By David Canfield
April 22, 2020 at 10:30 AM EDT
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DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

We don’t know exactly how yet, but the Oscars will look very different next year.

In the coming days, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will begin the process of deciding how to proceed in the wake of the unprecedented chaos brought to the film industry by the COVID-19 pandemic and its surrounding economic consequences. There are immediate matters to settle — eligibility, for one, since so many contending films will be skipping theatrical runs altogether, typically a disqualifier for the Oscars. Then there’s the matter of release dates — with so many titles moving not just to later in 2020, but into 2021, is there a point in following standard calendar protocols? As of now, from what EW has learned, all options are still on the table.

The Emmy Awards have already adjusted their voting calendar, if only slightly; they’re certainly less directly impacted by the crisis since TV by its nature doesn’t have a theatrical component. And last month, the HFPA announced that films could vie for Golden Globes without launching in theaters. The change in rules was deemed temporary, but will surely at least be extended into the summer, and likely fall as well. It’s impossible to imagine the Academy Awards existing next year without taking similar measures.

But then there are larger, more philosophical questions about what an awards season could even look like. In the months around the holidays, Hollywood is home to the most sustained period of gladhanding and schmoozing in American public life (outside of politics, of course). The introduction of streamers like Netflix has only bolstered its experiential nature. Those on the campaign trail go from event to event around Los Angeles, shaking hands and packing themselves tightly into ballrooms and theaters. Guild screenings fill up and often overflow. Trophies exchange hands. While the worst of COVID-19 will have hopefully passed by the time we reach this stage, all indications — and, frankly, common sense — indicate that we’ll be entering into a new normal, where such dynamics will be risky to public health, if not outright banned.

And yet awards season won’t change, completely, unless the Academy decides to take it away. Studios and agencies will still zero in on the timeframe closest to voting — those prestige fall releases — to debut their brightest hopes, if only digitally. Actors in the hunt for nominations will still promote their work in windows best-aligned to the voting calendar, to take advantage of recency bias and the power of exposure. How things start is the bigger question: The Cannes Film Festival, which launched last year’s Best Picture winner Parasite among other major players, has been canceled, without a replacement plan in place. (One expected to make a splash there was Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch; it's now aiming for a fall release.) The big fall trio of Telluride, Toronto, and Venice — where the bulk of awards contenders emerge — are on for now, but few events seem less-suited to the coronavirus conditions than these mass gatherings of strangers in cramped movie theaters.

To any film fan, the loss of these festivals is a heartbreaker. And the general effects of the pandemic on the movie-loving community — whether you’re in it for the blockbuster premieres or the awards watching — continue to be devastating. But if there’s one thing most outside of the industry bubble agree on, it’s that Oscar campaigning has become a bit… much. Not just in terms of focus and money spent, but on how the field inevitably narrows to those zipping around Hollywood for months on end, give or take a few pleasant surprises.

There’s an opportunity here for things to even out a little. If the Academy opts to continue with the 2021 ceremony as planned, making the necessary rules adjustments to do so — removing the theatrical requirement, for starters — we may see a very different kind of nominations slate, one that’s more progressive and supportive of talent outside the mainstream. It’ll be less glitzy: Studios will no doubt push more big movies into next year, both to improve visibility and to patch up some holes left by production delays; other potential frontrunners, including new movies by Guillermo Del Toro and Ridley Scott, may no longer be completed in time. But with appearances meaning much less, it’s a list that could have a lot more edge, too.

Could one of indie cinema’s finest, Kelly Reichardt, find herself in the hunt for her first-ever nomination with the critically lauded First Cow? Might former supporting nominee Amy Ryan (2007’s Gone Baby Gone) get a run for a rare leading role in Netflix’s gritty true-crime drama Lost Girls? Is it possible for a movie like Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Eliza Hittman’s masterful exploration of teen pregnancy that remains the year’s very best-reviewed film, to become an unlikely powerhouse? For the Oscars of just two months ago, such questions wouldn’t remotely reflect reality; now, they’re hardly guarantees, but that they can even be considered as plausible speaks to what a radical — what a weird — year this could be.

Or maybe not. The big dilemma facing the Academy this week is what message they, beholders of the most venerable American prize for film, hope to project to their industry. There’s no neutral here. Things can’t be business as usual. The Oscars can either go weird or, at least for a year, go home.

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