before everyone in the business migrates to the French Riviera so Cannes 2021 can begin. My head is spinning, and I don’t even run a movie studio.)

So for studios who plan and budget for those campaigns — and those who were planning to release awards contenders outside of the festival circuit (such as last year’s 1917) — the Academy’s announcement has bought them some time and given them some breathing room to figure out what to do. The delay and the extended eligibility window also means that some films that may in the past have waited until fall 2021 to release, with high hopes for awards glory in a (possibly) more “normal” awards year, now may try to sneak in under the wire after all.

Studios that are considering releasing their films digitally may decide to wait it out a little longer and see if they can land a theatrical release slot while remaining in awards contention after all — something that high-budget movies, many of which show up in the award season, depend upon.

The move will also undoubtedly have a cascading effect on the rest of the awards-giving bodies, from guilds like the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild to critics’ groups, all of which typically look to the Academy when formulating their own eligibility rules. I’m a member of two voting bodies — the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics — and I’m expecting we’ll be having some discussions soon to determine whether we also will extend our eligibility windows. (Indeed, within hours of the Academy’s announcement, the BAFTAs — the Oscars’ British equivalent — were delayed until April 11.)

The Academy shouldn’t be reinventing the eligibility calendar

Is any of this schedule shifting a good thing? That’s impossible to answer definitively. The best we can say is that it could be a good thing for the movie business. Or, in two months, it may turn out that we’re back to exactly where we started: film festivals are still up in the air, campaigns are impossible to plan, the Oscars will take place on a giant Zoom webinar in April, and the Academy will take a massive hit to its income. Or some combination of public health shifts, the delay, and sheer luck may buy the industry enough time to get back on its feet and figure out how to have a semi-normal awards season.

But as an industry observer and, more importantly, a critic, I find the Academy’s decision both frustrating and revealing. I understand the desire to enable those who want their movies to show on the big screen to delay release until they can do so while still being eligible for this year’s awards. It makes sense to not encourage a rush back to theaters, for public health reasons. (Most Academy members, a sizable number of whom are older, watch the films via link or disc, anyway.)

ABC’s Coverage Of The 92nd Annual Academy Awards - Red Carpet
Brad Pitt on the red carpet at the 2020 Oscars in February. He won Best Actor for his role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Getty Images

I understand keenly the frustration of the hamster wheel that everyone finds themselves in right now: trying to move forward, to keep the thousands of people who earn a living in the industry employed as best they can, and to prepare for a recovery as soon as it’s possible, yet having no idea when that will be possible. On the other hand, the Academy’s decision also crystallizes what people have long accused the Oscars, and Hollywood more broadly, of being: elitists who rig the system for the favored movies, the ones from known and celebrated directors and star talent, and ignore the rest.

Because there have been a lot of good movies already this year, and there could be more. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods would be in awards conversations in any year. But a handful of skillfully crafted indies have made their way into the world, either through theatrical release earlier in the year or via digital distribution: The Assistant; First Cow; Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always; Shirley; The Painter and the Thief; and more.

In the absence of flashy blockbusters for people to talk about, I’ve been hearing from people who’ve watched films like The Platform and Crip Camp and The Vast of Night and been surprised in some cases by how much they loved them. The closure of theaters, as frustrating and financially precarious as it is, has had the unintended and welcome side effect of spotlighting movies that otherwise would have gotten swallowed up in the din, or only played in a few cities.

If you haven’t heard of any of these movies above — well, that’s my point. Frequently the movie chatter, to everyone except those on the inside of the industry, boils down to two categories: blockbusters and Oscar movies. Occasionally an unconventional movie busts through to become a sensation, like Parasite. But in general, it’s either the built-in marketing of a franchise film that brings a movie to the average audience member’s attention, or it’s the imprimatur of the Oscars that tells you this movie is “important” in some way.

And so, in a perfect world, the best thing the Oscars can do is help people discover movies they otherwise might have missed.

Spike Lee and the core cast of Da 5 Bloods stand with their fists upraised.
Spike Lee and the cast of Da 5 Bloods stand with their fists upraised.
David Lee/Netflix

By moving the eligibility window and effectively declaring that time has been extended and the year 2020 is now 14 months long (terrifying!), the Academy is suggesting that some movies “deserve” a shot at this year’s Oscars rather than competing next year, and that the smaller films with less marketing capital and name recognition that have already come out this year so far, or might come out before the year’s end, simply don’t.

Yes, keeping the cutoff at December 31 would make for a very strange Oscars in 2021, no matter when they took place. You might find a slate of Best Picture nominees directed by people you’ve never heard of (many of whom, interestingly enough, are women), or performances in films that didn’t have much of a budget behind them.

But wouldn’t that be good, for a change? People are always talking about how to shake up the Oscars, to make them be more about the movies than the awards campaigns. The Academy itself has recently announced sweeping changes in future years that will include a “diversity requirement” (the details of which are still being worked out) for potential nominees. The strange movie (and everything else) year of 2020 could be just the kick in the pants that the Oscars need to seem alive, reflective of what’s truly happening in the industry, and relevant once again.

The extended eligibility window decision feels more motivated by profit and prestige than anything. It suggests that the “right” movies need a way to get nominated, rather than just drawing from the pool of movies that actually come out in 2020.

Dispensing with the notion that some movies “deserve” nominations, and thus should have the lines redrawn for them, would be a bold move for a famously risk-averse industry. But maybe the courage to be bold would have been the silver lining in all of this pandemic mess.

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