People aren’t very excited about this years’ Oscars, and it supports a growing trend of disinterest in movie awards ceremonies. That’s a major problem for the industry.
With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Academy of Motion Pictures pushed back the date of the 2021 Oscar Awards Ceremony into April in order to lengthen the period of time during which eligible films could be released. The idea behind this move was to allow extra time for 2020 films to find avenues of eligibility if their original methods of release/premiere were delayed or cancelled. Many films that are eligible for the Oscars tend to premiere at film festivals towards the end of the year, and all of those festivals were cancelled or scaled back for 2020.
In many ways this was a necessity, or else the Academy could face fewer potential eligible films to draw their nominations from. The logic would be that with more films there is more competition and the quality of the eligible films would improve. But despite the extended eligibility period, 2020 did not provide a dearth of film releases. When the pandemic first began the thought was that we would have a semblance of normalcy towards the end of the year in 2020 and that would have allowed more films to be released.
Obviously that didn’t happen, and so films had to find alternate avenues for release if they wanted to be eligible. For many of the smaller films which may have turned heads at the festivals, this proved to be difficult. For many of the larger films, studios decided they would rather wait to explore the situation next year than risk releasing in 2020 when there was a restricted opportunity to make money. What resulted is fewer films to choose from for the big awards, and that has resulted in a shift in the types of nominees.
Look at the nominees for the 2021 Oscars and you will see a bigger diversity in terms of race and gender in traditionally white male-dominated areas such as direction, screenwriting, and many of the technical categories. Many of these people are also first time nominees. In fact, look at the Best Director category which is usually full of the who’s-who among Hollywood elite. This year all of the nominees in that category except for David Fincher are first time Oscar nominees.
On one hand this shift is a very good thing. After the Academy and many other awards ceremonies came under fire for the lack of diversity among their voting bodies, the 2021 nominees show a marked improvement in not just the variety of people that are nominated, but also the types of films. This provides more exposure for those people both inside and outside of the industry. But on the other hand this is a problem for the awards ceremonies because without big-name recognition for the major awards, more casual movie watchers have less incentive to care about the awards or the films that are nominated. It’s a Catch-22.
Indeed, Oscar fatigue is a significant problem this year. If the viewer ratings of the other awards ceremonies are any indication, this years’ Oscar ceremonies will be the least-watched in decades. There are a few reasons why this could be. First of all, with movie theaters mostly closed this past year, people didn’t really have movies on their minds the way they had in years past. They may have watched more movies at home, but in doing so the experience is different, and the connection to other films through posters or trailers was less accessible.
But also as important is the fact that we were all in lockdown, and so many people were not as social as they usually would be. Positive experiences from watching movies did not spread due to word of mouth. We did spend more time on social media, but reading a positive recommendation for a movie by someone you’ve never met in real life won’t be as effective as your best friend telling you about the movie they saw over the weekend. As a result there has been less interest in prestige films compared to years past by casual movie watchers.
Furthermore, without established recognizable names attached to this year’s winners, more casual movie watchers have less incentive to tune in to them. For example, even if you don’t know what the newest Quantin Tarantino movie is about, if you liked his other films you will probably want to watch the new one too. Besides Mank and Soul, all of the major award-winning films this year were without the benefit of reputation attached to them. Reputation goes a long way in the general population in reference to popular culture, and arguably more so than in film than in any other area.
Also, think about how having the experience of seeing a movie in a theater can be much more impactful and lasting than the experience of watching it on your sofa in your living room. So even if people are watching some of these award-nominated films they may not be as memorable as they could have been simply because of the way they are being watched (think of the distractions at home, inability to watch mature films with kids, interest in binge-watching something else, etc.). So although having new filmmakers nominated is a very good thing to expand the diversity of the industry, they aren’t going to draw in new crowds simply because they are less well-known, and their films are going to be less memorable to the general public due to the pandemic situation.
But the issue with Oscar fatigue may unfortunately be more indicative of the types of movies that did see release this past year rather than our exposure to them. As I mentioned, this years’ films seem to be more diverse than in years’ past, and are mostly without the star power which may have carried lesser films to awards nominations in years’ past. This shift may have little to do with the changes that these governing bodies made to the way they nominate films, and more to do with the fact that it was the more diverse films which found avenues to be released, and so they made up as a larger portion of the eligible films than had been the case in the past.
