The Oscar Season’s Planned Comeback Is Already in Danger Due to Omicron Surge

As one January awards event after another is postponed or canceled, almost everybody except the Golden Globes could end up suffering

Masks at screening
Masked viewers at an awards screening of "The Hand of God" (Getty Images)

The COVID-19 variant Omicron is on the verge of making a virtual mess of what was supposed to be a return to a vibrant, in-person awards season.

And in a season designed to crown a lot of winners, it could turn almost everybody into losers – except, maybe, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, whose humiliation won’t be as public or as humiliating as it was supposed to be.   

The variant hit with full force in a week when voters were preparing for holiday movie-watching, and a week when the Academy released a barrage of shortlists that created lots of interesting storylines for this awards season.

But nobody’s paying attention to that, because this is what happened in the course of just three days:

  • The Palm Springs International Film Festival canceled its annual awards gala, which was set for Jan. 6 and would have brought Nicole Kidman, Lady Gaga, Penélope Cruz, Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Kristen Stewart and the casts of “Belfast” and “King Richard,” among others, to an event that gives them visibility coming out of the holidays and into a heavy month of voting.
  • The American Film Institute postponed its annual AFI luncheon, which would have saluted the top 10 films and TV shows of the year on the day after the Palm Springs gala.
  • BAFTA Los Angeles followed suit and delayed its annual tea party, which would have gathered contenders from all the top films at a collegial affair in Beverly Hills the day after AFI.
  • The Academy postponed its annual Governors Awards, the biggest event of phase-one campaigning, from Jan. 15 to an unspecified date.
  • The Critics Choice Association, after initially saying that it was going ahead with plans for its Jan. 9 show, bowed to the inevitable and postponed its ceremony as well. So did the Cinema Eye Honors, which delayed its Jan. 13 New York event celebrating nonfiction filmmaking, and the National Board of Review, which was scheduled to hold its ceremony on Jan. 11.
  • And the Sundance Film Festival stuck with its Jan. 20-30 dates but announced that it would limit capacity and prohibit eating in its theaters and event venues, and also require full vaccination plus booster shots for all attendees.

As those dominoes all fell between Monday and Wednesday, they raised questions about in-person screenings, events and awards shows in February and beyond – and they brought to mind the drawn-out and bizarre awards season of early 2021, when only the Grammys seemed to make the necessary adjustments to hold a satisfying event.

2022 was supposed to be the year when in-person shows were possible and excitement might return to awards season, boosting ratings that in every case had hit record lows. But the pandemic seems to have other plans: Viewers haven’t been returning to theaters for worthy awards movies like “West Side Story” (or anything else except “Spider-Man: No Way Home”), and voting groups are now facing a choice between delaying their events until Omicron dies down (late January? Sometime in February?) or going back to the virtual formats that have led to disastrous ratings and bored viewers.

The group that’s been hit the hardest by this might be the Critics Choice Association. The organization of more than 500 film and television journalists was hoping that this would be the year it could establish the Critics Choice Awards as a more credible alternative to the Golden Globes, which has been taken off the air while the Hollywood Foreign Press Association works to become more diverse and less ethically challenged.

The HFPA was going ahead with plans for a non-televised Globes show on Jan. 9 and was hoping that talent would participate, while the CCA had booked a hotel ballroom close to the Globes’ old venue and was expecting studios to host Critics Choice afterparties in the same hotel in place of their usual post-Globes shindigs.

Now the HFPA has the option of holding a quiet, non-televised ceremony with a built-in excuse for why no stars are present, while the CCA will have to find a new date when they can try to grab some momentum.

Meanwhile, the Oscar shortlists have given us some interesting storylines for the next month of awards season:  Can “Flee” become the third movie to be nominated for Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature Film, and the first to be nominated in those two categories plus Best Animated Feature? Can “Drive My Car” use its best-film awards from the New York and Los Angeles film critics to push it to a win in the international category, or get into other categories, including Best Adapted Screenplay and maybe even Best Picture? Can “Summer of Soul” continue its magical run that began when it won audience and jury awards at Sundance 2021, or will it run into the doc category’s frontrunner curse that has bedeviled films from “Hoop Dreams” to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”  

But at the moment, it’s hard to care about those storylines, because there are bigger questions looming: Are we looking at another masked, distanced, virtual awards season? And would another season like that make the whole idea of giving out awards seem sillier and more frivolous than ever?

At this point, informed opinions on Omicron suggest that it could peak in the next two or three weeks and then die down, or it might last into February before declining. Maybe things will abate soon enough to help save the March 27 Oscars ceremony, but it’s hard to be optimistic two years into COVID. And while the toll it takes on awards season is hardly as significant as its cost in other areas, the last week suggests that we could be in for yet another seriously disrupted season at a time when Hollywood is desperate for a normal one.