A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.
I always say the precursor awards that really count if you want to figure out who is going to turn out to be an Oscar winner are the various guild awards, which got underway in earnest this week. Their membership inevitably overlaps with that of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and despite correlation between some critics groups (particularly the televised Critics Choice and the Golden Globes) in predicting eventual Oscar victors, it is the guilds that really seem to have their finger on the pulse of what nominees’ own peers are thinking.
So what do the first two big guild indicators out of the gate this week tell you about the race? Probably a lot, and for those awards consultants looking for a way to stop the momentum of Nomadland, the news is not exactly heartening. But don’t quit your job to start packing boxes for Amazon quite yet.
WGA AND PGA GIVE CLUES TO OSCARS
First we had the Writers Guild Awards this past Sunday, quickly dispensed in a rather dry virtual affair (compared with past standards of entertaining live shows from that guild, of which I am a longtime member) that reeled off one winner after another until we got to the two film categories, which went to Promising Young Woman for Original Screenplay and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm for Adapted Screenplay. The latter wasn’t too surprising since the aforementioned Nomadland (which the week before took the USC Scripter Award, given only to adaptations) was ineligible because Chloé Zhao apparently did not make the film according to strict WGA MBA standards.
In the case of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, however, the victory over writing god Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant The Trial of the Chicago 7 had to hurt, and probably indicate the way Oscar winds might be blowing there as well. But it also may not be so, even if this does appear to be the year of the woman. Last year both WGA champs, Parasite and Jojo Rabbit, went on to Oscar glory even if the year before the guild went 0 for 2 in matching Oscar. That last little stat however rarely occurs, and only has one other time in this millennium. If you think it is unlikely Borat can squash the merry band of Nomads for Oscar writing honors then it would appear, based on the norm, that Oscar would match with WGA for Fennell to at least have one win in common. But are we dealing with the norm in 2021?
On to Wednesday night’s much slicker and more professionally produced Producers Guild Awards, and the really good news of the week for those Nomaders when Searchlight’s bid for a fifth Best Picture Oscar — and first since working for Uncle Walt — got a huuuuuuuuge boost in taking the PGA Best Film prize over nine other nominees desperately hoping this was the place momentum built up by Critics Choice, Golden Globe and other wins for Nomadland could be stopped in its tracks by any one of them — it didn’t matter which because the balloon just had to be burst.
It wasn’t, and one trade instantly prone to a lot of hyperbole called the game early in a headline that surmised Oscar was “locked” — the prime reason for that judgment being that the PGA is the only other awards group that chooses its Best Film winner with a preferential system identical to the Academy’s, where voters must rank their choices numerically from No. 1 being best to No. 10 being least (or, in case of Oscar this year, number eight). That is the key reason there were a lot of deflated faces at any place not owned by Disney. In any usual year this would certainly be the case, but keep in mind the PGA has matched Oscar’s Best Picture 21 of 31 times, but three of those times where they didn’t match have happened in the past five years with The Big Short, La La Land and last year’s 1917. Is the PGA losing its touch with an ever-expanding global Academy? Take heart campaigners, this may not be the ballgame, but still there is no question the so-called smart money will nevertheless be with the Searchlight team riding their only pony this year to yet another Oscar triumph.
CAN ‘NOMADLAND’ GO ALL THE WAY?
