James Bond has packed away his tuxedo for another year. Judging by what’s happened to movies during the pandemic, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ought to emulate him. Unless all Americans are miraculously vaccinated soon, it’s time to face up to reality and cancel the 93rd Oscars.
The entertainment industry is in the business of selling fantasy and escapism. That’s been harder to do both literally, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down theaters and halted movie production, and metaphorically, as the crisis has stretched on. Keeping the Oscar ceremony on the calendar — and with it, the promise that crowds would be back at movie theaters well before the show — sustains the hope that normal isn’t far off.
But viruses are harder to beat into submission than supervillains. As the pandemic has worn on, Hollywood has begun to face the prospect of not just a reshuffled calendar of cinematic releases but also an existential threat to movie-going.
‘Tenet,’ Christopher Nolan’s much-hyped time-traveling heist movie, the lone blockbuster scheduled for this summer to actually make it to multiplexes, was supposed to lure nervous American cinephiles back to theaters. Its performance was wobbly enough that savvy industry observer Richard Rushfield wondered, “In the face of this disaster, who in their right mind would risk their half a billion-dollar tent pole as the next test case?” Disney tried to sell ‘Mulan’ as a pricey add-on to its streaming service, hoping it would prove that home rentals could replace the box office. The gambit didn’t work. Disney is now sending Pixar’s ‘Soul’ direct to streaming, no extra fees required.
In the past week alone, the scheduled release of ‘No Time to Die,’ the latest Bond film, was pushed to 2021. Cineworld Group, owner of the United States’ second-largest theater chain, announced that it would close all 536 Regal Cinemas in the country. Hot off a buzzy trailer, Warner Bros. gave up its Christmas release date for ‘Dune,’ the latest adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic.
Like other institutions in American life, studios and theaters haven’t been willing — or consistently able — to look more than a few months ahead. But this flurry of activity suggests that some writing is reliably on the wall.
Certainly, some worthy films have been released in 2020, among them Leigh Whannell’s horrifying, emotionally intelligent ‘The Invisible Man’ and Spike Lee’s agonized ‘Da 5 Bloods.’ Netflix still plans to release David Fincher’s Hollywood biopic ‘Mank,’ Aaron Sorkin’s historical drama ‘The Trial of the Chicago Seven’ and Chadwick Boseman’s last film performance in the movie version of August Wilson’s ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.’ And more contenders are likely to come, thanks to changes to the Oscar rules that extend the eligibility period through February and allow movies that were initially supposed to play in theaters to compete even if they end up only available online.
Still, the list of Oscar-eligible movies is bound to be attenuated compared with what academy voters and Oscar watchers consider in a normal year. And there are other reasons not to forge ahead with the Academy Awards.
It may be harder to convene a cultural conversation around a pool of nominated works when logistical challenges might reduce access to the works. A patchwork of state regulations governs where theaters can reopen and under what circumstances — if individual owners and chains are able to open at all. Shifting to streaming isn’t a comparable alternative: Netflix has gained millions of US subscribers this year, but it’s not in every household. The reach of Hulu, AppleTV+ and other nascent services is even more limited. Whereas Oscar voters get screener DVDs or links, ordinary Americans do not.
As an awards show, Oscar night is also about more than the movies it honors. It’s a real-life Hollywood soap opera and gossip fest, and a high-wire opportunity for the host.
Counting on the pandemic being sufficiently under control for an in-person awards show is risky. Why underscore Hollywood’s access to on-demand coronavirus testing during periods of testing shortages? The gap between stars and the people watching at home will feel downright unpleasant if Hollywood is able to buy its way back to normal while the rest of us are in limbo.
Conversely, no one wants to risk a superspreader event, and stars might reasonably decide it’s safer not to go. Making the whole production socially distanced would defeat the point: If the Oscar show, of all events, is reduced to Zoom, then glamour truly is dead.
COVID-19 is a serious threat, perhaps the biggest Hollywood has ever faced. But if movie-going is to survive as a theatrical experience, the pictures can’t let themselves get small. The best way to avoid that is to wait until it’s possible to throw a real, in-person celebration, rather than offer up a fantasy that goes sour as soon as the show is over.
*Alyssa Rosenberg writes about the intersection of culture and politics for The Washington Post's Opinions section. The article was first published in The Washington Post.