Oscars 2021: Awards Season Will Be Very Different, and Festivals Will Take a Backseat

Here’s how the Oscar ecosystem usually works: Top movies play top fall film festivals as they seek buyer, audience, and media reaction. Those that play well hire publicists and marketers to craft FYC campaigns, which can bring filmmakers and talent the kind of career recognition that only the Oscars can bring.

Today: Who cares? We’re in a pandemic! When lives are at stake and everyone lives in fear, why would anyone care about the Oscars?

Until the Academy Board of Governors meets virtually on April 28, we won’t know the rules and timeline changes for the 2021 Academy Awards, or if they happen at all. However, there are plenty of reasons why they will. Even during these unprecedented circumstances, the Oscars still matter — and for many reasons beyond simple vanity.

Never has its singular, global reach been more necessary to support cinemas and moviegoing, to say nothing of the movies themselves. The Oscar show can be used for its intended purpose, which is to promote movies. In this unusual situation, the Oscars could become a global rallying — and fundraising — cry to help save an industry under existential, if not practical, threat. “To cancel Oscars is to kill cinema,” said one prominent awards strategist. “It’s the death knell.”

However, this year will not look like any in the history of the Academy Awards. “Everything will change,” said one streaming executive who is inundated with potential buys. Theatrical distributors are looking to maximize short-term recoupment; banking on the potential long-term value of awards is not the priority. Smaller indies must contend with a fall theatrical marketplace that will likely contain fewer functioning cinemas operating at partial capacity. Only the strong will survive the coming Darwinian economic purge, and gathering places like theaters, even with sanitizing and social distancing, are particularly vulnerable.

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Here’s what we know: Although Oscar season is under siege from all sides, it will persevere — in large part because failure is not an option. With that in mind, a look at what we can expect in the months ahead.

This year, festivals cannot be the Oscar engine.

No one should expect fall film festivals to play their standard role in vetting awards contenders. The anxiety around virus testing and safety will impact everything from financing to sponsorship to travel. However, that doesn’t mean the fixtures of the season — Telluride, Venice, Toronto and New York — won’t do what they can to remain part of the conversation.

“Cooperation will be the spirit of the whole season,” said one veteran Oscar campaigner. “People are in that mood. We are supporting filmmakers and storytellers, not competing with each other. They toiled on these projects. We need to get them into the world, but not put anybody in jeopardy.”

It’s hard to imagine talent flying overseas to Northern Italy, even in chartered aircraft. They might be more willing to travel to the Colorado Rockies to the Telluride Film Festival over an extended Labor Day weekend. Telluride, which has instituted free testing of 8,000 area residents, according to ABC, could become a major hub for awards contenders that don’t play in Cannes or Venice. According to a recent report in Telluride News, the town’s council approved adding an extra day to the event in hopes of creating more space for attendees by spreading programming across more days.

However, distributors are waiting to see how demanding festival directors Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger will be in terms of sending talent. Virtual participation is far more likely — and if fewer talent attends, and media follows, how eager will studios be to program their films? Most likely, distributors will wind up screening movies curated by the tastemakers at Telluride for media in L.A. and N.Y. under safer conditions in rooms sparsely filled by media and awards voters. “Telluride films will be ones you pay attention to,” said one awards campaigner.

Those festivals that can move forward will be geared toward supporting their local cinemas. If Cannes happens before August, it will likely become a French festival that could move to Paris, and would not draw many visitors from overseas. The Venice Film Festival, currently scheduled for September 2-12, has announced its intention to go forward but it will likely program mainly Italian and European films.  

Another festival likely to remain local is the sprawling Toronto International Film Festival (September 10-20), which is pursuing sponsors as well as a streamlined hybrid live/virtual program, with no postponement in the cards, as a second covid wave could hit at the end of the year. If necessary, directors Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente are prepared for talent not to show up, they told Variety. “Everyone’s being really cooperative,” said Bailey, “in making sure we get to see the films we need to see.”

The New York Film Festival (September 25-October 11) could be in a position to benefit from its later date as well as its proximity to a New York film community that wouldn’t require travel. In November, Los Angeles’ AFI Fest could launch another batch of late-breaking movies with local talent.

The Academy needs the cash from ABC’s Oscar show

The Academy is a well-funded nonprofit, but its operating budget comes from one cash cow: the globally famous annual live Oscar telecast. And as it completes the $482-million Academy Museum of Motion Pictures amid a pandemic, in time for a planned December opening, never has the Academy needed money more.

Mounting the 2021 Oscars is a financial necessity. While Academy finances are not dire (it could afford the $6 million it donated to needy film workers), the museum faces more than the urgent need to collect promised donations not yet delivered; there’s also a significant financing gap that still needs to be fulfilled.

Thanks to hidden numbers revealed by Deadline, the long-delayed Motion Picture Museum appears to be a financial albatross even before it’s open. Even after the Academy acceded to ABC’s request to trim the show and skew it toward younger viewers, ratings still continue to decline (as they are for all awards programming). That also means a decline in dollars, which is distressing when the nonprofit carries $100 million in new debt (on top of older debt) and will owe an additional $52 million in interest on those loans. And the Academy is using the new debt for costs it’s already incurred. And when the museum finally does open, how much tourism will there be in a recession, as people avoid air travel?

"West Side Story"

Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is set to open December 18, 2020.

20th Century Studios

There will be enough movies for Oscar contention.

Even as we see potential Oscar contenders push back to 2021 (including Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway musical “In the Heights”), others remain. Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” still holds its December 18 date (and no longer has to compete with Miranda). Also opening December 18 is Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi spectacle “Dune,” and there’s plenty more to come in the fourth quarter, which usually delivers the lion’s share of Oscar movies. (Of last year’s Best Picture nominees, only “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” opened before the fall.)

Netflix has a few major contenders, too, from David Fincher biopic “Mank” starring Gary Oldman as “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, and Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close, to Peruvian director Claudia Llosa’s Spanish-language film “Fever Dream,” which will be able to play the Paris and Egyptian theaters in New York and Los Angeles, at least, under controlled conditions.

Finally, said one campaigner, “all you need are 10 competitive contenders.”

David Rubin at 2016 The Governors Awards.

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All eyes are on the Academy to do the right thing.

Now is the time to hope that the Academy will rise to the occasion under the leadership of new president and Academy veteran David Rubin. If the Academy and ABC fail to embrace the need to put on an global Oscar show celebrating cinema, something is very wrong. The reason so many people (including disgruntled Academy member Michael Shamberg) lack confidence in the Board of Governors’ ability to rescue the 2021 Oscars is when those 54 people with wildly diverging agendas get together, they have sometimes made boneheaded decisions.

At the moment, Oscars are not high on the list of distributor concerns. But assuming they have finished pictures, they do have decisions to make about when to release them and how. And the Academy could decide to push back the date of the Oscar show, or the eligibility period, or both, to give films more room to play. “The Academy needs to reassure filmmakers that they are sympathetic,” said one member of the producer’s branch. “Not having the Oscars would be a tragedy.”

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