It goes without saying, the pandemic has changed Hollywood. In fact, the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony has been delayed by two months, set to air this Sunday, April 25, 2021. Kimberly Owczarski, associate professor of film, television and digital media, weighs in on how the Academy has changed eligibility rules this year to allow films premiering on streaming services without a theatrical release to qualify for Oscar consideration:
In a year where the bulk of movie theaters in the U.S. have been closed, it is perhaps no surprise that the majority of this year’s Academy Award nominations went to films that primarily released on streaming platforms. However, this is the result of plans made by the Academy during the pandemic’s early stages to address what was seen as a ‘temporary’ issue for filmmakers. In April 2020, the Academy made the decision that films that debuted on a streaming service would be eligible for nominations if they had a planned theatrical release first, a reversal from the (required) initial theatrical release of previous years. The rule change is currently set as a one-time exception but given the length of the pandemic, the permanent closure of many movie theaters, and the success of several big releases on streaming services, it may become a lingering issue after this year’s Oscar ceremony.
For years, Netflix has opened its Oscar contention movies like Roma in select theaters briefly in order for their films to be eligible for consideration. As the company receiving the most nominations for this year’s Academy Awards, Netflix will continue to push for permanent changes to the Academy’s rules. The company will likely be joined in this challenge by Amazon, which scored the second highest number of Oscar nominations this year, and Apple, which received its first-ever Oscar nominations. As direct-to-consumer streaming services, these companies have a vested interest in overturning the eligibility rule.
Yet, the major Hollywood studios are also benefiting from this year’s exemption since almost all of them operate their own streaming services. For example, Searchlight released Nomadland in a few festivals and theaters in 2020, but most audience members saw it through Hulu, a subsidiary of corporate parent Disney. The studios also have big releases scheduled in the future that they will like to see nominated, as well. Warner Bros.’s entire film slate for 2021 will debut in theaters and on streaming service HBO Max simultaneously, making Oscar bait films like King Richard (about tennis coach Richard Williams) and blockbusters like Dune possibly ineligible under current Oscar guidelines.
What the long-delayed 2021 Oscar ceremony points to is a continued fight between old and new definitions of what a film release looks like. How we watch films has changed during the pandemic. But the ramifications of this temporary change to the Academy Award rules to allow initial releases on streaming services will be felt long past Sunday’s ceremony.