Will the 93rd Oscars Be More Than Just a Footnote?

Will the 93rd Oscars Come With an Asterisk? Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti
Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

This season’s admirably diverse Academy Awards are poised to make history, but given all the pandemic’s disruptions, the class of 2020 may also carry an asterisk.

However the Academy Awards play out when they are finally distributed April 25, the 93rd Oscars is guaranteed to be one for the record books. Already, the nominations have achieved several historic firsts: Two women, Nomadland's Chloé Zhao and Promising Young Woman's Emerald Fennell, were nominated for director — a category that rarely sees even one female in the ranks — while nine actors of color were nominated, including the first Asian American, Minari's Steven Yeun, as best actor.

But, needless to say, 2020 also was an atypical year. With theaters closed and releases postponed, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences relaxed its rules, allowing some streaming features into the party and extending its qualifying deadline by two months. Even then, only about two dozen films, which as a group barely registered at the box office, dominated the narrative features that were nominated.

In the eyes of some, that means this season's Oscars won't have the same stature, that they will be somewhat diminished in importance. "The year will always carry an asterisk, just the same as the World Series that the Dodgers won. It's the year no one went to the theaters," suggests one Oscar consultant.

Predicts Unbroken producer Matthew Baer, "The grand slam for the Oscar best picture is a popular movie with artistic ambitions fulfilled. But given theaters were closed, popularity is difficult to judge. It's ironic that this year Nomadland is a leading candidate because the business itself became displaced. Also, given nothing else matters in comparison to recovering from COVID, while winning an Oscar is the ultimate victory for artists, it will have less meaning in American culture this year."

But not everyone agrees that this year's awards are less valuable than previous year's. "I would hope not," says April Reign, who five years ago coined the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, which became one of the factors in the Academy's efforts to diversify its membership. "We haven't seen that conversation around other awards shows. I don't want to get onto a slippery slope that movies on streaming services are lesser than those that first appeared in theaters because I don't believe that. In some ways, we are seeing even more thoughtful performances both in front of and behind the cameras because folks were trying to get things done before and after everything shut down."

In fact, some argue, not only has streaming made this year's contenders more available to Academy members, but the ability to rise above the thousands of hours of streaming content is itself an achievement. Says marketing and distribution executive Larry Gleason: "More people than ever had access to most of the films in a very convenient format. You could screen two films in the time it took to drive to the Academy, watch a film and drive home." Adds a member of the executives branch, "With an unprecedented amount of content competing for at-home audiences' attention right now, an Oscar win this year may be even more meaningful."

Argues Howard Rodman, a past president of the WGA West: "The Oscars can be far more meaningful in 2021. In a year where the collective experience of moviegoing has been largely supplanted by individual viewing — a shift not occasioned by, but accelerated by, the pandemic — the Oscars can remind us of what binds us together. Movies are empathy machines: They force us to see the world through another's eyes, and on a good day, we lose ourselves in the most salutary of ways. And in celebrating that, the Oscars reaffirm the noble and necessary craft we practice. Even in — meaning, especially in — this strange and dismal time."

Observes Stephanie Allain, one of the producers of the 92nd Oscars ceremony, "Any time an artist is recognized with an Oscar nomination or win, it's a huge accolade no matter what happens during the year in film. I'm so excited to see so many wonderful artists of color recognized for their work this year. The last time two Black women were nominated in the best actress category was in 1972, when Cicely Tyson for Sounder and Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues both got the nod. So we must celebrate every moment of acknowledgement."

Publicist Stan Rosenfield offers a further perspective: "With Oscar winners, they never say what year, or what the weather was like that night, who might have also been nominated, or who was the host — just the words 'Oscar winner' will be uttered and printed for the rest of their life. So the words 'Oscar winner' will always remain meaningful. There will never be a need for an asterisk. Who wouldn't want that?"

Scott Feinberg and Tatiana Siegel contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the March 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.