Back in May, I wrote in this space about why the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences should not cancel the 2021 Oscars. At the time, it seemed like a real but remote possibility. We expected the Covid-19 pandemic to pass by the end of the summer, and for movie theaters to open up just in time for fall awards season. It was a simpler time. The stakes were lower.
Shortly after I wrote that piece, the Academy decided not to cancel the Oscars but instead to postpone them to late April and extend the qualifying window for films wishing to be considered to the end of February, rather than the customary date of December 31. The goal was to give the major studios more time to get their prestige fare out in theaters, instead of leaving all the awards to Netflix, Amazon, and the independent studios that managed to squeak out a few excellent films before the pandemic hit.
But with news last week that most of this year’s expected blockbusters, including “Black Widow” and “West Side Story,” have been pushed to late 2021, it seems entirely possible the Oscars will now actually be canceled.“Black Widow” doesn’t matter much to the Academy, but the fact that Disney (who owns Marvel) thinks people won’t be going to movie theaters anytime this year sends a strong signal. “West Side Story” is an even better bellwether. The remake of the classic musical is built for Oscars – directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner, whose last collaboration was the Oscar darling “Lincoln” – and it’s in line for a bevy of Oscar nominations whenever it’s finally released. Its postponement past the qualifying period for the 2021 Oscars is a sign that the studios are not expecting theatrical distribution to be profitable anytime soon. There’s no point of getting Oscar buzz if there are no tickets to sell.
We should have seen this all coming. “Tenet” was the trial balloon. Released into theaters earlier this month, Christopher Nolan’s enigmatic blockbuster flopped hard, making clear that the American public is not ready to return to the movies. With the virus likely to spike in the winter, as people travel for the holidays, the studios are betting that this attitude will not change anytime soon. Cinemas are open in many places around the country, but they’re operating at reduced capacity, and many people seem to be simply staying away, content to gobble up movies and series on their streaming services.
Which leaves the Academy in a position they never wanted to be in. At this point, they have committed to a ceremony on April 25, 2021. But the slate of films they’ll have to choose from will be remarkably small. Beautiful indies from earlier this year like “The Assistant” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” will be eligible. As will Netflix films like “The Trial of Chicago 7,” which had a small theatrical release last weekend before hitting the streaming service, where most people will see it, in October. As of now, it’s probably the favorite to win Best Picture.
But the Academy serves at the pleasure of the major studios, and they’d much rather give their major awards to them. In fact, they have decidedly avoided giving Best Picture to Netflix each of the last two years, when “The Irishman” and “Roma” were early front-runners before fading late. Canceling the ceremony because they don’t want to give an Oscar to Netflix would be a transparently shameless decision, but the alternative – empowering streamers at a time when major cinemas are on life support – might be too painful to endure