Like all of Hollywood, the coronavirus quarantine has thrown the Oscars into tumult. For years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has seen itself as the defender of the theatrical experience, and has been loath to give up its rule mandating that films must play for a week in a Los Angeles theater if they want to be eligible for a nomination. But now all the theaters are closed, and California governor Gavin Newsom says it will be “months” before they reopen. What’s an awards body to do?
On Tuesday, we got our answer, as the Oscars decided to put aside its qualms and open this year’s field to movies that debuted on a streaming platform or on demand. After emphasizing for years the primacy of theatrical releases, the Academy had its hand forced by the uncertain length of the shutdown: Either change the rules to accommodate digital releases, or risk an Oscars where only two and a half months of films were eligible. As much as I would have loved to hear the words “Best Picture Nominee Birds of Prey,” the former was the better option.
However, the Oscars being Thee Oscars, not every streaming project will be eligible. To be nominated, movies would still need to have had a scheduled theatrical release before the world turned upside down. So no The Last Dance and no Bad Education (despite the fact that it played last year’s TIFF). But films that previously hovered in a zone of uncertainty, like Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Promising Young Woman, have now received confirmation that they will indeed be able to compete. Justin Timberlake can breathe easy, too, as Trolls World Tour’s VOD release has not prevented “The Other Side” from becoming the early front-runner for Best Original Song.
It’s as good a compromise as any, though some kinks remain. At the moment, the Academy is working off a previously published list of planned 2020 theatrical releases, but what about the movies that hadn’t officially announced a release date yet? In a post-announcement call with Vulture on Tuesday, leadership explained that they could look at production contracts to determine whether a film was intended for theatrical release at the time it was made. But a plan for how to adjudicate eligibility claims is TBD. “We will be supportive of artists and filmmakers,” Academy CEO Dawn Hudson said. “If there are exceptional circumstances … ”
The temporary abandonment of the theatrical mandate was the big headline, but the Academy also made a handful of smaller adjustments too, most of which shared the goal of eliminating gatekeeping bylaws that had outlived their usefulness. (Unlike the eligibility decision, these are expected to be permanent.) When movie theaters do come back, a film won’t have to play in L.A. to be eligible; New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Miami will be able to host qualifying runs, too. As a nod to the Academy’s increasingly global membership, voting on the Best International Film short list will now be open to any member who watches enough of the films, instead of the select committee that was previously in control. And in Original Score, the standards have been clarified to help out that branch’s voters. Instead of the nebulous guideline that music had to be “predominantly” new material, there are now concrete benchmarks: a score has to be 60 percent original, or 80 percent in the case of franchise films.
Even the long-rumored move to consolidate Sound Mixing and Sound Editing into a single award can be read as an attempt at greater accessibility. This revision was inspired by feedback from the sound branch itself: The mixing and editing teams work so closely together, Oscar-winning mixer Paul Massey told me when I interviewed him last year, that it doesn’t necessarily make sense to split the trophies up anymore. But a side effect of the merger is to make life a tiny bit easier for those Academy members who have never grokked the difference between the two categories, too.
Tuesday’s announcement might not be the end to the changes for the 2021 ceremony. If a vaccine isn’t ready by next year, would it really be safe to cram thousands of people from around the globe into one room together, no matter how well they’re dressed? Rumors have swirled about the Academy possibly pushing the awards back from their planned February 27 date, or even stealing an idea from Oscar history and having a mega-ceremony in 2022 that covers the previous two years of movies. Or what about the prospect of a virtual ceremony? On that front, all leadership will say is that it’s very early, and when it’s time for a decision to be made, they’ll make it in concert with ABC and the appropriate health authorities. “Every day we have a decision map,” says Academy president David Rubin. “And every day is like a year. Our rules are fluid. The only thing is to be nimble and responsive.” Those are not two words you would have always applied to the Academy, but this week, they were the right ones.