Oscar Ready for Change: COVID Presents Chance to Rethink Old Ways

Tim Gray
·4 min read

Be careful what you wish for.

In recent years, industryites have complained that awards season has gotten too big and exhausting, and we needed a change. We certainly got our wish: Clearly, this season won’t be like any other.

Traditionalists may hope for an eventual return to the old ways. But to optimists, this is a great opportunity to reboot.

First, a reminder that awards traditions are not eternal, and have changed many times over the decades. To use Oscar as metaphor for all awards, major changes in 2020 are not erasing history — they’re continuing the tradition of reinvention.

For example, on Feb. 20, 1929, Variety covered the first Academy Awards, with the winners announced in advance. The ceremony lasted 15 minutes because most honorees trooped to the stage, accepted the statuette and silently returned to their dinner tables. Darryl F. Zanuck decided to say a few words, single-handedly inventing the acceptance speech.

For several years, Oscar voting was done by the guilds plus AMPAS members. After “Citizen Kane” lost to “How Green Was My Valley,” a Variety analyst attributed it to the 6,000 extras who voted. And of course World War II and later TV changed the DNA of the ceremonies.

So this is a great time for reinvention in three areas: campaigning, screenings, and the show itself.

Campaigning

Campaigning has become a mini-industry, the tail wagging the dog. Back in 2003, Variety reported that Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences’ then-president Frank Pierson had formed a committee aimed at “reducing the intensity of the campaigning.”

Changes are already underway. This year, the eligibility calendar has been amended. And the over-reliance on the Venice-Telluride-Toronto fests has lessened, with the festivals offering a manageable number of films (e.g., 50 in Toronto, as opposed to 300 in past years).

One key campaign angle this year: Strategists need to tell voters what’s eligible because some streaming debuts are considered movies, others aren’t.

Screenings

Searchlight did a spectacular job with “Nomadland,” creating a pop-up drive-in at the Rose Bowl parking lot. Somehow, it perfectly suited that film about loners in vehicles who form a community. Subsequent films have also offered great drive-in screenings “One Night in Miami,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” etc.) but in general, this year is seeing a reliance on digital links. Some Hollywood notables have spoken out against streaming, but it’s worth remembering that in 1984, the studios sued to stop home-taping, until they realized they could make money off it. So resistance to change will break down because it always does. It’s not a good year for theaters, but vinyl has made a comeback in music, so one hopes that cinema-going and the big-screen experience will be newly appreciated when the pandemic’s over.

Awards Ceremonies

Television’s first Oscarcast in March 1953 set the template for every awards show since: cameras and audience in one auditorium. Though the format has been locked in place, technology has made quantum leaps, so this is a great year to rethink the entire approach. Reginald Hudlin, Jimmy Kimmel and the Emmy team opened the door to new ways of presenting awards, with remotes, pre-taped segments and some safe-distancing interaction; other ceremonies can study what they’ve learned. It’s a wakeup call to kudos producers: Don’t focus on the people in the auditorium; think of the viewers around the world.

Of course there are exceptions. Personally, I think the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. should retain its familiar format when it can. The Beverly Hilton setup creates a fun atmosphere, which makes a fun telecast; other kudocasts can’t quite capture that magic.

We all get caught up in the industry-insider aspect of awards season and often forget the original goal of all film kudos: to celebrate good work and, crucially, to encourage audiences to go see movies.

So, at the start of awards season, celebrate the changes. Vive la difference!

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