The 93rd Academy Awards, after an unprecedented 14-month eligibility season and a pandemic that shut most of the nation’s movie theaters, will finally be handed out on Sunday, April 25. Exactly how normal this ceremony will feel — and how normal the industry should view it as being — is up for debate: Some see it as the firm-handed continuation of a tradition that began with Douglas Fairbanks handing Clara Bow the Best Picture statuette for 1927’s Wings and has endured without interruption through all manner of national calamity ever since, and others as the weary end point of a year like no other. But beneath both positions — this is the year the show must go on and this is the year the show didn’t go on — lurks a degree of dread about this year’s “Oddscars” — the fear that they aren’t so anomalous after all. Surely, at some point, things will be the way they used to be again, right? Doesn’t that have to be true?
No, it doesn’t.
The truth is, there’s not much of an argument to be made that this year’s Oscars are any kind of shocking break with tradition. The show won’t look exactly the way it usually does — prizes will be handed out at L.A.’s social-distancing-friendly Union Station and the guest list will be restricted to nominees and their plus-ones. But the hiring of six-time Oscars telecast director Glenn Weiss and the ban on Zoom acceptance speeches (we’ll see if the latter, which is already generating considerable pushback, holds up) are both gestures intended to connect the 2021 ceremony to its predecessors. Sure, many top-tier studio offerings were delayed out of contention this year, but no asterisks are necessary when it comes to the strong list of Best Picture nominees — The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah, Mank, Minari, Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 — any of which could credibly have been nominated.
The lack of big studio movies this year has led to some welcome firsts. An Asian woman, Nomadland’s Chloé Zhao, will compete for Best Director, and she won’t be the only woman or the only Asian director in the category. Viola Davis has become the first Black actress ever to achieve four career nominations, and Zhao, with four nominations this year alone (for producing, directing, writing, and editing), becomes the first woman to join a very short list previously reserved for the likes of Orson Welles and Warren Beatty. But take a step back, and there is nothing overtly unusual about this year’s field: It includes newcomers like Minari’s Lee Isaac Chung, but also modern masters like David Fincher and establishment faves like Aaron Sorkin. And the split between breakthrough performers getting their first nominations (there are 11, ranging from Riz Ahmed and Steven Yeun to Andra Day and Vanessa Kirby) and returning vets (Anthony Hopkins back for a sixth time, Glenn Close for an eighth) is pretty typical.
But any hope that the 2021 Academy Awards will mark a return to business as usual for Hollywood in an almost post-COVID, ever-more-vaccinated world — one in which theaters will throw their doors open and film production will ramp up — vanished on March 23, when Disney announced that its next Marvel movie, Black Widow, was abandoning both its planned May 7 release date and its only-in-theaters strategy; the movie will now arrive July 9 in theaters and, for a hefty surcharge, on Disney+. The symbolic impact of that decision is immense, since as the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes, so goes the world of mere theatergoing mortals. Widow was the first giant summer-style blockbuster to cancel its release (originally slated for last May 1) when COVID hit, and its eventual return to theaters has long been viewed by the industry as the moment when everything can return to exactly where it was in early 2020.
It may be time to stop hoping for that moment. If you suspend norms for long enough, new norms arise to take their place — both in the Oscars and in the industry they celebrate. Those in the industry who still insist on viewing these Oscars as a blip — a weird nonevent celebrating movies that got the spotlight only because the real contenders were benched, and a telecast that’s expected to plunge to record-low ratings, a fate that has befallen every other awards show this season — aren’t paying attention. Although almost all of this year’s nominees are available to anyone with a TV and the right streaming services, these revanchists grouse that almost nobody has seen them. (The insistence that these films are culturally invisible is a very old-guard movie-biz thing; Hollywood uses grosses to measure impact, and the collective reach of Netflix, Hulu, and Prime Video means nothing to the studio establishment in the absence of a metric that can be checked every Monday morning.) Talk to these people, and what you hear a lot is: “Wait until next year.” You know, when Warner puts out Dune and In the Heights and Disney releases West Side Story and critics swoon over Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson and 83-year-old Ridley Scott has not one but two big movies and festivals aren’t virtual anymore and December is a crowded mess and everything is the way it always was and is meant to be. But this year? Nah. This is the sad Oscars, a memorial service for a nonevent of a season on an evening that’s most likely to be remembered for the grief of a Best Actor tribute to Chadwick Boseman, gone much too soon in a year in which hundreds of thousands of Americans were also gone much too soon.
