How the Coronavirus Will Affect the 2021 Oscars

     March 20, 2020

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We’re certainly living in uncertain times, and that uncertainty extends all the way to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences it appears. If you asked anyone two months ago if studios would ever release their new movies on demand mere weeks after hitting theaters, the answer would be a hearty “no.” But in the wake of all the major theater chains shutting down over coronavirus concerns, that long-held theatrical window has been shattered. As of today, The Invisible Man, The Hunt, Onward, and Emma. are available on VOD despite having been released in theaters less than a month ago.

And with the length of this shutdown unclear, it appears as though the Oscars, too, are willing to make some concessions. Theatrical exhibitions were a sticking point as Netflix rose to prominence as a major player in awards season. The Academy held fast that a film had to be released in a theater for at least one week to be eligible to win Oscars, and while Netflix came close to striking a deal with a major theater chain last year for The Irishman, the streaming service wouldn’t budge from its limited window between theatrical release and streaming release and the deal fell through.

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Image via Universal Pictures

Netflix movies have been released in only a small number of theaters, largely independent, over the last couple of years. But the 2021 Oscars could see movies competing that didn’t open in a theater at all.

In a statement provided to THR, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said it is evaluating the current landscape and is leaving all options on the table ahead of the next awards season:

“The Academy is focused on helping our staff, our members, and the industry safely navigate through this global health and economic crisis. We are in the process of evaluating all aspects of this uncertain landscape and what changes may need to be made. We are committed to being nimble and forward-thinking as we discuss what is best for the future of the industry and will make further announcements in the coming days.”

This largely depends on how long theater chains are closed in accordance with CDC guidelines. If this shutdown runs through the entire summer and into the fall, that’s going to create a significant backlog of movies angling for theatrical release later this year. At the same time, studios likely aren’t going to want to hold all of their new releases until the third or fourth quarter of 2020 and may end up releasing a number of new films straight to VOD. Especially if these initial early releases end up being profitable.

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Image via Fox Searchlight

Trolls World Tour, of all things, will be the first major new release to go straight to VOD in these uncertain times, but it likely won’t be the last. While it’s hard to imagine films like Wonder Woman 1984 or Christopher Nolan’s Tenet going straight to VOD (Disney pulled May’s Black Widow from the release calendar, and Universal pushed F9 all the way to April 2021 to ensure maximized box office profits), it doesn’t seem impossible that Disney-Pixar releases Soul straight to VOD, or Judd Apatow’s Pete Davidson movie, or possibly even Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. Again, it largely depends on how long theaters will be closed to keep the public safe, but if this stretches on for a long period of time, we could see a one-time rule change for the Oscars in which eligibility is extended to include non-theatrical releases.

Could that mean Netflix finally wins Best Picture? They’ve got David Fincher’s Mank and a number of other films on deck for later this year, but of course that’s also assuming Hollywood opens back up enough for post-production to be completed on these films. That’s another issue—just because theaters open up in July doesn’t mean Tenet will be completed and ready for release, as post-production has been shut down on all of these major studio films. Universal even had to delay the release of the Minions sequel because they won’t be able to finish the animation in time.

Again, there’s a lot of uncertainty floating around, but it is interesting to see the Academy’s initial response isn’t to cling to theatrical exhibition at all costs. It sounds like they’re willing to make concessions given these unique circumstances. So what will the 2021 Oscars look like? Are our Best Picture contenders limited to movies released in January and February and then whatever studios are willing to throw on VOD for the rest of the year? Right now, it’s anyone’s guess.

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