The pandemic is upending how Oscar nominees are chosen
This year, that mind is looking blank.
The pandemic has upended the rites of award season, moving some panel discussions to Zoom and scrapping many others. In its place, voters are delving into films via a screen in their living rooms, watching on a portal set up by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It is neither a social nor simple process: A voter opening up the screening app recently would have found themselves confronted with 177 films to consider, with little guidance on which to watch.
Interviews with 14 executives and consultants who lead voter-influence campaigns — many spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the competitive nature of their work — describe a heavy toll as a business that normally gathers in glamorous settings to fete fictional calamities now finds itself trying to survive real ones. The changes have uprooted a sub-industry, and could bring a slew of dark horses and underdogs to the Oscar stage when that show airs April 25.
“Without all of these events, this might be the purest award season,” said Dave Karger, a veteran award expert and a personality on the cable network TCM. “It also might be the strangest.”
The lack of in-person gatherings already has had a surreal effect on the Globes. When the award show’s winners (decided by the roughly 90 journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) are announced Sunday, they will come from a list that includes such top nominees as the Kate Hudson drama “Music,” a movie few pundits had even heard of before it was nominated.
“With muted campaigns, no industry events and very few seeing print trades, the usual consensus-building is gone, and voters are left to what they actually think,” tweeted Matthew Belloni, the former editor of the Hollywood Reporter, after the Globes announcement. “The Oscars might be equally shocking.”
The average film fan may be unaware of the feverish ad-spending, jet-setting, ref-working and flesh-pressing that typically precedes the major awards shows — all to increase awareness and, ultimately, rustle up support from the 9,900 industry-based members of the academy who vote on the Oscars.
The effort has birthed a sub-business within the larger entertainment industry. The free-floating group includes about a dozen well-connected industry veterans who work with studios’ in-house departments to stage events, buy ads and place stories. The goal is to raise their clients’ profiles and earn nominations at a host of shows, which in addition to the Oscars include the British-set BAFTAs, the independent-minded Gothams and Independent Spirit Awards, film critics’ groups, the Globes and prizes from a slew of Hollywood guilds.
The cost of a campaign can exceed $20 million per film, but executives believe the price is worth it — in marketing, talent relations and, of course, bragging rights. Campaigns serve a key field-leveling function, particularly for many of the Los Angeles- and New York-based industry insiders who, without these events, might vote simply for the movies the highest number of their friends worked on.
Last year’s stunningly outsider best-picture winner, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” could be chalked up in part to Bong and the film’s stars repeatedly charming voters at post-screening mixers, which helped gain attention for a Korean-language film that might otherwise have escaped their notice. A similar dynamic unfolded for Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” in 2017-2018. An Oscar season with less ballyhoo may not be as susceptible to lobbying, experts say. But it also robs underdogs of a shot.
“I’m finding it very hard this year,” said a consultant who’s worked on several successful outsider campaigns. “There just aren’t a lot of ways to make sure people know about your movie.”
Even bigger contenders can find themselves adrift, as voters swim in choices with few lane markers.
“There’s an uncertainty about what films people should be thinking about and where to find them,” said Jeffrey Sharp, producer of the Oscar-winning “Boys Don’t Cry” and executive director of the nonprofit the Gotham Film and Media Institute, which runs the Gotham Awards ceremony. “We’re missing the events that help tell us all of that.”
The lack of in-person gatherings also means an absence of feedback, experts say. Early in the season, one way to know which contender has momentum is by gauging reactions in a screening or party room — impossible without a literal room. “Running an awards campaign during a global pandemic,” said an executive at a company in the hunt, “is strategizing and planning while on quicksand.”
The elimination of gatherings also has hurt the myriad restaurants, limo services, venues, cleaning firms and catering companies for which award season is an economic lifeline. Alex Darbahani, the founder and chairman of KLS Worldwide Chauffeured Services, which transports many executives and talent during the season, says his business has been decimated.
