93rd Academy Awards

This year, the Oscars underscore an existential question: What do movies mean?

Film as an art form is healthy. Film as a business will survive. But film as a cultural practice is at a crossroads.
(Ana Jaks for The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this article said the director Chloe Zhao screened her early short films at the Slamdance Film Festival. Her films have never appeared at the festival. This version has been corrected.

Does anyone need reminding that the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday will be the weirdest ever? Or the most lackluster? We get it: No one’s seen the movies. These Oscars are going to tank. Next!

Honestly, was anyone expecting rabid excitement after a year of pandemic, when theaters shuttered across America, studios postponed their blockbusters and prestige pictures, and viewers hibernated on their couches with hot chocolate bombs and “Gilmore Girls” reruns?

This year’s Oscars underscore a supreme irony that has yet to fully play out: If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that visual storytelling is more essential than ever. The question, when we emerge in 2021 or early 2022, is whether we’ll still know what movies are, or what they mean.

If anything, it’s a minor miracle that there were movies to celebrate in 2020 — and early 2021, which is the extended eligibility deadline from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Indeed, this year’s eight best-picture nominees may not have been massive crowd-pleasers — taken together, they grossed less than $40 million. But they reflect vitality, ingenuity and admirable ambition from emerging talents, whether in the form of Chloe Zhao’s sweeping contemporary western, “Nomadland,” and Shaka King’s sleek, politically resonant urban thriller, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” or sharply observant small-canvas dramas like Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” Darius Marder’s “Sound of Metal” and Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman.”

In other words: The future of film, at least as an art form, looks bright. The business of film is on shakier ground.

Steven Yeun, left, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han and Noel Cho in “Minari.” (Josh Ethan Johnson/A24)

As academy members prepared to fill out their ballots, reports suggested that an alarming number of them had not seen the films they were voting on. And several of them were spooked by the recent shuttering of the venerable Cinerama Dome and other cherished ArcLight and Pacific theaters in Los Angeles. Along with the bankruptcy and near bankruptcy of the Alamo Drafthouse and AMC chains and WarnerMedia’s decision to release its slate in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously, ArcLight’s announcement felt like yet another tumbrel headed for a disastrous reckoning.

It’s no wonder that Hollywood — and, frankly, anyone who cares about cinema — is suffering a massive case of the yips. And the unease goes deeper than the changed nature of distribution and exhibition. With movies now one more piece of visual storytelling on rapidly proliferating streaming services, the fear is that they’ve become indistinguishable from the reruns, original series and random TikToks, tweets and YouTube videos people have been idly scrolling for the past 14 months. As Golden Globes co-host Amy Poehler said in the show’s introduction, “TV is the one that I watch five hours straight, but a movie is the one that I don’t turn on because it’s two hours.”

It’s true that a startlingly small number of people — academy members and audiences alike — have seen this year’s nominees. But when we grumble about this year’s Oscars, we’re not talking about film as an art form, or even a business, as much as a cultural practice: that sense of occasion and ritualistic pleasure that defines the medium’s parameters, even if they’ve been blurred in recent years. Poehler’s funny-but-true quip notwithstanding, a movie can be differentiated from a TV show or streaming series, if only by way of time and space. It’s a discrete, unitary aesthetic encounter, lasting anywhere from one to a few hours, maybe — ideally? — experienced with others, in a dark room not our own.

Daniel Kaluuya, left, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne and LaKeith Stanfield in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” (Glen Wilson/Warner Bros. Pictures)
Frances McDormand in “Nomadland.” (Joshua James Richards/20th Century Studios)
LEFT: Daniel Kaluuya, left, Ashton Sanders, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne and LaKeith Stanfield in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” (Glen Wilson/Warner Bros. Pictures) RIGHT: Frances McDormand in “Nomadland.” (Joshua James Richards/20th Century Studios)

And, once in a rare while, that encounter will transcend mere entertainment to become something bigger, generating an unspoken flash of recognition that builds into a buzz and eventually turns into a passionate collective conversation. That is what defines film at its most exciting, relevant and universally galvanizing. It’s the first time you saw “The Godfather.” Or “Star Wars.” Or, more recently, “Black Panther.”

Although technology, evolving audience expectations and the movies themselves began chipping away at that experience long before covid-19, it took 2020 to make the slippage feel real and worryingly permanent. We may still talk about the movies we see (although we’re more likely to talk about a true-crime podcast, or series like “Tiger King” or “The Queen’s Gambit”), but those conversations are happening in the same rabbit holes where we’re watching, via social media, Substack comments and Zoom happy hours. As a dematerialized part of the great wash of sound and images, beamed out to an increasingly atomized viewership, is it possible for a movie to gain traction and become a genuine touchstone?

The subject has occupied producer Michael Shamberg for the past several years, including a stint on an academy committee tasked with assessing the future of film. Shamberg fondly remembers rushing to the theater to see the latest Stanley Kubrick or Francis Ford Coppola film on opening day. “That’s gone, I guess,” he says. “But I think there’s still excitement about discovering a film. When you see it [and] where you see it doesn’t matter.” The problem, he says, is that no entity has stepped up to capture that excitement in a way that speaks to siloed audiences, especially young viewers. “That’s my beef with the academy,” he says, “and, to a certain degree, you film critics. You’re having the conversation, but nobody knows you’re having the conversation.”

