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12 Lessons From a Long and Broken Awards Season

From virtual screenings to the HFPA’s implosion to messing with the order of the Oscars show, here’s what we learned in the longest season ever

AWARDS BEAT

This awards season began in confusion more than a year ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic closed theaters, halted productions and caused rule changes that would allow movies that never saw the inside of a theater to qualify for film awards.

And it ended in confusion on a small stage at Union Station, when an award that most people thought would go to the late Chadwick Boseman went instead to Anthony Hopkins, who was asleep in Wales at the time, bringing the 93rd Academy Awards (and the longest awards season ever) to a crushingly anti-climactic end.

In between, let’s be frank, it was pretty much a mess. That’s not to denigrate the undeniably worthy movies that won awards or the many people who did their best to try to figure out how to put on awards shows during a pandemic. But shows were bad, the season was endless and it was hard to care given the distractions of real life — and the distractions of the entertainment industry, be it the bullying of Scott Rudin or the corruption and blinkered outlook of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

I called it “the worst awards season ever” a couple of days before the Oscar ceremony, and that ceremony — intimate, to be sure, but also talky and not very entertaining, with a colossal miscalculation at the end — did nothing to change my assessment. But we may have learned some lessons over the last eight months, which felt a lot longer than that.

Awards screening has moved online …
Instead of a calendar full of film festivals, premieres and screenings, this season was built around virtual moviegoing: festivals that streamed their films, virtual premieres and platforms like the Academy Screening Room, where most (but not all) of the movies competing for awards were available for voters. The festivals and screenings will be back, but it seems clear that the center of awards voting will remain virtual — particularly for the Academy, which has been adding hundreds of new members who live outside the United States every year.    

… but the theatrical experience needs to be promoted.
One of the most disappointing things about the Oscar show was how little it did to support theaters in a time of crisis and push the idea of filmgoing as a communal activity. Sure, assorted presenters talked about their childhood experiences in movie theaters, but it wasn’t until “Nomadland” won Best Picture that Frances McDormand delivered a full-throated endorsement of the theatrical experience. You’d think that a show whose motto was “bring your movie love” would have understood the rooms in which that love is born and flourishes and how much those rooms need to be supported at this point.

(Now, let’s see if the Academy will go back to its traditional rules requiring films to have a theatrical release in order to qualify for the Oscars, or if they’ll retain the 2020 rule making streaming-only movies eligible as long as they pay $12,500 for a spot in the Academy Screening Room. That rule change brought in more than $2.5 million, but it’s a scary one to retain.)

“Should Netflix be in the Oscar race?” is no longer a question …
It wasn’t that long ago that there was talk of some Academy board members proposing new rules that would require lengthy theatrical runs prior to a film’s streaming debut — rules that would, in effect, make Netflix films ineligible for Oscars. But with windows shrinking and Netflix backing filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Alfonso Cuaron and David Fincher, nobody’s looking to disqualify the company that led in nominations with 36 and in wins with seven.

…  but “Can Netflix win the big one?” still is a conversation.
Netflix’s seven wins this year came in these categories: cinematography, makeup and hairstyling, costume design, production design, documentary feature, live-action short and animated short. That’s typical of a company that, since 2018, has received five nominations for Best Picture, three for Best Director, 17 for acting and eight for screenwriting, but has gone 2-for-33 in those categories, winning only one directing award (Cuaron for “Roma”) and one acting prize (Laura Dern for “Marriage Story”).

Netflix gets close, and at times it’s had films that have flirted with being front runners: “Roma,” “The Irishman,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” But it hasn’t won the big awards, and that’s the challenge it now faces.  

Awards shows don’t really work virtually …
The Grammys were the most entertaining of all the awards shows forced into virtual or hybrid formats this year, but that’s probably because the Grammys are really a performance show that sprinkles about 10 awards through three-and-a-half hours of music. As for the film- and TV-oriented shows, those were mostly awkward and bad.

The SAG Awards had the right idea by turning their awards into a pre-taped one-hour show, but nothing could overcome the virtual format. And while the Oscars eliminated the Zoom acceptance speeches, they didn’t find an alternative that really worked. The longer the pandemic made in-person awards shows impossible, the more it felt as if groups should just announce a list of winners on Twitter or in a press release and leave it at that. (Or, in the case of the Golden Globes, the pandemic may have coincided with the industry sitting up and realizing that the show, and the group that gives it out, has no real reason to exist.)

