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How do you campaign for an Oscar during a pandemic?

Bong Joon-ho at the 2020 Academy Awards.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This time last year, the film industry was preparing for its biggest night of the year, the Academy Awards. While the quartet of acting winners had practically been set in stone for months, the fate of the top Oscars was still up in the air. Hollywood was a-flutter with anticipation over the impending results. Would months of campaigning pay off with a ground-breaking win for the South Korean drama Parasite and its director Bong Joon-ho, or would the Oscars voters return to its status quo and reward the more conventional choice, the war drama 1917? The Oscars is the culmination of months of work, which includes endless screenings, campaigning, hand shaking, butt-kissing, and headline-grabbing publicity. It's a key lifeblood of the business. So, what happens in a year when none of that is possible?

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has left the entertainment industry in a precarious state for many reasons. Major productions have shut down, thousands of people have been left out of work, and the entire cinematic release model has been irrevocably changed. Compared to the seismic damage the coronavirus has caused, the hits taken by awards season are positively frivolous. Still, this is a major part of how the film world does business, and the show must go on. It was debated, however, for a long time if cancelling the year’s Oscars altogether would be a smart idea. Eventually, the Academy chose to push the dates back, not only moving the ceremony itself to April but expanding the qualification period an extra two months. That means that any film with a release up to the end of February 2021 will qualify as a 2020 title.

This means that a hell of a lot of actors, filmmakers, studios, and publicists are still hard at work trying to secure those little gold men for their mantlepieces. After all, the success of a certain kind of film in this context helps to shape the kind of movies that are made in the first place, especially when it comes to those adult-oriented mid-budget films that struggle to find a place in the market against a sea of superheroes.

The most notable difference with this year's awards campaign is that the competition is much thinner on the ground. When it seemed as though there may be no Oscars ceremony in 2021, a lot of movies were pushed into the next year, where things will (hopefully) be more secure. Big-budget prestige hopefuls such as Steven Spielberg’s remake of the musical West Side Story and Denis Villeneuve’s epic adaptation of Dune were shunted into later dates. Those much-buzzed dramas that are crucial to Oscar season also suffered, with notable casualties including Will Smith’s King Richard, a biopic where he plays the father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. A lot of expected 2020 titles didn’t even finish shooting, like Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley and Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel.

Most of these movies would have expected to play as part of the fall festival season. Landing a premiere at Venice, New York, Toronto, or Telluride is a key sign of a film’s serious awards buzz status. Last year, Telluride was shut down altogether and the other major festivals scaled down considerably. Toronto, for example, can typically expect to screen perhaps 250 or so films. Instead, it had 50. Some of them were hyped-up potential awards titles, but nowhere near the numbers of years past. Usually, the festivals squabble over exclusive premieres but this time around they all shared the same movies, most notably the frontrunner of the 2020 season, Nomadland.

All of this has made the awards campaigning this season a far less frantic affair. There are no reports of behind-the-scenes drama or dirty tactics that used to be par for the course with Oscar fights (although this change may also be a consequence of the post-Harvey Weinstein age, given that the disgraced mogul was infamous for this kind of scheming.) In fairness, it is hard to kick up a fuss when all of the campaigning (or at least the public aspects of it) is happening via Zoom. Talk-show appearances, industry panels, and red-carpet schmoozing is a frequent part of the season. It’s the best way for a contender, especially an actor, to get their face out there and show how completely invested they are, not only in their craft but in wanting the award (the Academy is famously snippy at people who turn their noses up at campaigning.) We’re still getting The Hollywood Reporter roundtables and festival Q&As, but it’s far more low-key and way less glamorous than we typically expect. The gloss is gone, but does that really matter? It was one of the primary fears the Academy and its supporters had should they be forced to conduct an awards ceremony over various nominees' laptop cameras in their bedrooms. The Oscars are meant to be the prettiest girl at the party, but everyone seems pretty chill about letting them stay in pajamas and get on with the show.

To qualify for Oscars consideration, a film is meant to screen in at least one theatre in New York City or Los Angeles for one week between January 1st and December 31st. Obviously, that can’t happen in lockdown, so the Academy has changed its rules (reportedly only for this year but we’ll see) to allow movies to debut digitally. As long as they are available to screen for Academy members on their digital screening site, it’s fine. Given the Academy’s notorious aversion to change and the average elderly age of its membership, it remains to be seen if this new process will impact the race in any major way. Some studios still send out fancy screener DVDs and swag but that’s dying out due to the expense. Will we see another slew of “brutally honest anonymous Oscar voters” posts where people brag about not having seen most of the competition?

The slate of competitors may be smaller for 2020, but it is no less viable this season. Indeed, this could be a major chance for the Academy to shake the dust off itself and move forward in a way that it has been hesitant to do for decades. This is a year where the majority of frontrunners for Best Director are not white men: Chloé Zhao for Nomadland; Regina King for One Night in Miami, Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman; Lee Isaac Chung for Minari, and Spike Lee for Da 5 Bloods. Smaller indie titles are part of the conversation in a way that there simply wouldn't be room for in years prior, like First Cow and Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Streaming services are also dominating in a way that the Academy has been hesitant to fully embrace, thanks to auteur-driven titles like David Fincher's Mank. In theory, this could be a pioneering year for the Academy, if only because their options have been depleted in such a manner. Then again, the Oscars do have a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Green Book and Crash, anyone?

We still have no idea what the Oscars ceremony itself will look like. It's become clear that the chances of an in-person event like years past, complete with a red carpet and jam-packed theater, are next to none. But there will be a show, if only because ABC are contractually obligated to put one on. We may miss the reaction shots, the sobbing acceptance speeches, and the inimitable atmosphere of the Oscars, but the core of the ceremony remains. Therein could lie a mountain of exciting change. Imagine if this is the year where we have more than one woman nominated for Best Director and see our second win in over 90 years. There's a solid chance that the late great Chadwick Boseman could win two posthumous awards for his work in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Da 5 Bloods. We could see Best International Feature nominees from the Ivory Coast and Guatemala, a first for both countries. At the heart of it all, beyond the glitz and PR machinations, this is still about the films, and they endure despite it all. That deserves some attention, even during the bleakest of times.