It is October. Leaves are falling. Halloween is near. Christmas is on the horizon. In cinematic terms, the summer is over — as much as cinema had a summer this year. Awards season looms.
Naturally, awards season is going to look very different this year. The film festivals that traditionally serve as launching pads for awards fare have largely gone online. Indoor cinemas are currently closed in Los Angeles and New York, the markets that have long been used to determine eligibility for the feature and documentary categories at the Academy Awards. Most high-profile releases have migrated from this year into 2021 or even 2022.
As such, this awards season looks markedly different from what has come before. Last weekend, Alyssa Rosenberg argued at The Washington Post that the Academy Awards should be canceled this coming year because there was simply no way for the ceremony to conduct its business as usual without the pictures letting “themselves get small.” However, this is perhaps exactly why the Oscars should go ahead as planned. This is not a normal year. There should not be a normal Oscars.
The Academy has already made rule changes that gesture towards the illusion of normality. The eligibility window for awards fare has been extended from December to February, and the ceremony has been pushed back from February to April, obviously shaped by the hope that things might return to normal if the body waits longer. Films that premiere on streaming will be eligible, as long as they originally planned a theatrical debut. Drive-in screenings will count to eligibility.
There is, of course, something cynical in all of this. The Academy could easily have recognized movies on streaming before a global pandemic, reflecting the changing nature of the medium despite the unease of high-profile members like Steven Spielberg. Why should The Irishman or Roma need a token theatrical run to distinguish it as a film? Even this year’s concession has been made grudgingly, with the press release header making it clear that this is for “this awards year only.”
This gets at the real fear stirring beneath this conversation: that this year might be genuinely unusual. After all, awards season is nothing if not formulaic. To those who treat it as a spectator sport, awards season is a sacred time with a clear narrative structure. There are particular types of films that get nominated, particular roles that need to be filled (the villain, the frontrunner, etc.), particular narrative beats that need to be hit (the backlash, the comeback, etc.).
The pandemic disrupts that narrative framework, making it difficult to structure awards season in its familiar form. Again, this is precisely why the show should go on, without the bounty of end-of-year awards fare that uses the film festival circuit as a runway. 2020 is an exceptional and unusual year that has been marked by disruption to just about every structure imaginable and to absolutely everybody’s life. Ordinary people don’t get to write off that disruption — the Academy shouldn’t either.
Indeed, there’s a solid argument that the Academy should have to make do under its established rules and guidelines like any other year, in order to illustrate just how unusual and bizarre 2020 was (and still is). There’s something disingenuous in pushing the ceremony back to present an illusion of normality, altering eligibility criteria to ensure that the slate of nominees looks as close to those of 2018 or 2019 as possible, or even canceling the ceremony and calling a mulligan.
It should be clear to anybody looking back that 2020 was an unusual year for film, even if they are doing something as simple as browsing the Best Picture nominees. It is, of course, too much to hope that the Academy would be forced to admit fare like Bad Boys for Life into the Best Picture race, even if nothing would sum up the year in question as effectively as the Oscar clip for Best Supporting Actor nominee Martin Lawrence declaring, “You fucked a married witch!?”
More realistically, forcing the Academy to adhere to its own rules in a year without the familiar pipeline of awards fare releases would force the body to think outside of the clichés of the standard awards season. There is no reason why a movie like Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man shouldn’t be a major awards season contender: Outside of the fact that it is a conventional genre piece, the script is as good as any this year, and Elisabeth Moss gives a powerhouse central performance.
Forcing the Academy outside the box could have genuinely wonderful results. There is a reason why The Silence of the Lambs is frequently ranked among the greatest movies to win Best Picture. It was in no way a conventional awards film; it was a horror movie and commercial smash that was released very early in the year. There is perhaps something to be said for the current pandemic forcing the Academy to make a similar choice again, pushing it outside its comfort zone.
If the Academy must look at films that premiere on streaming to find candidates more to their taste, then there should be no half-measures. If the body seeks to take advantage of streaming to offer the illusion of normality, then it should at least be honest about it and make a permanent change to its eligibility criteria. While this would result in a more conventional array of nominees like Kitty Green’s fantastic The Assistant, it would at least push some boundaries of what an “Oscar movie” is.
Even this would be some small victory. One of the most frustrating aspects of the awards season is the slow drip of release, where movies are circulated and teased among awards bodies and critics for months before general audiences get a chance to see them — especially if those audiences live outside major movie markets. There would at least be some value in having the bulk of the Oscar nominees readily streamable to audiences, allowing for ease of access and ready conversation.
The pandemic has been horrific and brutal for everybody, even within the production and distribution wings of the entertainment industry. However, it has also provided an opportunity for discussion about existing structures placed under strain by this crisis. The Academy Awards are nowhere near the top of the list of the important conversations to be had in the wake of the crisis, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is the potential for something genuinely interesting here.
Of course, potential doesn’t always materialize. Even this early in the awards season, it seems likely that the Academy Awards will deliver something close to business as usual. Netflix is offering standard awards fare with The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Mank. Amazon snapped up One Night in Miami. Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland is performing well on the festival circuit. Glimpsed from a distance, it seems probable that this year’s crop of nominees will not be vastly different from any other.
This is a shame and a missed opportunity. This has been a year unlike any other in living memory. If cinema holds up a mirror to the world around it, then maybe it deserves an awards season unlike any other.