At this point, it wasn’t a question of if the 2021 Oscars would be different, but how. In the grand scheme of events affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the way Hollywood chooses to celebrate the best movies of the year isn’t—and shouldn’t be—near the top of the list of anybody’s concerns, but the Academy has nevertheless announced rule changes on Tuesday that will take effect for next year’s festivities.
Most notably, films that are released on streaming platforms and video-on-demand services with no traditional theatrical run can now be eligible for Best Picture—with some caveats. For instance, if a movie is released on a streaming platform, it still must have planned for a theatrical run that would have otherwise been approved by the Academy, a requirement that usually includes running for seven days at a theater in Los Angeles County. (This is part of the reason Netflix’s previous Oscar plays, like Roma and The Irishman, still had limited runs in theaters before being available to stream on the service.)
Academy president David Rubin and CEO Dawn Hudson stress that the move is a “temporary exception” given the unprecedented circumstances surrounding COVID-19. Theaters across the country are closed, summer blockbuster season is all but dead (sorry, Christopher Nolan), and major studios are considering releasing some of their films on demand instead of slating them for a later date (see: Universal’s Trolls World Tour). The Academy’s press release also notes that the eligibility requirements for a theatrical run will have an expanded number of qualifying theaters outside of Los Angeles—a film can still be considered for Best Picture if it has a limited release in New York, San Francisco, Miami, Chicago, or Atlanta. But that seems like very wishful thinking, as many experts believe that a second wave of the virus could emerge in the fall, which would coincide with the typical peak of awards season and threaten the theatrical experience for the entirety of 2020.
The uncertainty surrounding theater operations for the indefinite future—one best-case scenario, for the movie industry at least, is that some theaters will reopen while largely restricting the amount of people inside a screening, and that hardly sounds like good business—has already caused several blockbusters to push back their releases into 2021, including Fast 9 and Venom: Let There Be Carnage (yes, that’s really the name of the Venom sequel). Of course, a movie called Let There Be Carnage is only a Best Picture contender in my wildest dreams, but the COVID-19 pandemic will still have studios weighing the risk of not turning a profit for the sake of Oscars hype. For example, if theaters are still closed or severely restricted going into the end of the year, it’s hard to imagine Steven Spielberg’s buzzy, potentially Oscar-worthy adaptation of West Side Story holding its Christmas release date instead of moving to 2021.
Even though these Academy rule changes make it easier for films to compete for Best Picture, they don’t mitigate the effects of COVID-19 around the industry. But the one distributor for which things might remain close to business as usual is Netflix. The streamer reportedly has such an extensive backlog of already-filmed projects that its 2020 slate of releases will be largely unaffected by COVID-19—and if that extends to their awards season darlings, something like David Fincher’s Mank or Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy could have a much easier path to potential Oscars glory in 2021.
Temporary as these Academy rule changes may be, the 2021 Oscars could see an upswing in Best Picture nominees from streaming companies, as well as independent movies that choose a VOD release over delaying things until next year. (Please, A24, give us First Cow ASAP.) Going the VOD route could make financial sense for indies with comparatively thin budgets, but it’s unlikely to work for major tentpoles. Trolls may have made back much of what Universal spent to make it, but it likely still made much less than it would have with a full theatrical run. For now, VOD still isn’t a viable option for blockbusters.
It’s a bizarre, uncertain time for the film industry writ large: Universal’s willingness to embrace VOD has already led to AMC theaters threatening to ban the studio’s releases from their cinemas once theaters are opened again. (Quite a flex for a theater chain that, unfortunately, might soon have to file for bankruptcy.) It’s way too early to gauge whether the Oscars rule changes and the wider appeal of VOD releases are simply a case of drastic times calling for drastic measures, or something that will become closer to Hollywood’s new normal when the world slowly recovers from the pandemic.
The optimist in me hopes there will always be enough people interested in savoring the theatrical experience that it will never completely go away. As much as I joke that I’d be willing to pay 50 bucks right now to watch Fast 9 on my couch, nothing compares to the joy of seeing Dominic Toretto defy the laws of physics with my bros on a big-ass screen. But COVID-19 has left everything uncertain in the industry. It wasn’t long ago that traditionalists feared the rise of Netflix would pose the greatest risk to theaters—now, the streamer might be one of the only things that can give the next Oscars ceremony any semblance of normalcy.