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What do the Oscars mean in 2021? We asked the best picture nominated producers

the 2021 best picture Oscar nominees
Frances McDormand in “Nomadland,” Daniel Kaluuya and Dominique Fishback in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Carey Mulligan in “A Promising Young Woman,” Riz Ahmed in “Sound of Metal,” Steven Yeun (center) in “Minari,” Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in “Mank,” Kelvin Harrison Jr., Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Mark Rylance in The Trial of the Chicago 7,” and Anthony Hopkins in a scene from “The Father.”
(Joshua Richards/Netflix; Warner Bros. Pictures; Focus Features; Amazon Studios; David Bornfriend/A24; Netflix; Niko Tavernise/Netflix; Sean Gleason/Sony Pictures Classics)
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When “Parasite” won best picture at last year’s Oscars, it didn’t just feel like a breakthrough moment for the movie business, it was a breakthrough moment. As the first foreign language film to win best picture, its victory broke down barriers at a time when the future looked deeply uncertain.

But no one knew exactly what the following year would have in store for the industry and the world. And now here we are — a little more than a year later — with a fresh crop of best picture contenders.

The lineup this year ranges from a lovingly caustic look at old Hollywood (“Mank”) to a brutally funny, and emotionally resonant, reexamination of revenge movie tropes (“Promising Young Woman”). There are stories of people finding ways to live their lives more authentically (“Nomadland,” “Minari”), raising awareness for injustice (“Judas and the Black Messiah,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7") and coping with personal changes they never saw coming (“The Father,” “Sound of Metal”).

In other words, these movies reflected life in 2020 in ways they neither intended nor imagined — but we gratefully accepted all the same. (And while all of them were available for theatrical viewing in some form, including drive-in bookings in Los Angeles, most of us inevitably watched them at home. Just another way a slow-moving paradigm shift accelerated in the past 12 months.)

To try to make some sense of this moment in time, we asked a producer from each of the eight nominated films to reflect on what it means to land in the Oscar spotlight of 2021.

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What feels most significant about seeing your film recognized this year?

DAN JANVEY (producer, “Nomadland”): It’s in the very DNA of “Nomadland” that it’s a movie about home and loss and grief and trying to find community — and trying to find that in America now. Fern’s journey is obviously different than the journey of most people, but there is something about what she’s looking for that I think is a core quest that we go on as human beings. I imagine that that is true of all of the nominee films, that there’s something special about what’s in their cinematic DNA that connects to where we find ourselves as a people.

"Judas and the Black Messiah" producers Charles D. King and Shaka King on set.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” producers Charles D. King and Shaka King (who also directed and co-wrote the film) on set.
(Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.)

SHAKA KING (producer, writer, director, “Judas and the Black Messiah”): [“Judas”] is a movie about Chairman Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party that got out to an incredibly wide array of people. I’m fascinated enough that folks decided to award it, and it’s only going to carry that history and that legacy further.

EMERALD FENNELL (producer, writer, director, “Promising Young Woman”): It just feels like a really exciting year in general and particularly one for diversity ... it seems like such an extraordinary breadth of voices and stories. There was so many films this year that I loved, but the ones that have been nominated for best picture are so beautiful and good and just different. And so to be part of a group of people who feel like they’re really doing something new is thrilling.

SACHA BEN HARROCHE (producer, “Sound of Metal”): We never expected this. Even if, in our wildest dream, we always hoped for recognition from our peers and from an audience, it’s a labor of love. And it’s a lot of commitment from a lot of talented people that are not really calculating what they’re doing. They’re just pouring their skillset and their passion into a project of vision — [director Darius Marder’s] vision. And so we’re very surprised in the best way of the term .... It’s surreal.

Yeri Han and Noel Cho in “Minari,” nominated for six Oscars.
(Melissa Lukenbaugh/A24)

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CHRISTINA OH (producer, “Minari”): I think for all of us this was a very, very personal endeavor and you know, that’s all we set out to do, make something personal. ... It’s a bit of a risk to share more personal stories, and we’ve felt that in the last few weeks. [But] a lot of people in my peer group and from these immigrant backgrounds are talking about how universal it’s felt for them. There’s a weird thing that happens when you grow up as a child of an immigrant in America. As you get older, there’s a natural divide that occurs between you and your parents. As you enter your teen years, you don’t speak your home language as much anymore, and there’s a cultural divide that happens. It’s almost been therapeutic in my own personal life and then I’ve had multiple people reach out about how it helped contextualize things for them in their own family. That has been one of the most incredible things for me.

