5 Ways the Oscar Season Could Be Rocked by the Coronavirus

From overcrowded release schedules to a moratorium on meet ‘n’ greets, movie awards season has the potential to be transformed by the pandemic

steve pond

The Television Academy has delayed the Emmys voting schedule and banned all “for your consideration” events. The Tony Awards have been postponed. And with the global economy tanking, a big chunk of Hollywood out of work and a pandemic disrupting nearly every facet of everyday life, the Oscar season that would normally kick into high gear in September may well be thrown into chaos.

While movie awards obviously don’t occupy a spot very high on anybody’s priority list at this point, the damage could include the number of films that qualify for awards, the opportunities for contending films to be seen and the ways in which awards season itself will play out.

“This is a situation no one could have imagined,” Film Independent President Josh Welsh told TheWrap. “It’s having unparalleled impacts on filmmakers, festivals and our community as a whole.”

Kathleen McInnis, who programs film festivals and consults with independent filmmakers on release and awards strategy, compared the pitfalls to a favorite movie.

“It’s a dangerous position for everybody,” she said. “I feel like in ‘The Princess Bride,’ when they wander into the Fire Swamp with all sorts of dangers. I think we’re either about to run into flame spurts or lightning sand or be attacked by rodents of unusual size.”

Here are some possible areas that could be dramatically affected, with the caveat that things are clearly in flux on every front.

1. ELIGIBILITY RULES
All of the major movie awards shows have distinct eligibility requirements, many of them based on films screening in theaters or at film festivals. And all are now looking at those rules to see if they need to be adjusted at a time when films simply can’t receive theatrical runs or film-festival screenings.

Film Independent, which produces the Film Independent Spirit Awards, moved immediately to change its eligibility rules so that films would qualify for consideration simply by being chosen for one of several film festivals, whether or not those festivals actually took place. (More than 200 films have now qualified even though their SXSW, New Directors/New Films and Tribeca premieres were canceled.)

The Golden Globes followed suit, suspending two rules to allow films that lost their theatrical premieres to qualify, and substituting screeners and links for the HFPA screenings that once were required. And other awards shows, including the Critics’ Choice Awards, have told TheWrap that they are studying the landscape and determining if they need to make their own rule changes.

For its part, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released a statement that said, in part, “We are in the process of evaluating all aspects of this uncertain landscape and what changes may need to be made.” The organization’s Board of Governors is due to consider vote on new Oscar rules in April; the current rules require a seven-day theatrical run in Los Angeles County for a film to be eligible for the awards.

And according to the South by Southwest Film Festival, the Oscars already made an exception for that festival, which was canceled but still convened juries and gave out awards. A SXSW spokesperson said that the festival was assured by the Academy that its short-film winners still qualified for the Oscars in those categories, even though the festival did not take place.

2. FESTIVAL PREMIERES
For years, the way to launch an awards film has been to premiere it at a major film festival: Sundance for documentaries; Cannes for international films and select U.S. titles; Venice and Telluride and Toronto and New York for everything else.

Of last year’s 39 Oscar-nominated feature films, for example, 25 first played at film festivals. Three, all documentaries, premiered at Sundance, one at South by Southwest, seven at Cannes (including Best Picture winner “Parasite”), four at Venice, three at Telluride, five at Toronto, one at the New York Film Festival and one at the AFI Fest.

So far this year, Sundance took place but SXSW was canceled and Cannes was postponed, with no way to know if can actually take place in the late June/early July time slot it is eyeing. Given the cancellation of the 2020 Olympic Games, which was scheduled to begin in late July, it seems unlikely: “Everybody in the industry is thinking, ‘How can they possibly go on in June?'” one festival veteran admitted.

An awards consultant who has used Cannes to premiere Hollywood films thinks the major studios will stay away even if the festival does go on. “Who’s going to want to go there in June or July?” the consultant said of the festival that last year launched Sony’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and Paramount’s “Rocketman.” “I understand that they’d still get international films, but the studios aren’t going to want to go there this year.”

If Cannes is moved, it will disrupt other festival schedules — and if does ends up being canceled, the likeliest destination for many of its films would be the Venice Film Festival in late August and early September. But with the entire country of Italy on lockdown, is that festival any more apt to take place than Cannes is?

What’s more, Venice simply doesn’t have the capacity to absorb significantly more films. That would push additional films to the Toronto International Film Festival, which has been undergoing internal changes and has tried to trim its enormous slate in the past few years, and the New York Film Festival, which typically programs the cream of earlier festivals with no more than three high-profile world premieres of its own.