In a typical award-heavy winter month, Darbahani said, the company could be booking 400 cars in a given day and taking in as much as $3 million in revenue as talent is ferried to and from airports, ceremonies, press events, hotels and grooming appointments.
Now, he says, he books fewer than 80 cars most days, and monthly revenue has dwindled to as low as $200,000.
“I don’t think that ‘award shows will be shut down’ is something any of us had in our business plans,” he said. “It’s survival time. That’s all you can try to do.”
Studios can also be dinged by the altered season, lacking the “box-office bump” as audiences come out to buy tickets in response to awards; “Green Book,” Universal’s 2019 best-picture winner, was one recent beneficiary.
That hasn’t stopped some companies from opening their wallets. Academy rules prohibit sending any material besides a DVD screener. But they allow for splurging on a “premiere,” the day a film debuts on digital services.
Netflix used the rule to put a lockdown spin on a controversial program that in 2019 had them flying influencers to appealing destinations. For a Jan. 16 premiere, for instance, campaigners sent a boxed dinner from the celebrity spot Craig’s in West Hollywood to Los Angeles-based voters. Recipients in other parts of the country were given a $100 Uber Eats gift card.
The film being promoted was the Zendaya-John David Washington relationship drama “Malcolm & Marie,” considered an Oscar long shot. (Netflix engaged in these efforts after a bold decision to skip the virtual editions of festivals this season.) Other studios have sent high-end bottles of alcohol, a subconscious way of associating their contenders with class.
Meanwhile, for films like Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” from Disney’s boutique unit Searchlight Pictures, saw a panel-centric approach.
The gritty film of economic displacement — which stars Frances McDormand as a migrant seeking work and, occasionally, camaraderie in the modern American West — has become a front-runner after winning top prizes at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, a national critics group and the Gothams.
Searchlight used virtual editions of festivals to showcase the movie and its talent, a conventional approach in a nonconventional time. Zhao has talked about why she is drawn to the West and crafted a message of movies’ ability to build community in trying times. “Cinema is about sharing,” she said after winning the Gotham for best film “It’s in our DNA to want to connect.” The film arrived on Hulu and in traditional theaters this past weekend.
More than campaigns are changing — candidates are, too.
With the pandemic forcing many studios to postpone their biggest releases, crowd-pleasing hits like past years’ “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star Is Born” are absent; Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” for instance, will compete next year after its release was moved to December 2021.
That has given the field to smaller, darker films from independent companies or boutique divisions, like “Nomadland,” Focus Features’ feminist revenge-fantasy “Promising Young Woman” and A24′s coming-of-age Korean-American dramedy “Minari.”
And it has given primacy to streamers, which largely did not postpone their films. Netflix has many hopefuls: Spike Lee’s Vietnam-vet story “Da 5 Bloods”; David Fincher’s man-undone Hollywood tale “Mank”; Aaron Sorkin’s political drama “The Trials of the Chicago 7”; and the August Wilson drama adaptation “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Chadwick Boseman’s last role. Amazon has a leading contender in period drama “One Night In Miami,” which imagines a conversation about the civil rights movement between Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
But outside of “Nomadland,” which has garnered large amounts of social media traction, few of the contenders have drawn much mainstream attention. That’s caused some to worry about a very gritty Oscars.
“Politics is stressful. There’s a pandemic,” said Tony Angellotti, a veteran awards consultant, who is working on two of the rare upbeat and studio movies in the mix, “Soul” and “News of the World.” “I’m not sure people want to turn away from all of that to watch a really difficult film.”
Some see in all the rugged contenders a refreshing change, a chance for movies that would normally get shunted aside to stand out and even reflect what people are going through.
Others, though, have asked whether this year’s limited list of possible contenders will only hurt a ceremony that has already been leaning niche.
“Oscar’s transformation into a celebration of quirky and independent films only seen by a handful of people hasn’t exactly done wonders for the viewership,” noted pundit Richard Rushfield, who has urged canceling the ceremony, in his newsletter The Ankler. “How do you suppose the viewership will react when they put on a show not only celebrating films seen by a small number of people, but films seen by no one?”