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Can the Academy Reinvent the Oscars After This Bizarre Awards Season?

The singularity of the season makes this the most tantalizing Oscars in decades, and potentially one of the most important

AWARDS BEAT

At the end of the strangest, rockiest awards season ever, it's no surprise that the 93rd Academy Awards will be a very different Oscars show. The ceremony is (mostly) taking place in a train station, downtown Los Angeles' Union Station, instead of a theater; awards will be given out in front of the smallest in-person audience in about 90 years; the red carpet will be scaled back dramatically; and COVID-19 protocols will have an impact on just about everything that happens.

I can't help but think there's an element of "Let's just get this over with" to this year's Oscars, coming at the end of an interminable awards season that has lasted two months longer than usual. But the singularity of the season also makes this the most tantalizing Oscars in decades, and potentially one of the most important.

As Steven Soderbergh, who is producing the show with Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher, has pointed out, this is a year in which you can get away with experiments that would have been off the table in a normal year. After other awards bodies have produced a string of mostly ragged and awkward shows in virtual (or hybrid) formats with only limited success, nobody's expecting a perfect Oscar show. If it's relatively entertaining, great. If the no-Zoom rule prevents anybody from making an acceptance speech while their microphone is on mute, cool. If we never hear "Am I on?" from a remote presenter or winner, the show will be a success. If it's more than that, it could be a triumph.

(Or it could be a real mess, but I'm trying to be optimistic here.)

The stakes are also lower when it comes to ratings. There's no question that this telecast will get the worst ratings in Oscar history; the bar has been lowered so dramatically by every previous awards show that if the ratings don't fall by 50% from the Oscars' previous record low (which was set last year), it'll be seen as a sign of progress.

In that way, Soderbergh, Collins and Sher have a license to mess with an awards-show format that has undeniably gotten tired. And that seems to be what they're doing, although they've focused more on vague statements about how the show is going to "look like a movie" than on specifics of how they plan to achieve that.

The idea, at least, sounds intriguing. Other plans of the new team are more questionable: Moving the Best Original Song nominees into the pre-show in prerecorded performances, for instance, could rob the show of stellar moments like Lady Gaga's galvanizing version of "Til It Happens to You" in 2016. And it places an awful lot of emphasis on a 90-minute pre-show (not counting E!'s even earlier red-carpet coverage), which is asking viewers for a pretty extreme time commitment in a year in which the general public is probably less engaged with the nominated films than ever before.

But you can't dismiss that idea, or any other idea, because this is a year to try new things. And at the Oscars, you just don't get that opportunity very often.

The last time it happened, to a lesser degree, was probably 2009, when producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark managed to rework the Oscars in a way that felt fresh, reconfiguring the Kodak (now Dolby) Theatre and creating an intimate and well-paced show. Since then, there have been good Oscar shows and bad Oscar shows, but there haven't been any that felt new or different -- until, presumably, this year, when the pandemic will force a more dramatic reinvention.

Can that reinvention offer a new way forward for the Oscars? That's the big question -- whether what goes on at Union Station will be a one-off experiment in reaction to a unique situation, or whether it can help figure out a better way to hand out awards in the 21st century.

That's a tall order, but Soderbergh is an inventive, unpredictable and resourceful filmmaker, and it was a coup for the Academy to land him and his sometime producer Stacey Sher (who, interestingly enough, is the former business partner of Michael Shamberg, who has been critical of the Oscars show and has sued the Academy for not voting on his proposal to improve their social media). The third producer, Jesse Collins, was involved in March's Grammys, by far the most successful of the pandemic-era awards shows.   

The Oscars, of course, have been resisting reinvention for a very long time, given that they require handing out 23 awards in three hours (24 until this year, when the two sound categories were combined), more than double the number that the Grammys can get away with. And in a way, people's impression of the show is based to a large degree not on how it's staged, but on who wins.

This year, that means our feelings about the show will hinge on whether "Nomadland" cruises to its expected victory or another film stages an upset; whether Chadwick Boseman will win a posthumous award and provide a big emotional moment; and who will win the insanely competitive Best Actress race, which could go to Viola Davis for "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," Andra Day for "The United States vs. Billie Holiday," Frances McDormand for "Nomadland" or Carey Mulligan for "Promising Young Woman."

Still, the show itself won't be a cookie-cutter Oscar show, so its look and feel are bound to have a much larger-than-usual impact on how these Academy Awards are remembered. And since this is a time of crisis for the movie industry, there's also the question of whether the Oscars will make a case for the theatrical experience after a year in which that experience was all but absent.

In other words, this is the rare year in which the burning issues that hang over Oscar Sunday have as much to do with the show as the winners. That makes this a very interesting year and a crucial one at a time when people are less and less interested in watching Hollywood give out awards.

I don't know if anything will be settled at Union Station on Sunday evening, but I'll be watching with an unusual amount of interest. If not for the pandemic, I would have been at the Dolby Theatre for my 29th Oscar show this year -- and the first 28 times, I showed up at the Dolby or the Kodak or the Shrine Auditorium or the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion pretty much knowing what to expect. This time, I'll be sitting at home wondering what the hell I'm about to see.  

And you know what? That's a pretty exciting way to feel about the Oscars after all these years.