With increased media focus on racial injustice following the demonstrations last summer, it would make sense that distribution companies would seek out those films which would relay a similar message. The fact is that those types of films happen to be more diverse. More importantly, with the pandemic, lots of people watched movies at home from streaming services. Having those types of films which touched on modern social trends would give added attention to those streaming platforms which hosted them. Finally, the more diverse films tended to be lower or mid-budgeted pictures. In normal years they may get a smaller release in theaters and have been pushed aside from the mainstream attention by both larger films or at least films released by more widely-recognized filmmakers gobbling up the headlines.
This year with less competition those more diverse films have seemingly broken through. But the stage they have finally reached is suddenly with fewer eyeballs upon it than in years past, as I’ve discussed. What does that mean for the inclusivity of the industry moving forward? Only time will tell, but it is probably not a very positive outlook. Consider that 2021 will see the release of most of those big films which were delayed from 2020. There is suddenly going to be a lot of competition on that stage for audiences which have already been dwindling the last few years. More concerning is the fact that all of this competition was completely absent last year which was a potential major reason for the more diverse films to find a footing.
The criticism against lack of diversity at previous awards ceremonies should encourage people to view more diverse films than they had in the past. Availability of more films on streaming services will also help. I think this will be true moving forward, but for only part of the film-watching population. Awards ceremony audiences have been shrinking for a few years, along with domestic theater audiences in general. So any recent criticism of awards circuit inclusivity was voiced by a dwindling population that shows no sign of increasing in the near future. Looking at the big picture that means a very small percentage of the general population actually cares significantly enough, or is in a place to do something about, the diversity of films at awards ceremonies.
Without movie theaters, the charge to increase inclusivity of films falls on the shoulders of people who are in the industry (both making films and reviewing/discussing them). Unfortunately the people in the industry who have the power to make changes are also in places where it makes sense to maintain the status quo. Having more diverse casts and crews in major motion pictures is one thing, but those pictures remain at the control of the studios due to their high budgets. Major studios have little incentive to bring in people from outside the mainstream and give them opportunities to see what they can do without significant restrictions on lower-budgeted pictures. Especially now that mainstream attention is souring on the one avenue those types of films may have had traditionally to get attention – awards ceremonies/festivals.
Theaters were a way for the general population to dictate what type of films major studios would invest in, but it has yet to be seen how impactful they can be moving forward. With dwindling audiences tuning into awards ceremonies, studios are going to be less interested in investing money towards those type of films when they can make bank rolling out 4-hour cuts of superhero movies. In recent years we saw big-budgeted prestige films like 1917 or Dunkirk, but those films are still helmed by big-name directors who are already established and have proven themselves.
Besides getting an opportunity to direct a major motion picture like Taika Waititi or Patty Jenkins have recently, filmmakers outside of the mainstream have fewer and fewer avenues to establish themselves. And the fact that those filmmakers tend to be the ones of more diverse backgrounds with different approaches than what has been done in the mainstream is all that much more disappointing.
Unless the awards ceremonies are prepared to dole out a significant amount of nominations to the most recent Marvel film, I am afraid they will become less and less of interest to the general population. Blockbuster films are a great place to introduce more diverse casts, crews, and ideas – and indeed Marvel has been doing a much better job of that recently. One could argue that it was the criticism leveled at the awards ceremonies for lack of diversity which first opened people’s eyes and began the movement for more diversity in mainstream films. These major filmmakers, and the stars, want to be seen as being part of the solution. What better way to signal that shift towards an inclusive attitude than doing so at the most visible level?
But that still leaves the smaller films, and the filmmakers behind them struggling with getting the attention they deserve. Especially if they aren’t going to receive the widespread attention they may have gotten from awards ceremonies in the past. In many ways 2021 is a turning point for the industry. The problems I discussed illustrate not only the importance of traditional movie awards ceremonies and festivals, but how the general infrastructure of the film world is still weighed heavily against those with more diverse backgrounds. To those filmmakers, the events of 2020 were a double-edged sword – on one hand giving more opportunities to filmmakers outside of the mainstream to be acknowledged for their work, but also diminishing the prestige of that acknowledgment in the process.