Illustrated by Chris Morris
A version of this story first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
The Oscars have been delayed and disrupted before, but there has never been an awards season like the one that will end on April 25 at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Starting soon after last year’s Oscars on Feb. 9, 2020, the world changed, first with a global pandemic and then with a long-delayed reckoning with institutional racism.
The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and 2021 caused the deaths of more than 500,000 people in the United States and close to 3 million around the world and led to significant cultural and economic turmoil. It also had a profound impact on the entertainment industry and the business of awards — changing the way films are distributed, hastening a move from theaters to streaming, and forcing awards groups to redefine what constitutes a motion picture and reconsider how to hand out awards without bringing people together.
It turned this year’s awards season into the strangest, most tumultuous one ever and left us with huge questions about when Hollywood would return to normal if it ever really would.
Here’s how it played out.
By the time the Sundance Film Festival begins on January 23, many people have heard about a virus that is spreading in China, with the first confirmation of a case in the U.S. coming two days before the festival begins. But the crowds in Park City aren’t particularly concerned. “Minari” and “Promising Young Woman” premiere to good notices — but with only seven Sundance films going on to Best Picture nominations over the past decade, nobody is thinking that far ahead.
The Academy Awards go on as scheduled on February 9 and draw the lowest ratings in history.
In-person shows continue to take place and theaters remain open. At the end of the month, a stormy Cesar Awards in Paris ends with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” director Céline Sciamma and actor Adèle Haenel leaving the theater when Roman Polanski wins the best-director award, with Haenel shouting “Bravo, pedophilia!” on her way through the lobby.
The virus slams into Hollywood. On March 6, the South by Southwest festival is canceled on orders from the city of Austin, Texas. Before theaters close, Pixar’s “Onward” scores the final big opening weekend of the year with $40 million. But the release of the James Bond movie “No Time to Die” is delayed from April to November over coronavirus concerns, and Sony Pictures closes its offices in London, Paris and Gdynia, Poland out of what it says is “an abundance of caution.”
On March 11, things get real: Tom Hanks, who is filming in Australia, announces that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, have contracted the virus. In short order, sporting events are suspended, theme parks close, Broadway theaters go dark and TV networks cancel their upfront presentations. The Tribeca Film Festival is postponed, then the Cannes Film Festival.
In mid-March, the mayors of Los Angeles and New York City announce that all theaters in those cities must close. AMC and Regal become the first cinema chains to shut down their theaters nationwide. U.S. box-office figures fall to their lowest level in more than 20 years.
Film Independent announces that films selected by SXSW, Tribeca and other festivals will still qualify for Spirit Awards even though those festivals aren’t taking place. The Golden Globes allow films that have lost their theatrical releases to still qualify. The Television Academy delays Emmy voting and bans all in-person “for your consideration” events. The Tony Awards are delayed indefinitely.
Universal makes “Trolls World Tour” available for digital rental on the day of its theatrical release, March 20, while Disney+ drops “Frozen 2” onto the service three months ahead of schedule.
Studios and exhibitors lay off or furlough thousands of workers, and production essentially stops.
Nielsen reports a major spike in television viewing. The Netflix series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” becomes the first pandemic sensation.
One by one, virtually all spring and early summer films are delayed. Disney pulls “Artemis Fowl” off its release schedule and schedules a Disney+ premiere instead. Universal decides to skip theaters and take Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island” straight to VOD, and Warner Bros. does the same with its animated film “Scoob!” WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey says the company is “rethinking our theatrical model.”
At the end of the month, the Motion Picture Academy bows to the inevitable and changes Oscar rules to allow films that premiere on streaming or VOD to qualify for Oscars for this year only.
Following the decision to allow streaming premieres to qualify for the Oscars, the Television Academy issues a reminder that any Oscar-nominated streaming films will be disqualified from Emmy consideration.
More films, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” and the Tom Hanks movie “Greyhound,” move from theatrical to digital releases. Cannes admits a physical festival is impossible but says it’ll release a list of “Cannes 2020” films that it would have shown if it could. The Oscars put Cannes on a list of festivals that can be used to qualify documentaries, even if those festivals don’t happen; the new rules instantly qualify more than 90 nonfiction films. The Producers Guild and Directors Guild also change their rules to allow streaming releases to qualify for film awards.
On May 25, George Floyd is killed when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneels on his neck for more than eight minutes after a store clerk claims that Floyd passed a counterfeit $20 bill. #BlackLivesMatter protests consume the U.S. and spread around the world, while increased scrutiny turns to Black representation in Hollywood.
