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Oscars Preview Part I: The Academy’s New Landscape

Our first Oscars Preview looks at the Academy rule and makeup changes that have occurred since Parasite’s big night and how they might impact the 2020 nominees.

I have been an obsessive Oscar watcher my entire life.  As a kid, I would see all the major category nominees with my mom. Over the years, that curiosity has only grown and I now make a habit of seeing every nominee before the ceremony each year.  So, naturally, following the ebbs and flows of the Oscars race each year has been an essential part of my film experience.

This year will be an Oscar race like no other.  The overwhelming effect of COVID-19, which has not only led to direct rule changes at the Academy and titanic shifts in the Hollywood release calendar but has also exacerbated and expedited market forces harmful to the theater going experience.  At least in the US, there appears to be no end in sight for the lifestyle shifts caused by the pandemic.

This will be a three-part, weekly Oscars Preview that looks at the Oscar race at the halfway point of 2020. In Part I, we will discuss the various changes the Academy has made for this Oscar season and what they might mean for the race. Part II will address the movies that have come out in the first half of 2020 that we may hear about the Oscars next April. And Part III will address the movies still to come.  (And a quick point of language clarity: if I refer to the 2019 Oscars I am referring to the ceremony that was held in 2020 to honor movies released in 2019.)

Here are the big changes that will impact the Oscars this year.


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Parasite’s director and cast pose with their Best Picture Award during the 92nd Annual Academy Awards (Matt Petit /A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images)

The 2014 Oscar ceremony saw controversy in the make-up of its nominees.  For the second consecutive year, twenty white actors held the twenty nomination slots in the four acting categories.  #OscarsSoWhite trended for months and became a calling sign for the lack of diversity in Academy selections. Of course, the reason  the nominees turn out as they do is because of what the electorate looks like.  It has been overwhelmingly aged white and male for as long as there has been an Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

The last few years have seen an effort at correction by the Academy.  2019 saw the addition of 846 new members, 2020 now sees another 819 members added – another increase of nearly 10% of the voting base.  The impact of such an addition was made abundantly clear last year.  Two years ago, Green Book won Best Picture.  The film, while extremely well-acted, fell prey to criticisms that it created a neutered version of racial history by depicting the experience of a gay black man in the South in the 1960s through the lens of a white man’s experiences. One year, and 846 new Academy members, later saw the odds-on favorite for Best Picture as a classic Academy staple: a British war movie of immaculate technical craftsmanship directed by an Oscar winner and brimming with well-respected thespians. 1917 was, if we are being honest with ourselves, precisely the sort of movie one would expect an old, white, male Academy member to support.  1917’s defeat in the Oscar trenches to Parasite reflects the change those 846 members had on the voting base. Suddenly the Academy is younger, more feminine, and more diverse.

That seismic shift in the electorate will only continue with the new additions this year.  The new voting class is 49% international, 45% female and 36% not white. Last year saw the first foreign language film to win Best Picture; the effect should be even more stark this year. The “new class” is big enough that the list of nominees should start to become more diverse.


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Jane Fonda presents the Oscar® for Best Picture to Kwak Sin Ae and the cast and crew of “Parasite” during the live ABC Telecast of The 92nd Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, February 9, 2020 (Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.)

In the wake of the perceived snub of The Dark Knight by Academy voters over a decade ago, AMPAS changed the rules to allow for ten nominees for Best Picture. The rule was actually a throwback to the Academy of the 30s and 40s. After just two years, they shifted to a variable formula that would allow between five and ten nominees based on a preferential ballot system by the voters. As a practical matter, it meant the last nine Oscar ceremonies had either eight or nine Best Picture nominations.

This year the Academy has announced a return to a field of ten nominees.  What did we learn from the two years of ten nominations? Leaving aside eventual winners The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech, both years saw a noteworthy populist slant in the films that feel like the “last ones” to get nominated.  2009 saw Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, and Up while 2010 saw Inception and Toy Story 3 nominated.  Some of these may well have gotten a nomination with the variable size field, but the small sample size lesson seems to be that populism receives an advantage in an enlarged field.


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Pharrell Williams and Michelle Yeoh present the Oscar® for best animated feature film to Phil Lord and Christopher Miller during the live ABC Telecast of The 91st Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, February 24, 2019 (Todd Wawrychuk / ©A.M.P.A.S.)

