“It’s an abrupt change that’s catching everybody by surprise,” producer Cheryl Boone Isaacs says
As Hollywood’s pandemic-delayed awards season begins lurching into action with virtual screenings and events, movie business insiders say one key element is missing:
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Without the traditional round of events, parties, luncheons, private screenings and high-profile premieres, Academy voters, consultants and filmmakers say the usual Oscar chatter — an important element in gaining momentum for films and the Oscar telecast — has all but disappeared.
“There’s not that excitement, where you go to a screening and you are sitting there and everybody’s got a buzz going on,” says one film industry source. “There’s no buzz, period.”
Insiders say the Oscar conversation that usually begins to heat up at December L.A. holiday parties and screenings didn’t happen, as the usual round of events were canceled to avoid having a traditional celebration turn into a super-spreader.
Virtual events and panel discussions can’t really fill the void, said director Susanne Bier, who is one of the co-chairs of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ International Feature Film Award Executive Committee.
“The conversation stops much sooner than it would in the lobby with a glass of wine after a movie,” she said.
For some with no skin in the awards game, the buzz is just a much-missed part of Awards season fun. However, for filmmakers hoping for attention, as well as those in the Oscar campaign business, losing the live-event buzz to COVID-19 means forgoing an important promotional tool.
“People are always saying to me, I don’t understand why they spend $250,000 on a premiere on Hollywood Boulevard. Well, it’s because you get $500,000 worth of free publicity,” said one Oscar consultant. “That’s not happening now.”
And, the consultant added, many Academy voters do not watch every film in their voting category because the lists are so long.
“No one watches them all, so we rely to some degree on media, and to some degree on movie stars, the filmmaker, the subject and the ratings, but the thing we probably rely on most that goes unstated is the word of mouth from our friends, people we trust,” he said. “At (live events), you see people that you have known for decades.”
He added that the screenings were a particularly good connector for retired Academy voters, who may be less digitally connected than their younger counterparts.
“Look at all the retired actors and actresses that go to these things,” he pointed out.
Filmmaker, director and actor Denzel Whitaker, who had roles in “Black Panther” and 2020’s urban crime drama “Cut Throat City” said press screenings and getting people to talk about a film is key.
“The awards season is filled with campaigning just as much as a presidential election,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong — Zoom has done a wonderful job, and these online conferences are cool. But you don’t have that human interaction. You can’t share the same spirit.”
Producer Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who stepped down as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2017, said that in past years she would have been hearing Oscar buzz as early as October, but the pandemic changed the game. However, she and others acknowledge that with the Academy Awards having been pushed two months from Feb. 28 to April 25, the buzz still has a chance to gain steam through digital means.
“We love this part of our industry; it’s a time to celebrate fabulous storytelling and filmmakers,” Isaacs told TheWrap. “It’s still there, but it’s an abrupt change that’s catching everybody by surprise. The conversations start when you run into people all the time at screenings, when you are out and about. That has to be done in a different way.”
Isaacs said she has begun asking friends and colleagues what they have seen and liked, rather than relying on pre-COVID live conversation to decide what to sample, as well as paying more attention to awards journalists as they begin to create their “best” lists. Others say they have set up virtual group meetings to discuss movies they’ve consumed online.
Producer Christine La Monte, an active international and documentary category voter for years, said that a group of regular voters in the category has replaced meeting at screenings for a regular Zoom to socialize and talk about movies they have seen and loved.
“The camaraderie and love of film that we shared is what I miss the most, in addition to the ongoing discussion about film — the art, the craftsmanship, the process, the inspiration, all that and more,” she said. And, she added, “I so miss the big screen and getting lost in that cave with my tribe, but I know it will be back. I’m grateful in the meantime for big home screens and surround sound.”
Dana Asher Levine, a stylist for many female TV and film executives, including TV producer Shonda Rhimes and Chairman of Disney Television Studios and ABC Entertainment Dana Walden, said “there’s definitely no Oscar buzz because we’re watching movies as we want to, not as we have to.”
Levine is not invested in what production wins or loses in the awards game, but for the sake of her business hopes her clients don’t get too used to watching movies at home during the pandemic.
“My people are unfortunately so happy to be in their pajamas, because all these years they’ve gone from one meeting to the next meeting to the next event,” she lamented. “They’re actually enjoying this.”
Steve Pond contributed to this report.