The Academy postpones the 93rd Oscars from Feb. 28 to April 25, 2021, the latest date the show has been held since a November show in 1932. It also extends the eligibility period from Dec. 31, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021, giving the 2020 Oscars a 14-month year. BAFTA and the Spirit Awards immediately adjust their own dates, and in subsequent weeks so do all other awards shows.
The Academy also invites more than 800 new members, meeting the goals it set during the #OscarsSoWhite protests in 2016 to double the number of female and nonwhite members by 2020. At the same time, a task force headed by producer DeVon Franklin works on what it says will be “new representation and inclusion standards for Oscar eligibility.”
After holding onto its July 17 release date for months, Warner Bros. finally bumps the release of “Tenet,” the Christopher Nolan movie that some have envisioned as the blockbuster that will restart the theatrical experience, to July 31. A couple of weeks later, it moves the film to August 12.
The Toronto International Film Festival unveils a smaller lineup of films than usual and says the festival will involve a combination of drive-in, virtual and socially distanced screenings and events in its usual early-September time slot.
California film production, which fell by 97% in the second quarter, rises to about one-third of normal over the summer under strict new guidelines.
Netflix picks up Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” from Paramount, which could not guarantee that it would be able to give a theatrical release before the November U.S. presidential election to the drama about anti-government protests in 1968.
The Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals announce that they will work together to showcase films rather than competing with each other for premieres. Less than a week later, Telluride cancels its festival but says it will release the list of films it would have shown.
Netflix sets a new record with 160 Emmy nominations.
“Tenet” is delayed again.
A federal judge throws out rules that have prevented film studios from owning theater chains for the past 71 years. Given the precarious state of theatrical exhibition, no studios rush to buy theaters.
The Emmys decide to present awards in five separate, virtual Creative Arts ceremonies, followed by the Primetime Emmys telecast.
“Tenet” opens overseas, earns $53 million in its first weekend and leaves most reviewers puzzled. Back in the USA, theaters begin to reopen and the brutal Russell Crowe thriller “Unhinged” becomes the first big(ish)-budget release, opening to a paltry $5 million and eventually earning $20 million.
Less than three months after appearing in “Da 5 Bloods” and two months before the release of his starring role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Chadwick Boseman dies of colon cancer after keeping his diagnosis secret.
By the end of the month, about half the theaters in the U.S. have reopened.
The pandemic drags on, but on Sept. 4, “Tenet” becomes the first mega-budget, major-studio film to open theatrically. The film opens to just $9.3 million, and goes on to gross $57 million in the U.S. (a fraction of Nolan’s usual business). The same day, “Mulan” is made available on Disney+ for an extra charge of $30 on top of the subscription price.
The Venice and Toronto Film Festivals take place in scaled-down versions, with Venice happening in person and Toronto mixing outdoor and distanced indoor screenings with a virtual screening room for the industry and press. Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” premieres at both festivals simultaneously, as well as in a Los Angeles drive-in screening sponsored by Telluride. It then wins the jury prize in Venice and the audience award in Toronto, becoming the default Oscar front runner.
“One Night in Miami,” “The Father” and “Pieces of a Woman” are among the other festival premieres, although Netflix opts to keep its entire slate — “Chicago 7,” “Mank,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and several others — off the festival circuit.
The Academy announces new inclusion and diversity standards for Best Picture eligibility. Patterned after standards used by BAFTA and the British Film Institute, they will require films to submit demographic data and to meet certain standards in two of four different areas: onscreen representation, themes and narratives; creative leadership and project team; industry access and opportunities; and audience development. Some people criticize the standards for being too stringent, while others say they’re not strict enough.
On Sept. 20, the Emmys take place in a largely virtual format, with messengers in hazmat suits delivering awards to the winners. For the first time ever, the majority of acting winners are Black. The show is the lowest-rated Emmys ever.
BAFTA changes its voting rules to increase the diversity of its nominations. The Spirit Awards add television categories.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7” premieres on Netflix to favorable reviews around the same time that Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake is pushed into 2021.
The New York Film Festival takes place largely virtually, though with drive-in showings in New York’s five boroughs, and draws a record 70,000 viewers.
The James Bond movie “No Time to Die” is pushed from November to 2021. After the announcement is made, Regal Cinemas says that it will close 543 theaters in the U.S. that had previously reopened, citing the lack of major releases.
