Film Academy Evaluating "All Aspects" of Coronavirus Impact for Oscars

The Academy faces a dilemma over Oscars eligibility as studios push back release dates or opt to debut theatrical films on VOD as cinemas go dark.
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With cinemas across the country shuttered indefinitely amid the coronavirus pandemic, a new issue has arisen for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is evaluating "all aspects of this uncertain landscape and what changes may need to be made" ahead of awards season.

"The Academy is focused on helping our staff, our members, and the industry safely navigate through this global health and economic crisis," an Academy spokesperson said Thursday in a statement. "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."

To be eligible for the vast majority of Oscar categories, a film must screen in a commercial theater in Los Angeles for one week within the calendar year of the year preceding the Oscars ceremony. The 93rd Oscars ceremony is scheduled for Feb. 28, 2021.

In the past week, the nation's three largest cinema chains — AMC Theatres, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark — shut down all of their locations, and some studios are now opting to release their product direct to VOD and streaming platforms instead of holding them for a later theatrical release. Universal Pictures broke the traditional theatrical model on Monday by saying it will release its upcoming animated film Trolls World Tour on demand on April 10 for a $19.99 48-hour rental fee as theaters remain dark. 

In the event that movie theaters in L.A. remain closed for a significant portion of the rest of 2020, then only a handful of films will have qualified for Oscar consideration — all first-quarter titles, such as The Invisible Man, Onward, Emma, First Cow and The Way Back. (For reference, here are the year's best-reviewed films and highest-grossing films so far.)

The Academy may have to choose from several less-than-ideal options.

For one, the organization could move forward with its existing timetable and choose nominees from that very limited pool of options.

Alternatively, it could make a one-time provision allowing films to qualify for Oscars eligibility via streaming services — distributors' own (e.g. Netflix) and/or the one created for Academy members — even if they have not screened for a week in an L.A. theater. (Adam Benzine, a journalist and Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker, has suggested that the Academy could make qualification-via-streaming dependent upon getting some sort of assurance that the film would be given a theatrical release when one becomes possible, but this seems unenforceable — plus it would undoubtedly infuriate the theater chains.)

Or, the Academy could postpone the Oscars, something it has done three times before — for one week in 1938 when L.A. was hit by severe flooding; for two days in 1968 in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King; and for one day in 1981 following the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan — and extend the eligibility period for the 93rd Oscars beyond a year.

There actually is precedent for making the eligibility period something other than the January-December calendar year. Consider the first six Oscars ceremonies:

1ST
Eligibility period: Films released in 1927 or 1928
Ceremony: May 1929

2ND
Eligibility period: Aug. 1, 1928 – July 31, 1929
Ceremony: April 1930
Note: Technically, it would appear, films released between Aug. 1, 1928, and Dec. 31, 1928, were eligible for a second year in a row. But no nominees were announced this year, and winners were determined by a 'Central Board of Judges,' who presumably sought to avoid overlap with the prior year's honorees.

3RD
Eligibility period: August 1, 1929 – July 31, 1930
Ceremony: Nov. 1930
Note: Yes, two Oscars ceremonies were held in one calendar year, just seven months apart! This one was scheduled for November so that, moving forward, Oscars ceremonies would happen much closer to the end of the eligibility period, which was then July 31.

4TH
Eligibility period: Aug. 1, 1930 – July 31, 1931
Ceremony: Nov. 1931

5TH
Eligibility period: August 1, 1931 – July 31, 1932
Ceremony: Nov. 1932

6TH
Eligibility period: August 1, 1932 – December 31, 1933.
Ceremony: March 1934
Note: That's right, there was no Oscars ceremony at all in 1933, the year of the bank crisis that I wrote about earlier this week. Instead, the Oscars ceremony in 1934 considered films spanning released over a 17-month period, in order to make a new eligibility period: the calendar year preceding the ceremony.

Ever since the sixth Oscars, the ceremony has been held in February, March or April, and considered films released during the prior calendar year — but there is nothing compelling the organization to maintain that timetable.