The coronavirus crisis has left Hollywood reeling, with movie theaters shut down and film production at a standstill. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is determined that, at least as far as the Oscars are concerned, the show must go on.
The organization has made changes to this year’s eligibility rules that, for the first time, will enable films to qualify for Oscar consideration without a theatrical release.
In a virtual Zoom meeting held Tuesday morning, the group’s 54-member board of governors, which includes such luminaries as Steven Spielberg, Laura Dern and Whoopi Goldberg, voted on a series of rule changes in response to the global pandemic that will temporarily relax the normally strict requirements for Oscar consideration.
Academy rules have long required that a film be screened at at least one theater in Los Angeles for a week in order to be eligible for Oscar consideration. But with movie houses in L.A. and around the world shut down indefinitely, the group’s leadership clearly needed to make a change. Since the mass closure of theaters in mid-March, studios have scrambled their release schedules, shifting some titles to later in the year or beyond to avoid box-office doom and, in some cases — like Universal’s animated “Trolls World Tour” and Disney’s upcoming fantasy adventure “Artemis Fowl” — bypassing theaters entirely and going directly to digital releases.
Under the new rule, films that had planned for a theatrical release but, due to closures, are instead first made available on a streaming or VOD service may qualify for the Oscars as long as they are made available on the academy’s member-only streaming site within 60 days of release and meet all other eligibility requirements.
“This has always been approached from a perspective of affirming the academy’s commitment to the primacy of theatrical exhibition and our belief that that’s the most satisfying way to experience a motion picture,” academy president David Rubin told The Times following the announcement. “This is really about looking out for our community and our filmmakers and understanding the extraordinary circumstances in this period of time.”
Once theaters begin to reopen, in order for films to more easily meet the academy’s exhibition requirements, the number of qualifying venues will be expanded beyond L.A. County to include New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Miami and Atlanta.
The academy’s announcement follows a recent move by the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. to relax its eligibility requirements for next year’s Golden Globe Awards to accommodate the disruption of theatrical exhibition. The Screen Actors Guild and the British Academy of Film and Television are expected to make similar rule changes for their respective awards.
For years, even as the boundaries between film and television have blurred, the film academy has resisted making any major changes to the theatrical requirement, safeguarding the primacy of the traditional moviegoing experience in the face of what some see as the existential threat of streaming services like Netflix. Indeed, lest anyone read too much into the newly announced changes, the academy’s leadership stressed that, though they will remain in effect “until further notice,” they are meant to apply only to the current circumstances with all their attendant uncertainties.
“I don’t think anyone is pretending to know the future, even what’s going to happen in May, June, July,” academy chief executive Dawn Hudson told The Times on Tuesday. “It’s really unknowable now and the rules reflect that. We understand that theaters reopening in one state does not necessarily mean you have the ability to have a theatrical release. So that’s why these rules were meant to address this time now and are fluid for the future.”
Though the 93rd Academy Awards, scheduled for Feb. 28, 2021, are still 10 months away, some have raised concerns that a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall and winter could force the cancellation of such large-scale public events. But for now at least, the academy has decided not to postpone the date of the awards. Nor has the group made any decision about the scheduled opening of its long-delayed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which is set for Dec. 14.
“We’re having ongoing discussions about all of this because we don’t have a crystal ball right now,” said Hudson. “We want to make the right decisions with as much information as we can — or I should say the right guesses. That’s really all we can do right now.”
“We do look forward to an opportunity to celebrate motion pictures along with our entire community — that’s very much part of our plan,” Rubin affirmed.
The academy also announced a series of other permanent rule changes Tuesday. Most notably, two sound categories, sound mixing and sound editing, are being combined into one award for best achievement in sound — a move that was initiated by the sound branch itself. The number of Oscar statuettes awarded (up to six) remains the same, however. Eligible recipients may include one production sound mixer, two supervising sound editors and three rerecording mixers.
Further, in the international feature film category — formerly known as foreign language film — all eligible academy members will now be invited to participate in the preliminary round of voting. Film submissions will be made available through the academy’s in-house streaming platform to those members who opt in, and members must meet a minimum viewing requirement in order to be eligible to vote in the category. Previously this preliminary round of voting was done by a committee of volunteers.
In accordance with the academy’s ongoing sustainability effort — and simply the reality that many members no longer have DVD players — this will be the final year that DVD screeners will be allowed to be distributed.
Since the coronavirus crisis erupted earlier this year, the academy’s leadership has been in discussions with stakeholders across the film industry to help forge a way forward. Earlier this month, the organization pledged $6 million to help support film employees and their families who are experiencing financial hardship as well as institutions boosting diverse filmmakers.
“We’ve had ongoing conversations with everyone across the filmmaking community: with studios, filmmakers, distributors, all of the people who make up our community,” said Hudson. “ ‘What do you see? What’s happening? How can we help you?’ It’s been hourly, daily conversations. Our first priority was how do we help directly people who are in so much need? Then after that, we can say, ‘How do we look at this for the 93rd Oscars?’”
Though no one knows how long the pandemic will persist, Hudson is certain that the movies will continue to remain a vital part of the culture, whether they’re being seen in theaters or elsewhere. “Movies matter more than ever, they are connecting more than ever and we miss going to the cinema more than ever,” Hudson said. “That is the spirit behind these rules and every decision that the academy makes. We know that this is the connective tissue for the world right now.”