Feinberg and Keegan on Oscar Eligibility Changes, Other Rule Adjustments and the Road Ahead

Tom Hanks speaks onstage during the 92nd Annual Academy Awards - Getty 2 -H 2020
MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

Hunkered down in their Los Angeles homes, The Hollywood Reporter's awards columnist Scott Feinberg and senior film editor Rebecca Keegan trade thoughts on Oscars in the time of coronavirus.

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KEEGAN Scott, there’s been a long-simmering debate within the Academy about what makes something a movie, and for years the organization has held firm to the idea that a movie, by its very definition, is something you watch in a theater. This is a notion that high-profile Academy members like Steven Spielberg and Chris Nolan have taken a firm stance on in recent years, even as streaming companies have upended all of Hollywood’s traditional business models. But the Academy on Tuesday announced that it is setting that principle aside this year, for the simple, practical, deeply sad reason that movie theaters are closed due to the coronavirus. This year, films will be able to qualify for Oscar consideration without screening for at least one week in an Los Angeles theater, which had been the minimum requirement. When you spoke with Academy president David Rubin and CEO Dawn Hudson about this, they told you that the key will be the filmmakers’ intent. They will have to have planned for a theatrical release and then pivoted, as is the case with Universal’s Trolls: World Tour, which premiered digitally, but can now still contend, presumably in the animated feature and original song categories. That’s an easy one, but for some other films this “intent” question will be more complicated, don’t you think?

FEINBERG Absolutely, Rebecca. The “intent” question first came up a few years ago when O.J.: Made in America premiered at Sundance; screened as an eight-hour film for one week in a single movie theater in L.A. and New York; and then aired on ESPN in five separate installments, generating huge ratings. Was O.J. a film doc or a TV doc? The Film Academy decided it was a film doc and voted it the best documentary feature Oscar — and then the TV Academy subsequently claimed it and awarded it two Emmys, as well. I asked Rubin and Hudson if the new Michael Jordan doc The Last Dance, which has been rolling out on ESPN and has become one of the ratings hits of the corona-era, would also be Oscar-eligible if its makers decided to upload it in one chunk to the Academy streaming service. Hudson said that it would not be because it was never intended to be a theatrical release, telling me, “This year we will look at the schedules that we already had for theatrical releases, and also at contracts — when you make a film, you make it under the theatrical rules of the DGA, and if you're non-union your intention can also be made clear.” But then where does that leave Bad Education, the Hugh Jackman dramedy which premiered at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, having been made with the intention of being shown on movie screens (as its contracts would show), but then was bought by HBO, which released it on cable on April 25, to rave reviews? I suppose that because it wasn’t dated for a theatrical release, it is also out of the running, but in a year in which there probably won’t be as many high-quality films as usual, should it be? What if HBO claims it intended to give it a token theatrical release prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but never dated it? There is still some gray area.

KEEGAN Normally this time of year we’d be starting to speculate about early contenders. This year, when we don’t even know if there’s going to be an Oscars telecast at all, that kind of spitballing feels like a luxury. Nevertheless, I’m going to indulge. There are some touted Sundance movies that could be major players. I’m thinking of Eliza Hittman’s abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which Focus made available on demand in April; Lee Isaac Chung’s family drama Minari, an A24 film that won the grand jury prize and has yet to be dated; and Netflix’s feel-good documentary Crip Camp, which was produced by the Obamas. What are some of the movies on your radar screen, Scott?

FEINBERG I wonder if Netflix could also get some traction for another Sundance title, Radha Blank’s comedy The 40-Year-Old Version, which it bought just before Blank was awarded the fest’s best director prize. There were also several above-average films that had theatrical releases before the cinemas shut down on March 16. Chief among them was the blockbuster Blumhouse remake of The Invisible Man, which featured a standout turn by Elisabeth Moss; The Way Back, in which Ben Affleck poignantly portrayed a character whose personal struggles mirror his own; the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Emma, with its lush costumes and production design; the powerful #MeToo drama The Assistant, carried by Ozark Emmy winner Julia Garner; and the outstanding Belgian drama Young Ahmed, for which the Dardenne brothers shared the best director prize at 2019’s Cannes en route to a spring 2020 U.S. release.