Shamberg has been on a mission to encourage the academy to be more proactive as a convener, especially on Twitter and Instagram, where he says the organization’s most popular members account for more than 1 billion followers. Last summer, he sued the academy’s board for violating its bylaws when it declined to vote on amendments he had proposed, one of which addressed what he called a “bland and formulaic” social media strategy. “The academy refuses to use data,” Shamberg observes. “This year’s show has great producers, but it’s likely the ratings will be less than half of last year’s and a 75 percent drop from their peak of the last decade. They refuse to go where the audience is. The Oscars are a consumer brand that doesn’t care about the consumer.”

Riz Ahmed in “Sound of Metal.” (Amazon Studios) (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

It’s not lost on Shamberg that his frequent collaborator, Steven Soderbergh, is co-producing this year’s Oscars telecast, which will be staged at multiple venues in addition to the usual Dolby Theatre, including Union Station in Los Angeles and sites in London and Paris. Soderbergh has always moved comfortably between large-scale mainstream productions and smaller experiments, and he’s always been adamantly platform-neutral. Yet in interviews, he has been adamant that this year’s Oscars will celebrate cinema in its singularity, vowing that the show will be staged and shot like “a three-hour film” — which, in his case, could mean a 35mm film camera or an iPhone. (Soderbergh, who helped develop covid protocols for the Directors Guild of America, has also made it clear that those safety measures will be observed on the night.)

It’s also not lost on Peter Baxter that Soderbergh is a generational avatar for independent filmmaking, having burst on the scene in 1989 with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” before embarking on one of Hollywood’s most protean, productive and wide-ranging careers. Baxter, a filmmaker and co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival, is particularly intrigued that most of this year’s directing nominees got their starts at festivals; Chung screened his early short films at Slamdance, and two of this year’s Oscar-nominated shorts, “Feeling Through” and “Opera,” played at the festival as well.

Baxter describes Chung’s success, and the part that Slamdance played in it, as “just awesome.” But he also sees an opportunity for the academy — and, by extension, the film industry at large — to use the awards ceremony to advocate for independent filmmakers, not just as a farm team for the next Marvel or DC franchise installment, but as an essential part of an ecosystem that depends on a diverse range of voices, visions and forms to thrive. The movie industry has formed itself into a pyramid, he says, “when really what it should be is a messy food chain. It may not look very pretty, but if we were truly connected, it would help other filmmakers coming up and get the audiences they deserve. It would enrich our culture and certainly, in the end, add to the great American export of its films.”

The fact that so many of this year’s nominees are scrappy little indies — or emanated from the scrappy-little-indie world — reflects a year when most studios held back such bigger-budget awards fodder as “West Side Story,” “In the Heights” and “The French Dispatch” until theaters reopened. But it also reflects the binary way the film industry is now functioning, wherein films are either lavish, spectacle-heavy tentpoles or low-budget films that signal their seriousness by way of a grim tone and gritty production values.

Although Netflix has done an admirable job of resuscitating genres like romantic comedies and B-movie action thrillers, entertaining mainstream films that reflect the anxieties and aspirations of the moment — films like “Tootsie,” “9 to 5,” “The China Syndrome,” “Silkwood” — have been ignored almost entirely by studios and streamers alike. “Movies about the times we live in aren’t using the Hollywood vocabulary enough,” notes Shamberg, whose producing credits include “Contagion,” “The Big Chill,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Erin Brockovich” and “Django Unchained.” He’d like to see filmmakers make “culturally relevant films with more of a Hollywood gloss on them. That’s where we’ve gone off the rails.”

Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich.” (Universal/Everett Collection)

Whether those films would be presented at a multiplex or on home screens, he adds, is irrelevant. Bob Gazzale agrees. As the president and CEO of the American Film Institute, Gazzale is sanguine about the future of a medium whose evolution is no less natural for being dramatically sped up in recent years. The change is reflected in each incoming class of film students, called fellows at AFI.

“When I got here, it was the early ’90s, and the fellows were clear: They wanted to make ‘The Godfather,’ ” Gazzale recalls. “That was, and in many ways remains, the gold standard. Ten years go by, and it’s ‘Breaking Bad.’ And another 10 years go by, and there’s no distinction, other than they have a story to tell and they want the audience to see it and to feel it. Now it’s less about the delivery system and more about finding the audience.”

For Gazzale, the feelings of ennui regarding this year’s Oscars, and the attendant alarm over what might be the end of cinema as many of us know it, is overstated, albeit understandable. He quotes Heraclitus: “Nothing endures but change.” That’s “terrifying and exciting,” he says. “Terrifying because it ties to the loss of our childhood, and we feel a touch of mortality as change arrives. But with that comes creative opportunities, and at AFI, we find that exciting.”

Then again, just as this year’s crop of nominees bodes well for the art form, maybe our collective Oscar shrug is proof of concept that film culture still matters. Movies can succeed or fail on screens of any size. But it’s the in-person, collective emotional experience that we crave, and that can permanently inscribe a film into shared memory.

In a strange way, this year might be most memorable for finding meaning less in the movies themselves than in what we missed.

Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman.” (Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features)

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