What can stop this momentum? Well, you can hope for a wipeout at all the crafts guilds, although that seems unlikely with Nomadland’s gorgeous Southwestern vistas considered a shoo-in at ASC for cinematography. The next important benchmark is SAG, the largest guild of all by far, and all those actors and weatherpersons in SAG-AFTRA have been voting since February 16 until polls close next week (on Tuesday). Last year they took credit for turning the race towards Parasite with an electrifying and heartwarming win for that ingratiating Korean cast. Can they do it again, especially since Nomadland has only a measly Lead Actress bid for Frances McDormand, a long shot against the likes of Carey Mulligan and Viola Davis? In the Cast category, SAG’s version of Best Picture, could another Korean (albeit Korean American) movie like Minari start to make its run? The competition is three Black-themed movies — Da 5 Bloods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, One Night In Miami — and what is considered to be the most likely champ, the sterling ensemble of The Trial of the Chicago 7. This is where Sorkin’s company can come to play, but will it have any impact in igniting a Parasite kind of bump coming from a truncated and completely pre-recorded Zoom ceremony with actors telling how they got their SAG card yet again? SAG, employing non-disclosure agreements, also is requiring the entire blabbermouth town of Hollywood to keep quiet about who has won for three whole days after, as I understand it, supposedly top-secret Zooms with the nominees take place for TV winners on Wednesday and movie winners Thursday? SAG will “reveal” those canned results in the hourlong show April 4. As one PR consultant with multiple SAG nominees told me this week, “You really expect this town to keep that secret for three days?”
Then we have the all-important, and usually most accurate guild soothsayer, the Directors Guild and its DGA awards. Final voting takes place for a solid month and began March 9 will ballots due on April 9, one day before the virtual awards happen on Saturday, April 10. Even the most hopeful of rivals think this award is in the tank for Zhao, giving her a big win and further dose of momentum the night before Nomadland is expected to land the gold at the BAFTA Awards as well on April 11.
So is there any encouraging news here for other studios, especially Netflix, still in the hunt for its first Best Picture Oscar win? Last year for only the eighth time since its founding in 1949, the DGA winner, 1917’s Sam Mendes, did not match eventual Oscar winner Bong Joon Ho for Parasite, an award even Bong thought was lost when he walked into the Dolby that night. Stuff happens, so you never know. And if Nomadland takes the BAFTA for Best Film, beware that the past six BAFTA winners in a row were also at odds with Oscar. So, a very long eight-month season, a debilitating pandemic, an industry in disarray and a group of Oscar voters with mostly downbeat movies to watch could still breed a shocker to put a ribbon on all of this. Stats be damned, right? When it is all you’ve got to hang on to, go with it.
THE LONG ROAD TO OSCAR JUST GOT LONGER FOR MANY OVERSEAS NOMINEES
The horse race aside, as I broke earlier this week no matter what wins in the end the real suspense is who will actually be at the Oscars to accept their little statuettes. Oscar show producers told nominees last week there would be no Zooms, that they had to appear in person at Union Station or, presumably, have no opportunity to make a speech and revel in the moment. As I pointed out, those nominees are potentially coming in from all points of the globe, not just for the more audience friendly marquee categories but numerous crafts, international film and shorts contenders as well. But will this significant number of nominees in especially once-again locked down European spots like the UK, Italy and France basically devote the month of April to getting to L.A., and then quarantining for 10 days both coming and going? That certainly doesn’t sound like much fun, and the studios that have to foot enormously bloated hotel bills for their talent are vocally none too thrilled as well. Why won’t the Academy just create hubs in one or two key world spots like London or Sydney (a lot of production ran off to Australia), keep the show live, but let the nominees and winners appear there and leave their variants in the countries in which they are currently stuck living or working? It seems like a no-brainer to save AMPAS from appearing intransigent, or worse, irresponsible in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.
Also for the globalization of the Academy’s image as a whole it would be a smart move, especially since the show will be seen in 225 countries and territories. Producers Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins tell us this year’s show will not look like a TV broadcast but instead like a movie. This talented trio, especially Soderbergh and Sher, know movies go on locations everywhere, so why not the Oscars in a time of great difficulty for the world’s population?