KEEGAN Right, then there’s all the movies we haven’t seen, like Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, which was supposed to premiere at Cannes and which Searchlight is now opening in October; Spike Lee’s Vietnam movie for Netflix, Da Five Bloods; Nolan’s espionage film Tenet, which he’s optimistically prepping for a July 17 theatrical release; David Fincher’s black-and-white Citizen Kane yarn, Mank, which just finished shooting before the production shutdown; Leos Carax’s Annette, a musical starring Adam Driver that Amazon has yet to schedule; Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, which is rolling along toward a December release from Warner Bros; and Paul GreengrassTom Hanks starrer News of the World, which Universal has scheduled for December. Of course, some of these larger film releases are predicated on theaters reopening and studios believing audiences will feel safe enough to go, which at this point is a big “if.”

FEINBERG You wrote a piece this week about how the major fall film fests — specifically, Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York, at least one of which has showcased the last 13 best picture Oscar winners — may look very different this year as a result of the coronavirus, and how that, in turn, could impact the Oscar race. What were your main conclusions?

KEEGAN After reporting that piece I was left wondering how people will spread the word on potential awards movies in a year when these fall film festivals will inevitably be diminished, however heroically organizers are trying to press forward. The fall fests will all proceed in some fashion, be it with socially distanced or virtual screenings. But with travel unappealing and press and industry attendance presumably down, they won’t provide the launchpad they usually do. New York seems likely to be the beneficiary of the travel-averse culture, as so many filmmakers and actors already live there and can safely take a car service and be shuffled to a brief onstage appearance. Personally, if air travel is still a dicey proposition, I’ll be very sad to miss a Labor Day weekend in Telluride, where we usually learn so much about the season ahead.

FEINBERG I don’t think I would know what to do with myself over Labor Day weekend without my usual Rocky Mountain high, but we all have to accept the new normal, I guess. Speaking of acceptance, just about everyone has been understanding about the Academy’s decision to consider streamed films during this time of crisis — but a different change that the organization announced on Tuesday has riled up some members, and that is the consolidation of the sound editing and sound mixing Oscars into one sound Oscar, which brings the number of awards presented on the bloated telecast from 24 to 23. The Academy’s leaders and the branch’s three governors insist that the idea emanated from and was supported by the sound branch, but I’ve heard from a number of branch members who are not happy to have one less opportunity to shine in front of the world (even though the same number of editors and mixers as before are technically eligible for recognition — up from three in the two categories to six in the one). But the bottom line is that, in recent years, the sound branch didn’t do itself any favors by nominating a huge number of the same films in both categories, and the vast majority of the Academy — 94 percent of whom do not belong to the sound branch — have demonstrated, through comments (see our annual ‘Brutally Honest Ballot’ conversations) and voting (see how frequently they honored the same film with both prizes), that they never really grasped the difference between them. The fact that the move was made without the Academy imploding might well motivate the organization to next merge its three categories honoring short films (animated, documentary and live-action) — the nominees for which the vast majority of the public never even see — into one (chosen from all three sorts), which would bring the number of televised categories down to 21.

KEEGAN Yes, this was a big victory for people who don’t want to be numbed by a four-hour telecast rewarding the same movies. But my Twitter mentions the day this news was announced were full of people demanding the creation of new categories, namely stunts and casting. So maybe this trims the show, or maybe it makes room for more.

FEINBERG Meanwhile, in a development that will surely please AOC and the Green New Dealers, the Academy announced that this is the final year in which it will allow distributors to send its members screeners, the advance copies of Oscar-hopefuls that have heretofore been the ultimate social currency each fall (and have occasionally gotten Academy members into trouble). Eliminating screener boxes, accompanying letters and envelopes in which they are mailed might well save a few rain forests — but not everyone is happy about this, either. The Academy’s members-only streaming service will become the exclusive vehicle through which distributors will be able to make their films available to Academy members at home, but films posted on it can currently only be mirrored — as in, projected from a computer to a TV — on Apple TVs, meaning that members who do not have an Apple TV will have to watch those films on a computer. And remember, a lot of Academy members are old, so — forgive the generalization — they may not have a computer or an Apple TV, and even if they do, may not know how to access the streaming service and/or mirror a screener from it. (Even younger, tech-savvy members are concerned about how international members may be impacted by limited subtitle options and shaky Internet service.) On the other hand, it’s worth noting that many members’ lives probably won’t be impacted much by this prohibition — yes, distributors will no longer be able to send screeners en masse to the Academy, but nothing will prevent them from sending screeners to the members of Hollywood’s many other guilds and societies that they also court for year-end awards, and many — perhaps most — Academy members also belong to at least one of those.