ERIC ROTH (producer, “Mank”): It’s been a year of such solitude and sorrow and grief. I got my second vaccine and I immediately went and hugged my grandchildren for the first time in a year until they said, “Stop, papa!” [Laughs] The joy of the movie getting nominated doesn’t completely balance anything because there is this kind of 100 years of solitude and all the grief that people have felt.

MARC PLATT (producer, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”): I think the narrative of our film after the events of this year, particularly in the political and cultural world, it feels more relevant than ever. We had a cultural revolution, an election, an insurrection — all of those events make this film and the power of its story even more relevant. The Black Lives Matter movement, the relationship between police and our communities, especially communities of color, police brutality; the dialogue that hopefully occurs among different sides of the political spectrum that keeps democracy alive and well …. Our film took place in 1968 and was shot in 2019. What one realizes is that the narrative in our country really hasn’t shifted. What might have been regarded as a historical footnote is sadly a story that’s needed today.

DAVID PARFITT (producer, “The Father”): First of all it feels remarkable to have got to this stage when it’s barely out in cinemas in the States and it’s not out at all here [in the U.K.]. It’s a very odd feeling, that, so I think it’s an achievement for all the films this year, some of whom have come to public recognition, some have not yet, and all of us are here at the end of this year with our films in play in a way that I just didn’t think could happen. You can look at the diversity of the films across the board this year, which is fantastic. [With our film] you’re looking at a mental disability that’s affecting hundreds of thousands of people and is getting more discussed now. ... I’m pleased that people have not been frightened by the film.

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Do the Oscars mean anything different to the industry after the year we all went through?

Linda May and Frances McDormand in "Nomadland."
(Searchlight Pictures)

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JANVEY: I certainly think so. I think that the batch of films and the cross-section of storytellers involved is a remarkable celebration of where film culture is right now. In all the discussions and big-picture prognostication about changes in our business, I think it’s really nice to step back and kind of ignore all of that and say, “However that system is currently working it still turns out some really remarkable movies.” I’m certainly happy to take a moment to celebrate that.

BEN HARROCHE: I know that the cinema experience has been challenged quite a bit. And our film was made originally for cinema because we wanted the audience to really experience the sound design that we’ve made, but we were very happy that it also translated in people’s home on TV. And the Oscars now — the Oscars are still the Oscars. ... There is no other such thing like the Oscar. It’s really unique.

OH: Given the year we’ve had, it feels like it’s progressing in a new positive direction. I think it’s probably because — I hope — people have been hearing there are systematic divisions in this country and the academy has taken some efforts to address those concerns. Having a more diverse body of members has helped the myriad of films be seen, in a weird way. Hopefully this progression continues as we move forward.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Mark Rylance are among the ensemble cast of "The Trial of the Chicago 7."
(Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

PLATT: The Oscars always have meaning for the artists and craftspeople who work in the industry because it’s nice to be recognized for the work. In this last year, when we’ve all been so isolated from each other and have been denied the communal, collective experience of watching cinema together, more significant in my mind is that storytelling continues and particularly stories that are more reflective of the world we live in, being told by different and authentic voices. As we’re beginning to emerge from a year in isolation, awards are a reminder that storytelling continues, hopefully, to entertain and inspire and move people.

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Have the changes in the academy membership had an impact on what can be considered an Oscar film?

FENNELL: Well the thing is, this is my first rodeo, as they say, so I don’t really have a terribly good frame of reference. But of course the more diverse the group of people voting and choosing and watching it means that you’ll inevitably get a broader selection. So that’s just incredibly exciting. But I also think there are films like “Nomadland” and “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “Minari,” these are outstanding films in any year really. So it just feels like it’s all kind of moving in the right direction.

Riz Ahmed scored a history-making Oscar nomination for "Sound of Metal."
(Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

BEN HARROCHE: I’d like to believe so. I’d really like to believe so. I think the landscape is changing. When we were starting making the movie, a lot of questions were raised about who we were casting and for what, and we always did it genuinely. We just cast the most talented people. We never really tried to appeal to anyone in particular but just the vision that we had. And yes, I think the new ... members of the academy are helping to recognize the craft for what it is. The membership is opening to a less closed ... club. And the movies that are nominated are looking more like what people are enjoying in theaters.