NO-SHOWS ARE NOTHING NEW IN OSCAR HISTORY
Actually it may be hard to believe that once upon a time it was considered kind of cool to not bother to show up for the Oscars. Legendary Academy Award host Bob Hope once quipped about receiving an Oscar, “it must be great just to be able to send for one”. Potential winners knew they could send someone in their place to read their acceptance, or in the infamous case of Marlon Brando in 1973, non-acceptance speech. About four decades ago the Academy instituted a tough love rule and banned that practice, now simply letting presenters say that the Academy congratulates you and accepts on your behalf (unless in rare cases it is a posthumous award such as is likely this year with Chadwick Boseman). In returning to that earlier era when the ceremony was, as all through the 1960’s, held in April and there were many years when few of the major winners were even present to accept themselves, will we also see a repeat of a number of no-shows and lose speeches that often became Oscar’s most memorable moments? I recall 1964 for instance when the winners of three of the four acting awards, as well as director and picture skipped the show. Thank God for historic Best Actor winner Sidney Poitier who was there. Other years like 1967 and 1971 saw only one acting winner appear in person as well. Hopefully this Covid Oscars won’t just be a parade of presenters accepting on “your behalf”.
A GLOBAL OSCAR CRISIS
One nominated producer from a prominent Best Picture contender who I quoted in breaking this story Wednesday is currently working in London along with many others including such prominent Oscar winners and current nominees Gary Oldman, Emerald Fennell and Olivia Colman. Colman for one has agreed to participate in all three Zoom sessions for SAG, where she is a double nominee for The Crown and up for Best Supporting Actress for The Father. But can she be expected to shut down or severely alter pre-production on the new HBO limited series in which she is starring and producing that begins shooting in a few weeks, and head to L.A., quarantining for what will amount to weeks?
On top of that, Covid considerations may be affecting other aspects of the show. Although I heard this week that 12-time nominee Diane Warren plans to appear on the Oscar show, for the first time ever, accompanying singer Laura Pausini on their song “Seen” from The Life Ahead, the Italian performer was having trouble getting out of locked-down Italy, even possibly resorting to going to an embassy for help. The whole situation of the performances of Best Song nominees seemed in flux this week anyway according to one AMPAS source, with more clarity coming next week we are told. On Tuesday, when I asked Leslie Odom Jr. — a double nominee for Supporting Actor and Song — if he would be performing his One Night In Miami tune “Speak Now” on the Oscars, he seemed surprised and replied “I haven’t been asked.” Recalling a year that Beyoncé did a medley of nominated songs, he then suggested that he wouldn’t mind at all if Beyoncé did his this year.
So anyway, returning to that Oscar-nominated producer mentioned above. They had already altered production on their schedule in order to also be at the Oscars — virtually, with at least one other nominee joining remotely. Here are some further thoughts from that email sent to me Wednesday:
I have a theory about this—based upon their interaction with us. I think it is dawning on them that the era of all things remote might be here to stay. Obviously, I would love to be there, no matter who wins— it has been disappointing to learn there is no provision for people who, because of the pandemic, cannot be there. It is sad to not be there in any way to share the moment. I think the Oscars have good intentions, and we all want things back to normal and masks gone and the whole thing. But there are still issues that some of us are stuck with. We all assumed there would be some understanding for people who cannot be there BECAUSE of PANDEMIC related issues, and not thru any choice of our own! So, the nominations came out, one got to feel like a 7 year old for an hour or two (Pete, we are SO proud of this film and the work of all involved). As per usual, the fashion houses began to reach out to dress us (yes, even for virtual, everyone was doing their best under vastly imperfect circumstances). THEN we heard thru the grapevine that no virtual would be allowed. THEN we got the letter from the Academy.
Here is hoping, to keep a globe full of proud nominees happy — and all dressed in their finest — in their moment of triumph that this all gets worked out somehow. The producer in his “note from a very unusual Oscar season” still remains in the dark however, at least as of a couple of days ago:
“To answer your question, yes, I think there is a potential brewing need to readdress this that may be dawning on them. But, I have heard not a peep of anything, not even gossip, about this from anyone.”
Stay tuned. With a month to go before the 93rd annual Academy Awards, and for all the answers to Oscar’s global crisis and the fate of Nomadland and its potential spoilers, we will “see you down the road.”