The unprecedented season was good for Chloé Zhao and Anthony Hopkins, and less kind to Netflix films like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Photo: From Left: Courtesy of Netflix, Getty Images, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
From the very beginning, it was apparent that this year’s Oscars were shaping up to be the weirdest ones we’d ever seen. For one, very few of the films in competition would be seen in actual movie theaters — instead, the field was given over to streaming and VOD releases. Awards campaigns, which have evolved into multimillion-dollar charm offenses, would happen only virtually, or not at all. Society itself had been shaken since the last ceremony, with a deadly pandemic, massive protests in support of racial justice, and an attempted insurrection in the nation’s capital. Oh, and the Oscars would be taking place not on their usual February date, but in April.
Now that the 2021 Oscars are in the books, it’s time to take stock. How did all this massive upheaval affect the ceremony itself?
With the exception of Tenet, there were no traditional blockbusters in the awards race this year. This undoubtedly cleared the way for a film like Nomadland to succeed; with no Goliaths on the field, this tiny, artsy indie could become a steamroller. But it also boosted a movie like Sound of Metal, which nobody pegged as a major Oscar player when it premiered at TIFF in 2019. Darius Marder’s film gradually picked up buzz over the course of the fall, and it wound up as a Best Picture nominee and two-time winner. The Oscar imprimatur bestowed upon Marder and his fellow first-timers Florian Zeller, Emerald Fennell, and Regina King will undoubtedly aid them in the future.
Last spring, once it became clear that movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles wouldn’t be reopening anytime soon, the Academy relaxed its requirement that Oscar contenders must play physical theaters. The move didn’t just ensure that the Academy would not have to nominate Sonic the Hedgehog for Best Picture; it also served as a unilateral concession to Netflix, with whom the Academy has been locked in a frenemy-style relationship for the past half-decade, acknowledging that, although a prominent bloc of Academy membership considers the theatrical experience paramount, this year, at-home viewing was the only game in town.
But predictions that 2021 would be the year the streaming service dominated the Oscars didn’t quite come to pass. Netflix received two Best Picture nominations, the same as last year. Its strongest horse in the race, The Trial of the Chicago 7, went home empty-handed, while Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom lost out in the lead acting races. But neither was Netflix snubbed. Mank and Ma Rainey each won a pair of craft trophies, and the streaming giant continued to dominate the documentary and shorts categories. Ultimately, Netflix ended the night with more Oscars than any other studio. Despite the turmoil of the past 13 months, the relationship between the two remains largely as it was pre-COVID: The Academy is happy to invite Netflix to the party, but isn’t quite ready to sit them at the big kids’ table yet.
With fewer films in the race this year, would Oscar embrace the chance to reward films that didn’t fit the typical awards mold? Not so much. Each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture was a prestige drama released late in the season, and all but one came from streamers, independents, or specialty divisions. Still, because there wasn’t enough Oscar bait to fill out the entire ballot, a few intriguing selections did pop up on the margins. “Husavik” got an Original Song nomination. Emma’s craft noms carried the standard for pre-pandemic cinema. The Visual Effects category was filled…
Read More: What Did We Learn From This Strange Season?