How a Year of Upheaval Will Affect the Oscar Race (Column)

·6-min read

It’s fun to make awards predictions in October, which is kinda/sorta the start of Oscar season.

But here’s some perspective: In October 2018, audiences greeted Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” so rapturously that many were predicting an Oscar sweep. It ended up with one win (original song), out of eight nominations. And in October 2019, several films were touted as the eventual best-pic winner, though “Parasite” was rarely on those lists.

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So October front-runner status is no guarantee. On the other hand, it isn’t a curse. Last year at this point, “Nomadland” seemed like the one to beat and it indeed won (though other best pic contenders including “Minari” and “Judas and the Black Messiah” were barely on the radar.)

This is not just about awards handicapping; it’s about campaign strategies: With Oscars, as with comedy, timing is crucial. It’s always hard for awards strategists to gauge the mood of the voters, but it’s especially difficult this year, when there have been so many major changes, inside and outside the industry.

As we build to the 94th Academy Awards, best-picture favorites so far seem to be “Belfast,” “Dune,” “King Richard” and “Power of the Dog.”

There are also films that are increasingly finding passionate supporters. This group includes “CODA,” “Cyrano,” “The Humans,” “Jockey,” “The Lost Daughter,” “Mass,” “Parallel Mothers,” “Passing,” “Spencer” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”

Plus, there are high hopes for the yet-to-be-screened “Being the Ricardos,” “Don’t Look Up,” “House of Gucci,” “A Journal for Jordan,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Nightmare Alley” and “West Side Story.”

Any one of the above could be the eventual winner. Or maybe none of them.

This awards season has seen several major changes, some of which are likely to affect the outcome:

* It’s the shortest season ever, with only 10 months, due to the extension for 2020 eligibility. Plus, several films were delayed from 2020, including potential contenders such as “Respect” (MGM/UA), “West Side Story” (Disney Fox Amblin) and “No Time to Die” (MGM/UA).

* Altered Golden Globes. This will have an effect. Most members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. acknowledged that the org needed changes, which are happily underway. Even when the HFPA was under attack, industryites knew the Globes are an important part of the momentum and timing — that word again! — of campaigns. The org this year will announce awards; but the NBC telecast was a cornerstone in campaigns — not just the schmoozing and campaigning that goes on at the Beverly Hilton, but in the Hollywood events planned around arrivals in town for the ceremony. There will be other awards events in January, but none so far has the clout and impact of the globally televised Globes. They have been a big part of awards season DNA and while some were/are furious at the organization, many others want to make sure the televised ceremony is revived.

* The Academy has disallowed screener DVDs being sent to voters. The AMPAS screening site offers the films, so voters have access; but the DVDs made it easier to prioritize your must-see lists, to collate/organize films. With hundreds of titles on the site, it’s easier for a film to get lost, which is especially true in an abbreviated season.

* New AMPAS members. This is one of the most publicized changes, but actually may be a minor footnote. Since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences began its expansion push starting with the 2016 films, pundits have been saying that it has affected Oscar results. It’s an interesting theory, but we’ll never know, since PricewaterhouseCoopers and AMPAS don’t offer a breakdown of voting by region, gender or race. But the results indicate no major changes. For example, in the five years since 2016, two non-English-language films were nominated for best picture: “Roma” and “Parasite.” Compare that to the five-year period 1969-73, when there were three (“Z,” “The Emigrants” and “Cries and Whispers”). In addition, the win for “Moonlight” and best-picture noms for “Straight Outta Compton,” “Get Out” and “Joker” don’t necessarily reflect changes in the voting body: It’s more likely that distributors have expanded their mindset, greenlighting more inclusive films and campaigning for films that would have been relegated to the modest-arthouse-box office category a decade ago. Yes, the “Moonlight” win was a surprise, but so were the Oscar victories for Roman Polanski (2002’s “The Pianist”) and the “Pulp Fiction” screenplay, plus nominations for “Ghost World,” “City of God” and “A History of Violence,” to name a few.

* COVID itself. It has colored our everyday lives, and that’s bound to affect the mindset of Academy voters, even though the effect is hard to pinpoint or articulate.

Similarly affecting voters’ outlooks are the Big Picture Events in 2021: CAA bought ICM, Amazon purchased MGM, and the possibility of an IATSE strike offered proof that old procedures need updating.

Scarlett Johansson and Disney settled her suit over the income to “Black Widow,” but it was a dramatic reminder that everyone in the industry is trying to figure out what constitutes success — B.O. or streaming subscribers?

Prolonged COVID quarantines have led to personal introspection, as well as musings about the future of moviegoing and of awards shows.

Every year, the Academy tries to drum up interest in the Oscarcast by saying it will include lots of innovations. But the changes are always minor. It’s basically followed the same template since the first Oscar telecast on March 19, 1953. This year’s ceremony included three changes: It took place at Union Station, there were no film clips and the final award went to lead actor, rather than the best pic. Only Union Station could be considered a success.

The Powers That Be seem to think declining viewership is an aberration and that TV audiences will return. They don’t want to admit that public tastes have changed and it’s not the host, the list of contenders, the political speeches or any other scapegoat. In the 1990s, U.S. viewing of Oscars hovered at 40 million-45 million; in the past six years, it’s gradually dropped from 34 million to 10 million. The public simply doesn’t view awards shows in the way it did many decades ago.

The ceremony is a summation of Hollywood’s year. So it’s time to acknowledge that Hollywood has changed, people have changed and the world has changed.

The results of these changes? We won’t know until March 27 with the Academy Awards. But the upheavals were so prevalent, there’s bound to be effects.

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