A guide to the 2021 Oscars, which are still happening

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An Oscar statuette wearing a surgical mask.
Amanda Northrop/Vox

The show must go on.

Hollywood has limped into 2021, hamstrung by a pandemic that left many theaters closed for a year or more, movie releases delayed, and productions struggling. Though the industry is dragging itself back to life, there’s little doubt that there are still rough times ahead.

But if there’s one axiom to which the movie business clings, it’s that the show must go on. And so, the people who make, distribute, watch, promote, and write about movies are once again gearing up for the Super Bowl of film: the Oscars.

That’s right. The Oscars are back, albeit with some big changes. And if you have questions, you’re not alone. Here are some answers — and some bigger questions they raise, too.

First things first: The 2021 Oscars will take place April 25 in Los Angeles. And definitely not on Zoom.

The annual Academy Awards ceremony, a.k.a. the Oscars, has always been held in Los Angeles, which is the home of the American movie industry. (From 1953 to 1957, the ceremony was held simultaneously in LA and New York City, but given the era, it was a technical nightmare.) This year, they’ll be held in Los Angeles as usual, but they’ll be broadcasting from two different locations: the Dolby Theatre, where the ceremony has been held since 2002, and Union Station, a transit hub for the city. (It should be interesting!)

The awards are usually held in late February or early March. In 2020, the Oscars were held in early February, in an unusual attempt to shake up the lengthy, expensive campaigns, akin to political campaigns, that most studios run for the films they hope will win awards. (Remember the 2020 Oscars? Parasite won Best Picture. That actually happened.) The ceremony was slated to return to a late February date this year.

However, in June 2020, with no end to the pandemic in sight and theaters closed across the country, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took a gamble and postponed the 2021 ceremony, pushing it back two months, from February to April. The organization most likely hoped that by the turn of the year, the pandemic would have subsided, movie theaters would be more widely open — particularly in the key markets of Los Angeles and New York — and that it would be possible to show movies in theaters and hold an in-person ceremony.

Now, it’s 2021, and it seems clear that … well, some of that is happening.

Four Oscars for “Grand Budapest HotelRalf Hirschberger/picture alliance via Getty Images
An Oscar en route to a press meeting in 2015.

Movie theaters are only just beginning to reopen in New York and LA. Vaccine distribution is moving along, but in late April the Oscars ceremony will still be subject to Covid-19 restrictions. So part of the Academy’s risk-taking hasn’t paid off, and most Oscar voters have watched eligible movies on disc or via streaming platforms at home.

And yet the ceremony itself has benefited from the later date, because the delay gave producers more time to decide how to proceed with their own show. It’s not clear how many people will be in attendance at the Dolby or at Union Station. But in late March, the team producing the Oscars telecast — which includes Steven Soderbergh, director of the 2011 film Contagion and head of the Directors Guild task force navigating Covid-safe film production — declared that there will be no Zoom element to the show, as there was in February at the Golden Globes. Instead, the team announced in a letter to the nominees that a spacious outdoor ceremony will be held at Union Station, with some live elements at the Dolby.

“We are treating the event as an active movie set, with specially designed testing cadences to ensure up-to-the-minute results, including an on-site COVID safety team with PCR testing capability,” they wrote. “There will be specific instructions for those of you traveling in from outside of Los Angeles, and other instructions for those of you who are already based in Los Angeles. This will all come directly to you from the Academy to ensure you have a safe, carefree evening (a glimpse of the future?).” They also made it clear that “there will not be an option to Zoom in for the show.”

And there won’t be a host, either. (The Oscars haven’t had one since 2018.)

But there are still some unanswered questions. Who will present the awards, and how will they maintain a sense of continuity? Will there still be singing and dancing numbers? What kind of tone will the event strike? And will anyone watch?

The answer to the last question is an important one because the Oscars telecast is the main way the Academy makes money. For years, viewership of the awards has been dropping, mostly for the same reasons that viewership of all TV live broadcasts has been dropping. People aren’t used to watching live anymore. Many don’t even have an easy way to watch network TV. Potential awards show viewers often don’t feel the need to watch all or even part of the telecast, since they can catch the highlights on social media the next day; the Golden Globes and the Grammys both had abysmal 2021 audience numbers. And the feeling of unfiltered glimpses at stars is less tantalizing when those same stars are tweeting and Instagramming from backstage.

But decreasing viewership means a decrease in ad revenue, and though the Academy’s broadcast contract with ABC isn’t set to expire until 2028, any decline in money and attention is bound to have an effect when both parties return to the negotiating table.

