The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every industry, and Hollywood is no different. Production has ceased on all film and television projects, while blockbusters that were scheduled to be released this spring and summer have been delayed or released straight to VOD. Now, Hollywood is taking the drastic but perhaps inevitable step of postponing the 2021 Oscars. The Academy announced this as a likely scenario last week, with no new date offered (and the awards-season release schedule still very much up in the air), some are speculating that next year’s Oscars could be canceled altogether.
This would be an enormous mistake. For years, critics and viewers alike have complained that the Oscars need shaking up, and holding the ceremony at its previously-announced date in February 2021 is a perfect opportunity to do just that. Allow me to explain.
The Academy’s reluctance to nominate female-driven films for their top prizes has been a growing problem, but this year, even if no more films are released in 2020, they have an excellent crop of such films to choose from. Already released in 2020 are “The Assistant,” the story of a Harvey Weinstein-like producer told through the eyes of his young secretary, and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” a naturalistic drama about a Pennsylvania teen who travels to New York. If the Oscars were held today, both would be top contenders for Best Picture and Best Director, and both were written and directed by women. As would “First Cow,” a tender film about two young men written and directed by Kelly Reichardt, whose quiet, meditative films are beloved by critics but consistently overlooked by awards bodies. In other words, a 2021 Oscars with a short list of eligible films would give the Academy a chance to nominate the kind of work that often gets left behind.
It would also create an opportunity to shake up the ceremony itself. Ratings have been in steep decline in recent years (as they have for all awards shows in the era of streaming), but if the Academy was fearful of an in-person ceremony and chose to do a Zoom-only ceremony instead, it would be fascinating to see. It might be a rousing success, or it might be a trainwreck. Either way, everyone would be talking about it. These days, that’s what pases for good ratings.
Finally, some experts have raised concerns that an Oscars ceremony with a reduced slate of films to choose from would delegitimize the award, and that it wouldn’t be fair to the winners. It’s true that nobody wants an asterisk next to their name in the history books. But precedents suggest this wouldn’t happen. In 1981, Major League Baseball suffered a players’ strike that reduced each team’s slate to 107 games. The Dodgers won the World Series, and nobody questions the legitimacy of their title. The same thing happened with the 2011-12 NBA season, which started on December 25 due to a lockout and ended with a Miami Heat championship that no one has disputed as being well-earned.
Of course, it’s for all these reasons that the Academy will likely move forward with their plan to delay the Oscars to make room for the typical Oscar fare that is being pushed back to the fall or early 2021. An institution that has been resistant to change for this long is unlikely to see the opportunities right in front of it.