The Academy’s Board of Governors loosens the rules for Oscar eligibility again, and recognizes drive-ins as commercial theaters for the purposes of Oscar qualifying.
The AFI Fest takes place virtually and showcases far fewer Oscar-contending films than usual for the Hollywood crowd.
AMC begins offering private movie theater rentals starting at $99 for up to 20 people.
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” one of many movies that pushed to finish before the U.S. presidential election, premieres on Amazon Prime on Oct. 23. Most of the attention goes to a scene in which young Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, playing the daughter of Sacha Baron Cohen’s character, finds herself in a room with Rudy Giuliani, who flirts with her and then sticks his hands down his pants (or tucks in his shirt, depending on whom you believe).
The following week, David Fincher’s “Mank” has its first virtual screenings, and immediately leaps near the top of many Oscar prediction lists, particularly in the below-the-line categories.
Joe Biden is declared winner of the U.S. presidential election over Donald Trump. Hollywood, for the most part, rejoices.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” screens and results in huge Oscar buzz for Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis.
By the middle of the month, more than 80 films have paid $12,500 to be in the Academy Screening Room, meaning that online showcase for Best Picture contenders has earned the Academy more than $1 million.
Theatrical distribution on any kind of large scale remains almost impossible. After months of saying that she will not accept a streaming premiere for her film “Wonder Woman 1984,” director Patty Jenkins goes along with Warner Bros.’ plan to debut the film on HBO Max on Christmas Day. “At some point you have to choose to share any love and joy you have to give, over everything else,” she says.
With coronavirus cases surging and the lame-duck president showing little interest in taking steps to stop it, more theaters close. Sundance Film Festival announces that its 2021 edition will be largely virtual but will also include drive-in or socially distanced events in cities around the country.
Warner Bros. reveals plans to release its entire 2021 slate of films — 17 movies, including “The Suicide Squad” and “Matrix 4” — simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max. Christopher Nolan says he is in “disbelief” over the hugely controversial move. Theatrical movies “are being used as a loss leader for the streaming service…without any consultation,” he says.
Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher and Steven Soderbergh are named producers of the 93rd Academy Awards. In a statement, they describe themselves as “thrilled and terrified in equal measure.”
“Another Round” sweeps the European Film Awards, which take place in a largely virtual format.
On December 18, the New York Film Critics Circle, who’ve declined to stretch the eligibility year into 2021 the way most awards bodies did, names Kelly Reichardt’s austere indie “First Cow” the year’s best movie. Two days later, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association says that 2020’s best film is Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe,” which is actually five different made-for-television movies that are running on Amazon and BBC and have been entered for awards consideration as a limited series, not movies.
Universal opens Paul Greengrass’s “News of the World” in theaters on Christmas Day. “There’s a cost to that — creatively to me, financially to the studio,” Greengrass says of releasing the film when many theaters aren’t open. “But as an expression of faith in our business, faith in the healing power of the movies, I think that what we gain is beyond measure.” The film grosses just $12.6 million, though it does receive four Oscar nominations.
“Wonder Woman 1984” also opens in select theaters in addition to its HBOMax release, earning $16.7 million in the largest opening weekend since the pandemic began. Almost $2 million of that total comes from fans booking private screenings for themselves and their friends.
The Recording Academy moves the Grammy Awards, which were scheduled to take place in late January, to March 14. This does not please SAG-AFTRA, since the Screen Actors Guild Awards have been scheduled for March 14 for months. SAG moves its show to Easter Sunday, April 4.
The National Society of Film Critics, who like other influential critics’ groups have stuck to the calendar-year eligibility, name “Nomadland” the best film of 2020. Three days later, that film also wins the Gotham Award.
A remarkable 238 films qualify in the Oscars Best Documentary Feature category, shattering the previous record of 170 and showing just how dramatically the new qualifying rules expanded the doc field.
The Oscars’ Best International Feature Film race sets a record of its own with 93 contenders. Because of concerns about the security of Zoom meetings, the Academy eliminates the executive committee “saves” and expands the shortlist from 10 to 15 films.
On Jan. 20, Joe Biden is inaugurated and vows to vaccinate 100 million Americans in his first 100 days in office. MGM nonetheless moves “No Time to Die” again, changing its release date from April to October over fears that vaccinations will not happen quickly enough. Other studios follow suit with their spring releases.
Cannes is postponed until July, though a subsequent European surge makes even that date seem questionable.
