In a typical awards season, movie studios pummel industry voters. Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard is plastered with “For Your Consideration” billboards for films that stand a decent shot; press and industry executives circulate at splashy invitation-only parties; press coverage ramps up; special screenings boast Q&As with the film’s actors and directors; journalists are bombarded with DVDs and online streams.
“At the start of the last Oscar season, I went to the Hollywood premiere of Netflix's The Irishman,” recalls MovieMaker Magazine Editor-in-Chief Tim Molloy in an email. “Director Martin Scorsese and all the stars – Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel – came out and personally introduced the film. Netflix flew in reporters from across the country. Afterwards, we walked over to a glamorous poolside gala where we ate exquisite food, smoked hand-rolled cigars, and debated the film and Scorsese's career well into the night, against a backdrop made up to look like a blue-collar 1950s neighborhood. I'll never forget it.”
These opulent affairs are just some of the ways studios romance the press and Academy voters, who decide the Oscar winners each year. Studios don’t typically talk about the process, as most would like to keep up the appearance of a merit-based system, and yet: “I would never argue that you can buy an Oscar,” The Hollywood Reporter awards columnist Scott Feinberg says over the phone. “But I think you can buy your way into the conversation.”
That all came to a screeching halt this awards season, however, thanks to the still-ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which all but erased in-person moviegoing in 2020. As typically bustling cinemas sat empty across the US, releases were postponed, and postponed again. The movies that did come out in 2020 trickled onto streaming platforms like Netflix, Prime, HBO Max, and Hulu. This industry-wide sea change has resulted in a markedly different campaigning experience, too, even as vaccine rollouts ramp up and awards show producers figure out ways to inject some fun into Zoom-heavy ceremonies.
Sure, there are still plenty of “FYC” billboards lining the streets in Los Angeles this year. But what does campaigning lose when audiences can’t see movies in the cinema, event spaces cannot host industry parties, and Q&As featuring big-name talent are relegated to Zoom calls?
Feinberg notes that the people who will be worst affected by a pared-down campaigning year are the drivers and caterers who would normally shuttle talent and party favours to studio-sponsored award season ceremonies, not to mention lead-up dinners, lunches, and cocktail parties. “The food and dining industry and car services are not getting any of the business that they usually would get,” he says. “All of the studios send all of the talent in cars with drivers, and none of that happens this year. All of that has stopped. It's been a huge hit to the Oscar industrial complex, if you want to call it that. There's a ton of people now whose businesses largely revolve around this annual exercise.”
Feinberg also asserts that Academy voters, many of whom are older, just aren’t as engaged this year. That’s due to a number of factors: Studios, for example, are phasing out DVD screeners in favor of streaming. If you’re an older Academy member, you might not have the patience to deal with the technology shift. And when it comes to streaming platforms, older voters are most familiar with Netflix by default, simply due to the fact that Netflix has been around the longest, compared to competitors. “I think it's not a coincidence that this year Netflix has, I believe, 35 nominations, including two best picture nominees and nominees in every acting category,” Feinberg says.
As for the screenings and Q&As with talent, those are still happening – but over Zoom. Feinberg has noticed interest diminishing there, too. “People are just so Zoomed out,” he says. “Because they're doing Zoom in their personal lives, they’re doing Zoom for work, and then they are being asked to do Zoom (or some variation of it) for participating in the Oscar season.”
Plus, he says, there’s something special about physically being in a room with celebrities when they’re promoting movies up for awards consideration. Without that, participation around awards season has been, according to Feinberg, “depressed”.
Lead-up press and award circuit Q&As also tend to be divisive, depending on who you ask. If you’re an industry veteran, a virtual event might seem convenient because there’s no travel and no hustle and bustle. If you’re newer to the scene, their highly staged nature may put a damper on organic networking.
If you’re an Oscar contender, “there is no guarantee that you will ever have another [chance] at this”, says Feinberg. “Somebody who's really having a great moment, take for one example [Promising Young Woman director] Emerald Fennell… She's missing out on a lot of stuff because she's in England, it's the middle of the night when most people are doing promotional stuff. And she hasn't had her movie [screened] aside from Sundance. So you wonder if that will [prevent people from] becoming more acquainted with her, like they normally would during the awards season.”
On the other hand, a movie like Nomadland, which is up for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director, has benefited this awards season – from a marketing perspective, anyway. The Hulu and Searchlight drama, about an older woman (Frances McDormand) who becomes “houseless” and travels through the American West in her van, has been screened at numerous drive-in cinemas during the pandemic. The vehicular coincidence of the film’s plot and the Covid-affected ways people are seeing movies seems to have been a good thing for the otherwise low-budget Nomadland, which is expected to sweep the Oscars.
Not all has been lost. Molloy posits that even a Covid-affected campaigning season has placed renewed focus on the films up for awards, and is less about superficial wining and dining. “It’s less about the razzle dazzle than any time I can remember in the last decade,” he says. “That's partly a good thing – we shouldn't judge movies by their opulent premieres. But it would be nice to at least see the films on the big screen. And I sure wouldn't mind a couple of parties.”