Los Angeles TimesJay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
The red carpet may not make it into this year’s Oscars.

Did enough movies come out in 2020 to even have the 2021 Oscars?

Yes! Lots and lots and lots of movies came out in 2020, almost entirely on streaming platforms. Most of them weren’t traditional Hollywood blockbusters or didn’t have buzzy red-carpet premieres at film festivals.

In a typical year, movies must open in theaters and run for at least a week in both New York and LA to be eligible for the Oscars. (There are a handful of exceptions for international films, documentaries, and short films.) But in April, with theaters closed everywhere, the Academy shifted its rules to allow films that premiered only on streaming services to qualify for Oscar nominations, provided they had planned to open in theaters before the pandemic prevented them from doing so. (That means Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods was eligible, but the Hugh Jackman movie Bad Education — which HBO acquired at a festival and always planned to premiere on TV and streaming — wasn’t.)

At least eight to 10 new films were released in the US every week in 2020, some from big-name directors (like David Fincher and Judd Apatow) and others from filmmakers more used to seeing their work in specialized art-house contexts (like Kelly Reichardt and Lee Isaac Chung). So, plenty of films qualified to compete at the 2021 awards, even though far fewer films were released theatrically in 2020 than in a typical year. And the silver lining is that you can watch almost all of them at home (in the US) right now.

Did I read something about a rule change aimed at increasing Hollywood diversity as well? Does that affect this year’s films?

There is indeed such a rule change, but it doesn’t affect this year’s films.

In June 2020, with the country roiling under protests of racism and police brutality against Black people, the Academy promised that new diversity and inclusion standards were coming, designed to foster an industry more reflective of America at large. In September, it announced what those standards would be.

You can read about the Oscars’ new diversity and inclusion standards in depth here; they don’t take effect until 2024, which right now feels like it’s a century away. But in essence, the Academy established standards for movies aiming to qualify for Best Picture that require either a diverse cast and crew, or for the studio or distributor to implement diverse hiring and career development practices. Or both, of course. (The new standards do not disqualify movies about white guys from winning Best Picture, despite what you may have heard.)

Okay. How have the eligibility requirements changed for 2021 — and how do the new requirements factor into films’ Oscar strategies?

In a typical year, movies are eligible to win Oscars in most categories as long as they had the aforementioned one-week theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles between January 1 and December 31 of the previous year. So usually, the 2021 Oscars would cover films released between January 1 and December 31, 2020.

But when, in June, the Academy decided to delay the 2021 ceremony, it also expanded the corresponding eligibility window. Now, films released in theaters — or on streaming platforms after their theatrical plans were thwarted — between January 1, 2020, and February 28, 2021, are eligible for the 2021 awards. In essence, the Academy decided that 2020 was 14 months long instead of 12. (Thanks, folks.)

 Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images
Bong Joon-ho with his two Oscars at the 2020 ceremony.

As I argued back in June, this decision seemed to betray the Academy’s real goals: to make sure the “right” films — those with established stars and big-name studios behind them — had a chance to win Oscars, rather than simply honoring the best movies that came out in the calendar year. But it’s hard to blame the Academy. Theatrical exhibition is under siege from streaming services; movie production is struggling because of the pandemic; it’s impossible to know what the future holds. I still think the Academy should have left the cutoff date at December 31, even if it delayed the ceremony, but its reasoning, however frustrating, is understandable.

The result has been a variety of release schedules that might look strange from the outside. Most critics’ groups in the US — including the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics — set the cutoff date for their respective awards at December 31. (I’m a voting member of both the NYFCC and the NSFC.) So, a number of distributors and studios opted to launch one-week runs in “virtual cinemas” or actual theaters that would qualify their films for those awards, which are often seen as harbingers of future awards success. Then they delayed the films’ main release dates into 2021, the better to attract and hold Academy members’ attention as voting began in March.

Meanwhile, some films didn’t bother to release before December 31 at all, opting instead to forgo other industry award opportunities and bow as close to the February 28 deadline as possible. Both Judas and the Black Messiah and The Father, which earned six nominations apiece, debuted in January and February. Usually, November and December are prime times to premiere films with Oscar dreams; January and February functioned the same way this year.

So should I watch the Oscars this year?

That’s up to you. I don’t know whether the ceremony will be entertaining to watch like the Grammys were, or more like that dud of a Golden Globes ceremony. But the nominations hit some interesting milestones, and the Academy has had a long, long time to prepare for a Covid-era show. Given the roller coaster of a year it’s been, the 2021 Oscars have the potential to be the most fascinating Oscars we’ll ever see.

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