Another factor is that Cannes helps countries identify the best films to submit to the Oscars’ Best International Film category. Out of last year’s entries from around the world, 15 were films that had screened in Cannes, including three of the five nominees: France’s “Les Misérables,” Spain’s “Pain and Glory” and the Oscar winner, South Korea’s “Parasite.” And with an Oct. 1 deadline in this category (at least for now), the submissions have to be made earlier than other categories.

“What’s happening with the festivals has to change awards season,” McInnis said. “It has to. For so many films, especially documentaries and short films, you use the festival circuit to your advantage, to have people track you and to build excitement and energy. What do you do now? How do you engineer awareness and excitement about titles and move them in front of people who make decisions about awards?”

3. RELEASE SCHEDULES
Already, the spring and much of the summer has been cleared of new releases. But most of those wouldn’t have been awards contenders, which typically wait for the fall to premiere and begin campaigning.

Assuming that U.S. movie theaters are open in the fall and release schedules are restored, though, more mainstream movies could be released at that time, making what might be a constricted theatrical market more challenging for indies and awards movies. McInnis calls it “a snowball effect,” as films whose spring and summer festivals were canceled will end up competing with films that were always planned for the fall, films that were shifted from summer to fall and films whose production was halted, but who managed to finish in time for 2020 releases. “There will be all these pipelines of films literally falling over each other to get to an audience,” she said.

Waiting for later in the year, another executive speculated, might be a better move this year: “I think November and December releases will have a better chance, because if we’re lucky, they’ll be coming out when things are righting themselves.”

Of course, this assumes that those end-of-year movies can actually be finished in time to meet their current release dates. One studio executive pointed out that while editing can be done in isolation, with an editor and director sharing work without being in the same room, one of the final stages is often recording the film’s musical score — and in most cases, that requires an orchestra sitting in close quarters and playing together.

4. SCREENINGS
During much of the year, the Academy holds official members screenings in its Samuel Goldwyn and Linwood Dunn theaters in Beverly Hills and Hollywood, respectively. They aren’t doing so currently, of course, but awards season is built around screenings at the Academy and at many private screening rooms and public theaters as well.

The question now is how much of that will return, and whether the coronavirus fallout will hasten the Academy’s move to its members-only streaming platform. One potential change could be to the Oscars’ international category, where until now members could only vote in the first round after seeing the films in theaters. That may well change if people are still reluctant to congregate in the fall.

“I know they are delaying official screenings, thinking about VOD and streaming lending an assist,” one Academy member said, noting the high stakes since the awards broadcast is by far the Academy’s largest source of income. “They have to find a way to make the show viable.”

(According to its 2019 financial statement, the organization received $131 million from “Academy Awards and related activities,” about $3.6 million from membership dues and theater rentals, $12 million from net contributions and $23 million from investment income.)

During the days of isolation, the Academy has also been very active on social media, but some members are hoping for more activity on the members’ site. “I’m surprised the Academy portal is not showing movies and doing its own festivals,” one voter said.

5. CAMPAIGNING
The Television Academy has put an end to all member screenings, Q&As and receptions for this Emmy season. Maybe the Oscars won’t feel the need to do the same — but are voters going to be comfortable this year with a business-as-usual season built around meet ‘n’ greets, crowded receptions, open buffets of finger food and constant awards shows?

“I think it will change for a while,” said Christine La Monte, an Academy member and movie producer who frequents campaign events, particularly for international films. “People might be a little more hesitant at first, but maybe it’ll go back to normal. The need to be with your creative community may eventually outweigh other things.”

Still, few people expect the upcoming season to be as much of a social whirlwind as Oscar season usually is — and some expect the tenor of the campaigns to be more subdued as well.

“The big question is how do you campaign respectfully?” asked one studio executive who has been in the thick of awards campaigns for years. “How do we support our filmmakers while being respectful of everything that is going on? From our perspective, it’s definitely going to change. It might take some of the competitiveness out of awards season. Things might not be as vocal or as competitive.”

Of course, at this point this is all speculation — it’s clear that things will be different, but the ways in which they’ll change depend on so many outside factors. “I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen, to be honest,” another awards consultant said. “If things get back to normal this summer, we may still be under some sort of social distancing protocol in the fall.”

Added McInnis, “Usually, when there are things that stop the process, you can see the end. With this, we have no end in sight. The unknown is really unknown.”

Steve Pond

Steve Pond

Awards Editor • [email protected] • Twitter: @stevepond



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