KEEGAN Right, there is also this novel idea: Get your butt to see it on a big screen! I know, I know, people are busy and scattered all over the world, but the same members bemoaning the end of the theatrical experience can’t then also be the ones hoarding screeners to readily available films. Anyway, Academy members are getting a chance to participate in another process in a broader way this year — the international feature race. Traditionally, only members who could drive to screenings in Beverly Hills could help create the shortlist of films eligible for the award. Now, thanks to the Academy’s streaming service, any member who is able and willing to watch the films can get involved. It’ll be fascinating to see what impact that has on the list. The group will also be operating without the benefit of Cannes serving its usual curatorial function for international films — three of the five nominees last year, including eventual winner Parasite, premiered there.

FEINBERG Yes. I’m not sure we will get a real sense of the impact of this change this season, if only because there will probably be far fewer countries than usual that are even in a position to submit a film for the international feature race. But, looking ahead to a post-corona world, publicists have told me they think it will really affect both the sorts of films that are submitted and the sorts of films that are selected for the shortlist, benefiting populist fare over out-there stuff (although the latter can still be ‘saved,’ as before, by the executive committee that picks three titles to add to the six chosen by the general committee). I would also look for international feature Oscar campaigns to start earlier, and for strategists who haven’t previously taken them on to now do so, since advancing to the shortlist suddenly seems like far less of a crapshoot.

KEEGAN Well, one thing we learned from Parasite’s $53 million domestic box office haul is that North American audiences are willing to be more adventurous about subtitles when a film is that good and the word gets out, thanks in no small part to Neon’s well-run awards campaign. If the broadening of international feature category voting does result in more populist nominees, then expect to see more subtitled films finding an audience here. Now, there was also a change in the original score rules. Break that down for me, please.

FEINBERG Securing a score nom just got easier for some films and harder for others. The long-standing requirement was that a film’s music had to be “predominantly” original, without a clear definition of what “predominantly” meant, which led to the disqualification of numerous films from the category, at least two of which — Birdman and Arrival — seem to meet the new bar that has been set by the Academy, which is 60 percent original music. However, a number of films that were nominated in the category — including several of John Williams’ compositions for various Star Wars films — might well not have been nominated under a new provision that requires 80 percent original music from sequels and franchise films. Oh, by the way, there was another change, too: Distributors are no longer barred from featuring quotes from Academy members (save for members of the board of governors and the awards and events committees) in promotional materials. The Academy has wisely concluded that the more its members talk about Oscar contenders, the more the public will care about tuning in to the Oscars telecast. Speaking of which, what do you think the 93rd Oscars ceremony — currently scheduled for Feb. 28, 2021 — will even look like? Will it be turned into a Jerry Lewis-style telethon on Zoom, or will we all be packed into the Dolby again, or something else?

KEEGAN It’s hard to imagine that a telecast could look anything like the way it did when you and I were sitting in the Dolby on Feb. 9 as the room erupted over Parasite’s historic win this year. In your interview with them on Tuesday, Rubin and Hudson declined to speculate about how they might alter the show, but it seems unfathomable that 3,400 ticket holders would gather at the Dolby, plus crew, press, handlers, fans, etc., in a world where there is not yet a coronavirus vaccine. Certainly recent productions like Saturday Night Live’s last episode, the Global Citizen: One World Together at Home concert and Andrea Bocelli’s Music for Hope Show from Milan have shown that performers can deliver sophisticated, entertaining, emotional live shows under the most unusual circumstances. Perhaps corona-survivor Tom Hanks hosts to an empty theater and this year’s Oscars is a different sort of celebration. One thing is for sure: The In Memoriam will be longer than we can bear.