The thing is, neither the Academy Awards nor the industry they celebrate have been “normal” for a long time, and they’re never going back. If you’re shocked by the fact that Netflix boasts more nominations than any other company, including two Best Picture nominees, you shouldn’t be — Netflix had two Best Picture nominees last year too, and one the year before that, when there were still concerned murmurs about whether it should be allowed to compete at all. (That conversation ended the minute it became clear that seemingly half the Academy was making Netflix movies.) And the diversity of this year’s acting lineup — six Black actors, two Korean actors, the first Muslim Best Actor nominee — is not a COVID anomaly: It’s the reflection of a new, far more diverse Academy, half of whose voters joined after 2012, just a couple of years before an all-white list of acting nominees sparked the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and led to a multiyear, remarkably successful effort to diversify its ranks. Similarly, the dominance of streamers — Netflix’s two Best Picture hopes, Chicago 7 and Mank, are joined by Prime Video’s Sound of Metal* — is normal, the new normal, the one everyone had better get used to. Hybrid-release strategies like the ones for Nomadland (a film from Disney’s Searchlight division that was simultaneously launched on the company’s streamer Hulu) and Judas and the Black Messiah (a Warner Bros. film that debuted on HBO Max the same day it opened theatrically) may have been specially designed for this year, but that doesn’t mean the model will never be used again, even if the pandemic becomes a nonfactor.
Movie studios have always feared outside threats, whether from television in the 1950s and 1960s, indies in the 1990s and 2000s, or streamers in the last few years. Those legacy companies have somehow managed to survive, often by co-opting their upstart rivals. But this moment is different: As new models are rising, old ones really do seem to be giving way. Netflix, Amazon, and Apple aren’t plucky little underdogs; they’re giants, in some cases trillion-dollar giants, that make even the biggest movie studios look like quaint little boutiques. And about those studios: There aren’t many left. Just five from the golden age, two of which, Disney and Warner, made it clear this year that feeding their new streaming services, including with movies, is their priority. Of the remaining three, NBCUniversal owns the new streaming service Peacock, ready to become a home for its movies whenever the company decides that matters; Paramount has been surrendering one movie after another to streamers (including Chicago 7) and has just launched its own, Paramount+; and Sony, the sole studio without its own streaming arm, is rumored to be nearing a deal with one of the big ones.
What that adds up to is the first real redefinition of “Hollywood” away from the studios in the century since they were founded, and anyone who imagines that the Academy is going to fight against that in order to insist on the preservation of historical norms hasn’t taken a clear look at the Academy lately. Venerating the past might work nicely for AMPAS’s humble new Death Star–shaped Los Angeles museum — a decade-in-the-making starchitect-designed money pit that’s finally scheduled to open in September. But as for the Oscars themselves, the war is over, and the traditionalists — those who believe that the Academy’s purpose is to celebrate the most successful mass entertainment produced by Hollywood studios — have lost. Studios mostly don’t even make those movies anymore — Warner’s Argo and Universal’s Green Book are the only two straight-up studio films to win Best Picture in the last 15 years, and even they were anomalies for their companies. But beyond that, the Academy voters most dedicated to preserving those traditions, the ones who were the organization’s heart and soul not so long ago, are now a niche — just one among many. That’s not to say that they couldn’t mass behind a traditionalist choice (The Trial of the Chicago 7, a heartfelt liberal-white-guy movie, is probably the option most akin to an old-style Oscar winner, and everybody watched it at home, on Netflix), or that they won’t again; tastes fluctuate from year to year, as do the available options. But except for Green Book, voters haven’t gone that way recently; this Academy seemed to announce its reinvention with an inadvertently stunning flourish three years ago, when Moonlight beat La La Land in what appeared to be sudden-death overtime, and confirmed it last year with a historic victory for Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. That’s the new normal, pandemic or not. No wonder everyone’s so anxious.
* This piece originally stated incorrectly that Sound of Metal is Amazon’s first-ever Best Picture contender. Amazon Studios was one of the production companies behind and distributors of Manchester by the Sea, which was nominated for Best Picture at the 89th Academy Awards.