The Academy Must Consider Major Changes, Including Oscars Eligibility for VOD Releases

With California on lockdown, Hollywood is keenly aware that no matter how much we miss normalcy, this is no time to hang on to the rules of the road. Distributors large and small are crunching the numbers, weighing the immediate returns from VOD against revenues from theaters — whenever they return. As they assess how long theaters will be dark versus the best release strategy for their product, that creates a challenge for the 2021 Oscars: How will it adjust to this breakneck change?

This much is known: Hollywood’s production pipeline will be compromised. Many films will have halted or interrupted production, and may not make their original release dates. That means many films won’t be ready for fall festivals, and might not be ready by the end of the year.

For its part, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences acknowledges the crisis, and the potential for changes to come. “The Academy is focused on helping our staff, our members, and the industry safely navigate through this global health and economic crisis,” stated the Academy. “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.”

At this writing, distributors must weigh a very difficult question: Do they capture much-needed cashflow, and throw away Oscar chances, on a VOD release? Or, do they take their chances and wait until later in the year?

It’s a concern that will become more pressing as the year goes on. In the first quarter, only a few Oscar-eligible early releases are in the mix (“Emma”), while others like Eliza Hittman’s Sundance hit, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” were cut off at the knees by a March 13 release date, days before most theaters closed.

For now, the release calendar includes titles like “In the Heights” (Warner Bros., June 26), the John Chu musical based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit; Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” (Searchlight, July 24), which was expected to premiere at the now-delayed Cannes Film Festival; and Christopher Nolan’s hotly anticipated “Tenet” (Warner Bros., July 17).

Looking further ahead, there’s undated fall titles like Guillermo Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” and Taika Waititi’s “Next Goal Wins,” both from Searchlight, Paul Greengrass’ antebellum drama “News of the World” (Universal, December 25) starring Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg’s musical remake of “West Side Story” (Disney/20th Century, December 18). These are films that need the full complement of theaters, critics, festivals, and press attention, with all the bells and whistles of award season.

“Theatrical still provides the best opportunity to market upscale independent films via PR, marketing in theaters and word of mouth,” said Roadside Attractions co-president and Academy member Howard Cohen. Roadside, which took ”Judy” on a long festival and theatrical March to a Best Actress Oscar win for Renee Zellweger, currently has two titles anticipated for theatrical release in 2020, Julie Taymor’s “The Glorias” and “Ironbark” starring Rachel Brosnahan and Benedict Cumberbatch. Both were acquired at the recent Sundance Film Festival.

“The Infiltrators”


Oscilloscope Laboratories made the call to maintain its post-theatrical VOD release for hard-hitting Sundance immigration drama “The Infiltrators,” even without a date for the theatrical component. Originally set to open March 27 in New York and April 3 in Los Angeles, after national theater closings the distributor opted to keep its digital release date of June 2. An Oscilloscope rep said it will book the movie in theaters later, when it’s possible.

That will be tough. For smaller distributors, booking decent theaters is often a challenge; so is a VOD date, which has to be nailed down two or three or four months in advance. The fact is that even when the the dust settles, there may be even fewer screens as weaker theaters go out of business.

“Moving the date with no guaranteed opportunity to take the film to theaters anyway felt like it could be fruitless,” said Oscilloscope president Dan Berger. “When we come out of this, there will be a glut of films, with two or three times the usual number of movies vying for the same theaters.”

A24 said it will bring back to theaters Kelly Reichardt’s well-reviewed arthouse western “First Cow,” which bowed March 6, at a later date. Focus Features is mulling a similar decision for Hittman’s abortion drama, which won raves at Sundance and Berlin. Technically, the movie may not have fulfilled the Academy’s one-week eligibility rule, as its theaters shut down during its run.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”

Focus Features / screen cap

Given these circumstances, this is why many are asking if the Academy might consider changing its rules.  For example, if Focus took “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” to VOD — like its Oscar-eligible “Emma” — would the Academy allow the abortion drama in light of the theater closings? Could the Academy consider films that opened on VOD eligible for Oscars, since theaters were forced to be closed? Would the Academy push back the Oscars (again!) to allow delayed films a chance to catch up?

“Depending on how long the down period is,” said Cohen, “the Academy could extend the eligibility into January and push the ceremony accordingly if possible.”

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