And the Best Picture goes to … Trolls World Tour?
Already the 2021 Oscars are turning into a joke. How, after all, can you hold a ceremony for Best Picture if basically nothing came out because theaters were closed? With 2020’s release calendar in shambles due to the pandemic, there is already talk of postponing or even canceling next February’s Academy Awards ceremony due to a lack of sufficient material to choose from.
But if you begin to dig a little deeper, it’s not so much that there is a lack of movies as there is a lack of traditional “Oscar bait.” And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, the Oscars ceremony should absolutely go on as planned — and rather than settle for Best Picture nominees like Trolls or Bad Boys for Life, the Academy ought to use this as an opportunity to fully embrace the cutting edge, independent, and foreign films that get crowded out in normal years.
It’s pretty early to be speculating about any of this, admittedly; there are still 275 days before the ceremony is set to take place on Feb. 28, 2021. Nevertheless, it’s already weighing heavy on the mind of AMPAS president David Rubin, who told Variety recently that “it’s impossible to know what the landscape will be. We know we want to celebrate film but we do not know exactly what form it will take.” The Academy has already adjusted for the pandemic, allowing films that were scheduled to be released this year, but prevented from doing so because of the outbreak, to bypass the usual requirement of a theatrical release (that makes Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Promising Young Woman eligible as well as, yes, Trolls 2). Even more dramatically, though, Variety has reported that, according to one insider, “it’s likely” that the 2021 ceremony will just “be postponed” at this point.
That seems even more likely, too, as major studios begin to give up on the year, clearing out blockbusters that, under normal circumstances, would have been contenders. Of my laughably premature predictions for the 2021 Oscars, a number of movies have been bumped from their original release dates to the fall, despite even autumn premieres beginning to look overly optimistic. Now Netflix has even announced that “it’s not planning to send any of their films or talent to attend” the awards season film festival circuit, Indiewire reports. That means David Fincher’s Mank, Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, and George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — all of which I predicted would be contenders — won’t be given the campaign “launching pads” they’d have been afforded in any other year. If Netflix, which has long been one of the studios hungriest for Oscars, is stepping back due to the pandemic, it seems sure that other studios will too.
The obvious problem is this leaves the Academy with scraps to choose from, were the ceremony to go on as planned. There have only been two-and-a-half months of normal releases in 2020, and one of those months was January — traditionally a dumping ground for studios. The movies that major studios are sending straight to VOD are so far mainly ones they’re not worried about losing box office revenue on; if there’s a chance of making a bigger buck down the line by delaying a movie, that still seems to be the preferred course of action. So we’re working with, what? Birds of Prey and Dolittle as Best Picture nominees alongside Tenet or West Side Story, and that’s assuming the latter even see a release in the second half of the year as planned?
Knowing the Academy — which, until last year, seemed to shy away from anything unconventional or foreign — that would entirely be possible. But in the absence of a crowded slate of big-studio prestige films, the Academy could refocus on the movies that normally slip its attention, the films that get lost among the billboards and parties in support of more obvious contenders.
Take, for example, First Cow by Kelly Reichardt, who is one of the best and most criminally unrecognized American filmmakers. Or Sundance darling Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which might be a dark horse in a normal year but stands a serious chance in a more modest, lower-budget field. If digital eligibility requirements are expanded, maybe Spike Lee, who has never won an Oscar, could win twice, with his corona-proof Netflix film Da 5 Bloods headed to streaming in June, and his Instagram movie for Short Doc. Indie, experimental, and foreign films that might not be on our radars yet and never would have made it into theaters could potentially rise to the top, too, as we move into a summer with no blockbusters.
The decision to go forward with the Oscars is about more than just recognizing “artier” films, too. Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese don’t really need another Oscar, but the statuette could make a life-changing difference for women and minority filmmakers who face uphill battles to fund their movies. Likewise, awarding actors like Orion Lee (First Cow) or Sidney Flanigan (Never Rarely Sometimes Always) — who give performances that would be worthy in any year but might get shut out by a more star-studded crowd — is an investment in the future of the art form.
As things stand, the Academy’s board of governors is set to meet on June 9, where they will discuss the possibility of delaying the ceremony. The decision is legally complicated and still needs to be worked out with the broadcaster, though if more studios like Netflix resolve to more or less sit this year out, the pressure will be on the Academy Awards to follow suit.
That’d be a shame. There’s a chance here for the Oscars to continue to broaden the idea of what a “best picture” means, divorced from the big money, studios, and stars that normally dominate that field come February. A studio shouldn’t be able to buy its way to a golden statuette, and for once, it seems likely few will bother trying; they will probably save their resources for 2021, when everything “counts” again. Sure, holding the Oscars anyway might, then, in an extreme scenario, mean we end up with “Oscar-nominated Sonic the Hedgehog” in our lexicon. But one thing is undoubtedly true: being forced to dig deeper into movies is never unrewarding.
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