The Sundance Film Festival takes place as a largely virtual event. Because of the extended Oscar eligibility date, a handful of films use Sundance as a launching pad for awards campaigns, foremost among them Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
By the end of the month, more than 200 movies are in the Academy Screening room, which means the Academy has made $2.5 million on the platform. “Tenet” is not one of those movies.
It starts to finally feel like awards season as Golden Globe and SAG nominations are announced on Feb. 3 and 4, respectively. While the Globes slate includes some landmarks, including three women in the Best Director category for the first time ever, it almost completely ignores Black-led films in the best-picture categories. Netflix completely dominates, with 35% of the nominations. SAG, meanwhile, gives a little boost to “Minari” by nominating it for the ensemble award, bypassing “Nomadland” (a film with mostly nonprofessional actors) in that category.
The Oscars announce shortlists in nine categories. Most of them go as expected, though the international category includes a couple of surprises, Tunisia’s “The Man Who Sold His Skin” and Hong Kong’s “Better Days.”
The Academy also announces that 366 films have qualified for Best Picture, the largest number in 50 years.
“Mank” and “Minari” lead the Critics Choice Awards nominations while “The Trial of the Chicago 7” leads the BAFTA longlists. But the stream of nominations feels half-hearted, and Golden Globes weekend at the end of the month is missing its usual stream of events: No AFI Awards lunch, no Spirit Awards Nominees Brunch, no BAFTA tea party. Throw in no in-person screenings with Q&As and receptions, no junkets at the Four Seasons and opportunities for voters to chat and lobby for their favorites, and it’s an awards season without a real means for generating buzz.
On Feb. 28, the Golden Globes hold a ceremony with in-person presenters but virtual acceptance speeches. The widely derided show is the lowest-rated Globes ever, though the ratings and the winners (“Nomadland” and “Borat”) are overshadowed by an L.A. Times story detailing the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s ethical lapses and its lack of a single Black member.
“Nomadland” wins the Critics Choice Awards and the Scripter Award.
AMC Theatres announces that it lost $4.6 billion in 2020 and then says its theaters will reopen in Los Angeles on March 19. New York is also cleared to reopen.
Oscar nominations are announced on March 15, with a record number of nonwhite acting nominees and the first-ever Best Director lineup that contains more than one woman. The Academy cancels the Oscar Nominees Luncheon and the Governors Ball and says the Oscars will take place at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, with only nominees, presenters and one guest each in attendance.
Later that same day, 104 top Hollywood PR agencies sign a letter saying they will withhold their clients from HFPA press conferences and events until the organization makes significant changes. The HFPA promises it will, beginning by admitting at least 13 Black members to bring the total membership to above 100.
Later in the week, the Oscar show producers send an email to all the nominees promising a safe, in-person show. They also insist that nominees who chose not to attend will not be able to participate via Zoom or video links. Less than a week later, they add European hubs for nominees who can’t travel.
The Writers Guild Awards take place on March 21 and the Producers Guild Awards on March 24; “Borat” and “Promising Young Woman” win at the former show, “Nomadland” at the latter. Both ceremonies are virtual, with all the nominees pre-taping acceptance speeches in case they win. Those speeches are understandably short on excitement or giddiness, though the shows are a lot more streamlined and quicker than usual.
“Tenet” finally shows up in the Academy Screening Room.
The pre-taped SAG Awards give their film awards to Chadwick Boseman, Carey Mulligan, Daniel Kaluuya, Yuh-Jung Youn and the cast of “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” That last film gets a little boost at a time when everybody’s trying to figure out if anything can rally to beat “Nomadland” by the time this loooong season ends.
A week after the SAG Awards, the Directors Guild Awards and BAFTA’s EE British Academy Film Awards take place, both staged in in-person/virtual hybrids. “Nomadland” quickly seizes back any momentum it may have lost at SAG, winning the top prize at both shows.
More movie theaters open… but just as Los Angeles is approved to increase the attendance in its theaters to 50%, Pacific Theatres announces that it will not reopen its ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theatres locations. The news that the showcase Hollywood ArcLight location would close prompted an outpouring of cinephile anguish on Twitter from Barry Jenkins, John Chu, Adam McKay, Rian Johnson, Lulu Wang and others.
More awards shows take place virtually. The Oscars continue to try to figure out what they can do safely.
And everybody wonders if Emmy season, which will be well underway by the time the Oscars take place, will look more normal.