…but Q&As and panels and the trappings of awards season do work virtually.
Other parts of the season, though, turned out to make sense on Zoom (or its competitors). Interviews may be better in person, but it’s certainly easier to do a string of them sitting at home instead of room-hopping at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Q&As that follow screenings are more personal when they’re live, but you can answer the same questions and reach a bigger audience if the Q&A is virtual, without having to travel. And panels of talent from different films are definitely easier when organizing them involves juggling time zones rather than working out travel plans.

In-person Q&As, interviews and panels will no doubt be back, but this season provided an alternative that is likely to remain a popular option even after the pandemic.

The Academy’s move to diversify its membership has been a success …
Since 2016, when two consecutive years of all-white acting nominees caused the Academy to launch a diversity initiative that doubled the number of female and non-white members and increased the number of voters from 6,300 to 9,300, Oscar nominations have been more diverse. The acting categories have averaged almost five non-white nominees per year, with seven wins in that time, including ones for Daniel Kaluuya and Yuh-Jung Youn on Sunday.  

In addition, the last three years have been the first-ever Black winners in the makeup and hairstyling, production design, costume design, animated feature and live-action short categories, along with the first woman of color to win Best Director and the first two directors of non-English films to win in that category.  

… but the voters still have notable blind spots.
Still, the biggest surprise at this year’s Oscar ceremony came when Chadwick Boseman, the prohibitive favorite in the Best Actor category, lost to Anthony Hopkins. That took place shortly after Viola Davis lost to Frances McDormand for Best Actress, making her the first person to twice win the Screen Actors Guild’s best actress award but then lose the Oscar. And those two outcomes, which turned a potential four wins for actors of color into two wins, came at the end of a year in which “Judas and the Black Messiah” was the only film about the Black experience to be nominated for Best Picture, even though “One Night in Miami,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Da 5 Bloods” were all nominated in other categories.    

  

It’s not a bad idea to rework and rethink the Oscars show …
Producers Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins drew the very difficult task of putting on an awards show during a pandemic and used it as an opportunity to make big changes in an old template. Their version of the Oscars did feel different, sometimes fresh and always intimate. It was very talky, and you could quarrel with their decision to move most of the entertainment into the pre-show, where you could find the song performances, film clips and comedy largely absent from the show itself. But some of it worked, and you have to give them credit for trying to shake up a show that could use some shaking up.

… but it is a bad idea to end with any award other than Best Picture.
One of the boldest moves was to present Best Picture before Best Actress and Best Actor, the first time since 1948 that any acting award had been presented after Best Picture. (Honorary and special awards had been presented last as late as the 1950s, and then again in 1972.) But the decision to make Best Actor the last award of the night, which was at least partly in anticipation of the big emotional moment that would come with Boseman’s posthumous win (and partly just to do the unexpected), backfired dramatically when the winner wasn’t Boseman, and wasn’t present.

When the show in 2017 ended in chaos and disarray as “La La Land” was mistakenly announced as Best Picture instead of “Moonlight,” the fault lay with sloppy accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers, not with the Academy or the show’s producers. But this time, the wound was self-inflicted and entirely preventable.

Almost everybody will get a do-over after the mess of this past year …
There’s no question that awards shows are in a perilous position at this point — with ratings dropping steadily even before the pandemic, and precipitously during it, it may well not make sense for networks to pay the kind of money they’ve been paying for these shows.

The good news is that people know the past year has been an anomaly and there was virtually nothing that could have been done to avoid the terrible ratings.   

… but “almost everybody” doesn’t include the HFPA (or Scott Rudin).
There’s no grace period for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, though. For them to have any chance of survival, they must come up with a thorough, exhaustive plan to address not only their lack of Black members but also their systemic “unprofessionalism (and) ethical impropriety,” in the words of a group of top PR firms; the Golden Globes may not exist next year if they can’t do that quickly, which will be difficult, considering that some of the people they hired to help them have already quit.

As for Scott Rudin, he’s probably set foot on his last awards-show stage.  

Are these all lessons learned? We’ll see.