As one of the producers of the 93rd Academy Awards, Steven Soderbergh took some big swings. Last—but certainly not least, in controversy—was the decision to switch up the order in which awards were presented, with Best Picture coming before the Lead Actor categories.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published on Tuesday, Soderbergh gave his thoughts on how that moment played out, noting that he had had this structure for the show in mind for months before the nominations were announced.
“We talked about that in January. It’s our belief — that I think is not unfounded — that actors’ speeches tend to be more dramatic than producers’ speeches,” said Soderbergh. “And so we thought it might be fun to mix it up, especially if people didn’t know that was coming. So that was always part of the plan.”
While the change in the Oscars’ run of show was jarring for more reasons than one, it proved controversial mainly due to how Lead Actor ended up panning out. While Chadwick Boseman passed away from colon cancer last August, at the age of 43, he was long considered a frontrunner for Best Actor, given the strength of his turn in Netflix’s August Wilson adaptation, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Boseman would ultimately land a posthumous nomination. Therefore, when word broke of the category shuffle broke on Oscars night, many assumed they understood the reasons for it. The image of a victorious actor gone far too soon would close out the night, and all would be well.
Except that isn’t what happened.
The category ended up going to The Father‘s Anthony Hopkins, who didn’t even show up for the ceremony.
Certainly, it crossed Soderbergh’s mind that Boseman might win. At the end of the day, though, he indicated that this possibility was just one he looked to account for with the change of show order. “It wasn’t like we assumed [he] would [win], but if there was even a possibility that it would happen, then you have to account for that,” Soderbergh said. “That would have been such a shattering moment, that to come back after that would have been just impossible.”
Given that the 93rd Oscars happened in the midst of a global pandemic, they were always going to be different, in one way or another. For a famously avant garde filmmaker like Soderbergh, what was happening in the world represented an “opportunity” to experiment.
In concert with producers Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins, Soderbergh wound up innovating in many ways, apart from the naming of categories. Among them was the decision to replace the clip montages typically playing alongside the list of nominated films with stories about the nominees themselves.
While Soderbergh wasn’t surprised by negative response to this move because he doesn’t read reviews, he feels good in hindsight about the tricks he tried to freshen up the broadcast. “You have to understand this show was very much viewed by us and by the Academy as an opportunity to try some really different stuff. And the understanding was always, there are going to be some things that work and some things that don’t, things that people like, things that people don’t. That’s the point,” he said. “So the goal was to really do something different and let the Academy sift through the response and decide what they would do going forward.”
If there’s one element of his show that he hopes the Academy will retain in the future, it’s the stories from nominees.
“I like knowing more about the nominees,” said Soderbergh. “I think that grounds the industry in some sort of reality and makes it clear to people that the majority of the workers don’t come from L.A. and New York, don’t have connections to the entertainment industry and that there is not a firewall between the cast and the crew, that everybody is very much working together. And that the experience of making a film is not siloed the way I think some people believe.”
Up next for the Oscar-winning writer-director is New Line’s tech thriller KIMI, starring Zoë Kravitz, Erika Christensen, Jacob Vargas and more.
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