As a concession to the practical realities of COVID-19, and the fact that we have now gone nearly four months without a single relevant theatrical release, the Academy has announced that nominees will now be eligible if they are released by February 28, 2021. It is hard to tell right now what effect this will actually have on the race.  In a world where the United States had taken proper measures to control COVID-19, the two extra months might have been sufficient to guarantee a more normal field of nominees.  Alas, we are not in that world.  So we are left with a scenario where awards hopefuls either need to (1) forego the theatrical experience or (2) attempt to release into theaters despite the various hindrances they will face (from limited seating requirements to a dearth of elderly film goers).  Just the past week has seen Aaron Sorkin’s much anticipated The Trial of the Chicago 7 sold to Netflix in a concession to the practical reality that the audience for such a movie – urban, educated, and old – will not soon be returning to theaters.


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Backstage during the live ABC telecast of the 91st Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, February 24, 2019 (Aaron Poole / ©A.M.P.A.S.)

One critical, and necessary, rule change is the Academy will no longer require films to make a qualifying run in theaters in order to be eligible for awards.  Now, a film only needs to have been intended for a theatrical release during its production to establish its candidacy.  This change assures that all films released during COVID maintain eligibility.


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The Assistant (Vertigo Releasing)

The most significant under-the-radar change to the voting process is the new utilization of the Academy Screening Room.  As you are probably aware, voting members are given access to screeners of most potential nominees.  The process has become increasingly digital in recent years (in fact, this year is supposed to be the last year members will be able to receive DVD screeners). Just last week, the digital Academy Screening Room went online earlier than it ever has.  The first “screeners” have now gone out to voters earlier than any point in history. 

This portal may grow even more important for small movies as the classical method for an independent film to build buzz no longer exists: the film festival. Cannes has been cancelled.  New York has been cancelled. Toronto intends to try to do some sort of festival, but with a massively diminished audience.  It simply will not be possible for a small movie like Parasite to grow the buzz necessary to get a nomination in the conventional way. Perhaps the Academy Screening Room, for a film with sufficiently glowing reviews, could see some films take on an essential viewing status for voting members.

Nine movies have entered the pool first: The Assistant, Crip Camp, Da 5 Bloods, The Half of It, The King of Staten Island, Lost Girls, Military Wives, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and Trolls: World Tour.  This gives us a few important nominees.  A few of these can largely be dismissed: The Half of It and Lost Girls, two solid, unspectacular Netflix films, are unlikely to be credible contenders considering Netflix’s own potent second half calendar.  Military Wives, a somewhat well reviewed movie from the director of The Full Monty, does not have the buzz or critical acclaim necessary to be a real contender.

That leaves six movies who may receive a real advantage from this style of release.  Crip Camp appears to be a shoo-in for a Best Documentary Feature nomination.  It has glowing reviews and comes from Higher Ground Productions, the production company created by Barack and Michelle Obama responsible for last year’s Best Documentary winner American Factory.  Trolls: World Tour has an interesting case for a Best Animated Feature nomination.  The movie is not great and the choice to forego a theatrical release in favor of Premium Video on Demand will offend some old school members of the Academy, but is has seen significant financial success and could stand to benefit from a field missing many other contenders.

Da 5 Bloods was likely to compete for many nominations regardless of COVID-19 considering the film’s quality and Spike Lee’s pedigree. The King of Staten Island is a good film and may benefit from being one of the “biggest” released during quarantine times.  I struggle to see the film in the best picture field, but I cannot help but wonder if the added exposure will give it a chance at a screenplay nomination which always tends to be a bastion of “cooler” picks.

The biggest beneficiaries are The Assistant and Never Rarely Sometimes Always, two of the year’s best films.  Both had only received limited releases as the shutdown began.  The Assistant had only expanded to about 25 screens.  Never Rarely had four days in four theaters before theaters closed. Both films desperately needed the opportunity to grow an audience through word of mouth and gradual expansions if they were ever going to see awards glory.  Neither is a pleasant sit – one deals with the experience of a personal assistant to a Weinstein-esque sexual predator and the other with the tribulations of a small-town girl seeking an abortion – but both are undeniably powerful.  I am cautiously optimistic that both will have the chance to gain an audience with the primacy of their placement before Academy voters.  The Assistant in particular – the Academy sure does loves movies about the movie industry – seems positioned to benefit from the pole position.

Come back next Tuesday for our next Oscars Preview, in which we’ll discuss what all these changes will mean for the nomination chances of the movies that have already been released in 2020.

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