ROTH: It’s better for diversity, there’s no question about that. I don’t know. There’s been such a push and pull about wanting tentpole movies and then small movies. This year it’s all small movies because of what’s happened with the pandemic. But when you include as many people as possible in the membership, it makes a difference.

Anthony Hopkins in a scene from “The Father.”
Anthony Hopkins in Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his play, “The Father.”
(Sean Gleason/Sony Pictures Classics)

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PARFITT: I’m very supportive of the academy’s changes. I think that making sure that we broaden the membership base and making sure that people across the industry know that they’re welcome at the academy has been really, really good. But of course, what makes it in a normal year is just making sure that those films are seen by people, a broader range of films in cinemas is what we need and the ability to see them. Because that in the end is why people vote; they see the films, they enjoy them. They’re not voting out of conscience, I believe. I hope they’re voting for what’s great. And in spite of the pandemic we’ve seen great films this year.

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Is the fear that streaming will kill theatrical releases legitimate or exaggerated?

JANVEY: I lose patience with the zero-sum nature of the discussion. I think that the streaming platforms have provided more options for filmmakers, and I think that optionality is really good for filmgoing. In all of these huge changes that are happening, my hope is that theatrical is really reserved as an option for moviegoers. I know for a fact that the arthouse audience wants to experience movies that way. If anything, with COVID, I think it’s expedited a conversation that probably would have taken many years. So long as we end up with a system that maximizes options for film culture, I’ll be very happy with the outcome.

KING: I think it’s a legitimate concern to have, but I don’t think it’s a guarantee whatsoever.

Director-producer-writer Emerald Fennell with "Promising Young Woman" star Carey Mulligan.
(Matthew Lloyd/For The Times)

FENNELL: As an audience member and as somebody who loves films, I can’t imagine not going to the cinema. There is no new film that I wouldn’t rather watch in the movie theater first. And I love streaming, and I love watching stuff at home, it’s so convenient, but it’s the same thing as saying that television didn’t kill off movies and movies didn’t kill off theater. They’re very specific experiences, and they’re all important and different.

BEN HARROCHE: We started with the idea we had of cinema — which was making a movie for theaters. But then we’re living in a world where now VOD platforms are a real thing, and they’re not to be dismissed. We need to work with them and find a way to satisfy everyone. And I think the work we did with Amazon was that. They knew we wanted to be in theaters, and I think we had the best of both worlds. And it’s something that can work for a movie like ours ... It’s a character study and can be quite heavy. I think the fact that we were able to bring it to people’s home made it very accessible. And I don’t think that would have been possible if it had just released in theaters.

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OH: Look, I’m very grateful for streaming. It’s far reaching. People from all areas of the world are able to see things that maybe they couldn’t see before. I do think there are films that benefit from a theatrical viewing, and I hope we find a way to have both exist simultaneously.

Producer Eric Roth on the set of "Mank," which received 10 Oscar nominations, the most of any film in 2021.
(Netflix)

ROTH: I think it’s slightly exaggerated. One of the things that people list that they miss is going to the movies. It’ll end up finding its level. I’m one of the writers on “Dune,” and it’ll be interesting to see what happens with that now that it’s going to be day and date [in theaters and on HBO Max]. It’s a question that only time can answer.

PLATT: First of all, I appreciate the world of streaming; more stories are told by more people because of streaming, which is great. In particular, a film like “Chicago 7" might have never seen the light of day in this year had it not been for Netflix [which acquired the movie from Paramount] coming in and loving and supporting it. I think streaming is great. The more content, the more stories, the more choices, it makes for a better world. But I also think there’s no replacement for the collective experience, the joy and the energy and the fun of watching movies as a community. I look forward to a world where there’s a place for both.

PARFITT: I don’t think it’ll kill theatrical. I think that we’ll find theatrical will come back in a big way when lockdowns lift. I think people will always want to enjoy a movie for the communal experience, and I think we’ve particularly missed that. Like everybody I haven’t been to the theater, I haven’t been to a cinema, I haven’t been to a pub! And I really miss just that basic human interaction, and you can’t replicate that sitting at home. But they’re complementary, and I think it’s interesting that in the year leading up to all of this, Netflix and Amazon and the others are still releasing theatrically as well as online. I think they see the benefits too. I’m pleased they’re there, and I want to see them successful, alongside theaters.

Times staff writers Christi Carras, Amy Kaufman, Sonaiya Kelley, Mark Olsen, Michael Ordoña, Josh Rottenberg, Glenn Whipp and Jen Yamato contributed to this report.

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