Real-life plot twists leave Oscars struggling to adapt to new reality

Lockdowns, the rise of streaming and demands for diversity are forcing change on the 93rd Academy Awards

No full-blown red carpet, no outfit questions, no after-parties – many involved in Sunday’s Oscars are happy to take a break from a four-hour seated ceremony that, some argue, has long put the movie industry’s in-house favourites, the promotion of luxury lifestyles and virtue-signalling ahead of peer-reviewed creative recognition.

The event has been under reconstruction since the #OscarsSoWhite campaign forced an expansion of the voting body’s membership and drafting of inclusivity requirements that will come into effect next year.

How the ceremony goes down is up to Steven Soderbergh, the cinéma vérité director of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Traffic and the questionable Girlfriend Experience, who is behind the broadcast.

“We will be there, that’s for sure. The question is who else will be there with us?” Soderbergh told the Hollywood Reporter last week.

Soderbergh is reportedly planning a more “intimate” experience, with an emphasis on innovation. He will shoot it “as if it is a film itself”, and said he’d surrendered to being “a human piñata”.

Nominees have been asked for extended pre-recorded acceptance speeches that tell a narrative story, and invited to turn up at Los Angeles Union Station or at satellite locations in New York or London. An Oscars hub has been set up at the British Film Institute’s headquarters on the South Bank of the Thames for a party attended by a small group of nominees and their guests.

LA itself, normally abuzz during Oscars week, has virtually shut down. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has instituted a triple-test Covid system but how it will all work, with nominees being shuttled in and out, is anyone’s guess.

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman, the highest grossing picture.
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. Photograph: AP

One change is that nominees for best original song – Celeste, H.E.R., Leslie Odom Jr, Laura Pausini, Daniel Pemberton, Molly Sandén and Diane Warren – will perform their compositions in their entirety, and not sandwiched into a medley, as part of the lead-in to the ceremony. The effects of a year in lockdown, too, have taken a toll on the star system. Being seen out in public without a mask, on holiday – virtually any kind of slip-up that signals privilege or lack of political concern – is a potential career-ender.

“Many people are more than happy to skip it,” says one LA director. “Nobody likes doing the press and the red carpet. We’ve done it before, every year, and we will do it again next year. And at Cannes, in the summer, where the glam makes the Oscars look casual.”

Moreover, with theatres dark and streaming services pushing down actor salaries and the value of production deals, movie and TV economics have changed. Now streaming services are in the ascendant, public recognition of films in contention has sharply declined; Oscar viewership has declined 44% over seven years.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the entertainment research firm Guts + Data had found that among people aged 13 to 64, 35% hadn’t heard of any of the eight films nominated for best picture, and only 15% had heard of Netflix’s Mank, which has 10 Oscar nominations. The highest-grossing nominee for best picture, Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan, generated just $6.3m in US ticket sales.

Amanda Seyfried in the Netflix film Mank.
Amanda Seyfried in the Netflix film Mank. Photograph: Netflix/AP

Power-broking, too, has changed, with traditional studio heads losing influence to Amazon, Apple and Netflix executives, and the figures behind them. Nicole Avant, former Obama ambassador to the Bahamas and wife of Netflix chief executive Ted Sarandos, is regarded as prime mover behind the Sussexes deals.

This year’s Oscars could be an anomaly in some respects – but not necessarily all. “It feels like high noon for the industry,” noted the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern last week.

Topping the list of contenders is Nomadland director Chloé Zhao, who could be the first woman of colour to win the academy award for best director. The film is also nominated for best picture, best adapted screenplay and best film editing – plus nominations for Frances McDormand as best leading actress and Joshua James Richards for best cinematography – and a clean sweep would match a statue take-home achieved only four times previously, with Warren Beatty doing it twice.

The show’s producers defined this year’s non-red-carpet dress code to the Los Angeles Times as a “fusion of inspirational and aspirational, which in actual words means formal is totally cool if you want to go there, but casual is really not”.

All this perhaps suggests a winnowing out of the celebrity system, a development the luxury industry is determined to put a stop to. Looking to preserve the night’s marketing opportunity, celebrity agents and stylists will still be auctioning off every inch of their clients, but it’s a system, some say, that has already broken down with or without a red-carpet walk.

“The pandemic took all that away, which definitely accelerated that kind of decline but … Instagram has become a stand-in for the red carpet,” Elana Fishman, style editor at the New York Post, told Business of Fashion. It has put actors in a bind, as Minari star Yeri Han told WWD: “It’s so hard to choose a dress for the events – maybe sometimes it’s harder to choose a dress than a script.”

Chloe Zhao could make history as the first woman of colour to win best director.
Chloe Zhao could make history as the first woman of colour to win best director. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps the most significant changes are behind the scenes. Studio publicists have been unable to organise sponsored lunches and screenings, muffling the echo chamber of buzz around studio-financed films and nominees. As part of its membership reforms, the academy has added more international voters and made changes to the system, with votes cast across a spread of nominees, like a spread bet in racing, that’s likely to reduce tactical voting and produce surprise winners.

Walt Hickey, who analyses Oscars data in his newsletter Numlock News, told the Observer: “The academy looked at how the industry was changing and the power of the international box office, especially China, and realised that it needed to broaden its ambitions.

“They realised the Oscars could no longer be a chicken-or-fish dinner for the Los Angeles illuminati.”


Edward Helmore

The GuardianTramp

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