As with other creative industries, the film business is reeling under the impact of coronavirus. Crews are struggling to shoot, cinemas are severely restricting audience numbers, studios have been forced to delay releases and film festivals have been largely driven online. In this climate, the awards season – traditionally seen as the driver of artistic excellence as well as the repository for the industry’s vital quotient of glamour – is taking a battering.
In usual times, autumn marks the time when the awards season is in full swing. After the summer blockbusters, heavyweight awards contenders announce themselves with glittering film festival premieres at Venice, Toronto, Telluride, New York and London, films nail down release dates to ensure eligibility for the awards (the traditional cut-off point for the Oscars is 31 December), and stars jet in to hold in-person Q&As with awards voters to cajole vital slivers of support.
But the coronavirus has changed all that. The Oscars ceremony has been pushed back to April 2021 to allow films to obtain a cinema release in a US where cinemas remain largely shut, and films premiering on streaming services will be eligible – previously complete anathema – so long as a physical release is planned. It is still unclear what a major awards ceremony will look like: the recent Emmy awards were conducted over Zoom, and the impossibility of assessing social distancing regulations at this distance means it is not possible to plan. Even before the pandemic, awards ceremonies were battling audience fatigue, with the Oscars’ TV ratings reaching an all-time low earlier this year, despite a number of tweaks such as shorter running time and a hostless show.
Crisis, however, can mean opportunity. For Anna Smith, host of the Girls on Film podcast, the disruption to the release calendar may signal an improvement in quality. “Obviously it’s hard to say how long productions will be delayed down by the crisis,” she says. “But for example there do seem to have been a remarkable amount of fantastic films by female directors in the past six months, with the likes of Rocks, Clemency, Babyteeth, Make Up and Saint Frances. A silver lining to the crisis has been seeing all the media space given to those amazing indie films when it might have otherwise gone to a big budget studio blockbuster. And that will surely have an impact in awards season.”
Charles Gant, box office and awards editor for UK film industry publication Screen International, also points out that while the awards themselves still attract considerable attention from the media and the wider audience, it’s essentially the televised ceremony that is suffering. “People are clearly not finding the TV shows interesting – and why would you? In the current TV landscape, it’s much harder to make a film awards show compelling.”
Even in the current climate some films have managed to break through. Nomadland, a study of the generation of retirees affected by the 2008 recession starring Frances McDormand and directed by Chloé Zhao, has won two big film festival prizes, the Venice Golden Lion and the Toronto people’s choice award, elevating a low-budget film to serious-contender status. Period romance Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet as 19th-century fossil hunter Mary Anning, has also done well from its selection to the suspended Cannes film festival and largely virtual edition of Toronto.
All this is happening at a time that the awards season is frantically trying to reinvent itself to achieve greater relevance to the outside world. On Thursday, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, which gives out the annual Bafta film awards, published a landmark report containing numerous rule changes to promote diversity in its award nominees – over the lack of which it was severely criticised in January. Inspired in part by Bafta’s reforms, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which oversees the Oscars, has also introduced a series of measures to overcome similar accusations. These are part of a wider campaign to overcome discrimination in the film industry – a problem which, according to director Steve McQueen, is significantly worse in the UK than in the US, with a string of “diversity standards” spearheaded by the British Film Institute struggling to make headway.
Is the awards season worth defending in the age of Covid? Gant points out that films such as Nomadland would find it much tougher to get off the ground otherwise. “As difficult as it is to get film like Nomadland made in the first place, without the awards it would be almost impossible. Integral to its DNA is that its backer can launch an awards campaign around it, and become part of the conversation for several months. Awards create opportunities for a certain type of quality film-making.”
Corrina Antrobus, co-founder of the Bechdel Test Fest, agrees. “We need to keep standards high and celebrate art. Awards motivate film-makers to keep working and provide further opportunities when awards are won.” But she feels it’s vital not to get distracted from diversity. “It’s important to audit the issue at a forensic level as to why only one group of people seem to be coming up trumps; who, why and how are these decisions being made? There are many facets to this question and it’s up to the awards bodies to dig deep.
Smith also sees reasons for optimism, and sees awards ceremonies as a key part of the industry’s route to survival. “I think that 2021 awards might be a better reflection of what’s actually really good,” she says, “rather than a smattering of the good stuff and a load of so-so films with big stars and huge marketing budgets. But like everyone in the industry, I am concerned about the future of film and I applaud awards bodies for taking steps to make themselves more relevant. They are a big part of driving audiences to cinemas.”