Theatrical Viewing Adds Tangible Benefits to Awards Hopefuls

Hollywood has always adapted to world changes, and Oscar campaigning this year has effectively adjusted to COVID. But one part of the awards season is missed more than the others: seeing a contender on the big screen.

Studios have delayed several big-scale films, including “Dune” and “West Side Story,” until later in 2021. So “small” movies are dominating the season, but even they are feeling the effects.

The sound design of “Minari” and “Sound of Metal,” the cinematography of “Nomadland” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” the production design of “One Night in Miami” and “The Father,” to name just a few, are admirable on the small-screen, but the nuances would be even more effective in a theater.

Academy members with younger children may have watched “Soul” or “Wolfwalkers” or “Onward” already many, many times on Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus. “Judas and the Black Messiah” can be streamed on HBO Max, while global audiences can catch Taiwan’s Oscar-shortlisted “A Sun” on Netflix.

So COVID is affecting Oscars, but in truth, the accent on small films is not a major shift for Oscar; it’s a continuation of recent patterns.

For the first 70 years of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (throughout the 1990s), filmmakers assumed their work would be seen on the big screen. Oscar’s best picture prize traditionally represented a mix of epics with more intimate films: “Marty” was followed by “Around the World in 80 Days”; “Gandhi” was followed by “Terms of Endearment,” and so on.

In the 1990s, big-scale filmmaking regularly won for best pic: “Dances With Wolves,” “Schindler’s List,” “Braveheart,” “The English Patient” and “Titanic,” which continued with “Gladiator” (2000) and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003).

But then something happened. “Million Dollar Baby” (2004) and “Crash” (2005) started a trend in which epics were nominated, but none won.

Maybe Oscar voters weren’t interested in CGI biggies such as “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight.” Or maybe after 9/11, Hollywood people felt guilty about enjoying spectacle and wanted to honor work that was more introspective.

Either way, by that point, screeners weren’t just a supplement for voters; they had become a go-to method of watching contenders. Many members of AMPAS regularly proclaim the primacy of moviegoing, yet see nominated films at home, on screeners, on their TV sets.

Some 21st century winners, like “12 Years a Slave,” had epic themes, but even that was a small-budgeted film ($20 million). The winner’s list also includes “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Artist,” “Spotlight,” “Moonlight,” “Green Book” and “Parasite.”

Last year, Universal described Sam Mendes’ “1917” as “immersive.” Indeed it was, and that also describes the best big screen experience: The audience feels like it’s inside the film.

A film aimed at the big screen is genetically modified at home: It seems the same, but it’s different. People I know who watched “The Irishman” on Netflix were mixed; those who saw it on the big screen liked it a lot more. The big screen spotlights small details in the work.

Plus, in a theater, you’ve made a commitment. At home, you can see a three-hour movie such as “Irishman” in several installments; you’ve seen the film, but the impact of the last half-hour is not the same.

And despite the pandemic, theater closures and shifts to digital, moviegoing is not going away.

If that sounds overly optimistic, there are several facts to consider:
Since the dawn of civilization, people have gathered together to hear storytellers. There is a primal need to share this experience with others, and the year of isolation may underline those urges, because the need for communal events will be greater.

The big-screen system is financially important. Among the many factors: Few marketing/PR moves can match the free publicity that comes with huge B.O. That success will last the lifetime of the movie, worldwide. Too many people have too much at stake to let this die.

Distributors and exhibitors are finally talking new terms, after wrangling about them for decades. This can help everybody.

Don’t believe everything you read/hear. Journalists thrive on conflict in their reporting, so often drum up tension even when none exists. In addition, journalists for some reason love doom-and-gloom scenarios.

People have been predicting the death of moviegoing for a long time. On Nov. 3, 1952, Variety quoted a producer who cited a 30% drop in attendance and the shuttering of 1,000 theaters in six months: “The greatest threat to the industry, according to many, is the mounting use of television.” That set the tone for 70 years of dire predictions.

On July 20, 1956, National Theatres exec Elmer C. Rhoden accused newspapers of accelerating the “mass homicide of motion picture theaters” by giving more coverage to TV and radio, including such space-eating additions as TV listings.

Before TV, moviegoing was the cheapest form of entertainment; after the television phenomenon, people continued going, but were more selective. Cinema was wounded, but didn’t die.
The next death knell was predicted during the homevideo boom. On Nov. 27, 1985, Variety reported on “theater owners’ renewed alarm about the erosion of their business from ‘that nasty little screen’ — filmgoing via videocassette recording.”

On April 12, 1988, Larry Hilford, of Orion Home Entertainment, trumpeted a new crisis: Not only moviegoing but also now homevideo were feeling “the competitive threat of pay-per-view services.”

That’s been the pattern for every entertainment innovation: Panic, followed by glee when execs realize they can make money from the new platform.

On May 31, 2004, Variety reported that DVD sales ($12 billion) had surpassed domestic box office ($9.2 billion) for the first time. For many years, the industry referred to subsequent showings of a film (TV, PPV, DVD, et al.) as “ancillary income.” But eventually ancillary became primary income.

Even with all these new platforms (plus alternate entertainment such as videogames, live concerts, sports), audiences continued to go to movies. In the past year, theater owners and employees have been deeply hurt by the lockdown, but it seems likely moviegoing will be OK in the long run.

In 1953, when TV was burgeoning, Walt Disney wrote a Variety guest column about upheaval, saying the industry requires “constant adaptation and adventures in showmanship.”

He concluded, “We like to enjoy ourselves in crowds, at sports arenas, at picnics, fairs and carnivals, at concerts and in the theatre. … People are always going to demand and enjoy movies in the theatre. Perhaps not as exclusively as they did when public amusements were more limited.” But, he concluded, movies will survive.

The optimism was justified then, and it’s justified now.

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