Steven Spielberg directing a dance-filled musical through the streets of New York. Lady Gaga channels her Italian roots. Will Smith back on the big screen. This year’s award season would celebrate Hollywood’s return to glitz and glamour. No more masks, no more socially distancing awards or Zoom speeches, no more rewarding movies that very few people had seen.
Now, between the ommicron spike and NBC’s decision not to broadcast the Golden Globes on Sunday due to the ethical issues surrounding the awarding group has reduced Hollywood’s traditionally hectic — and hype-filled — first week of the calendar year to a whisper. The AFI Awards have been postponed. The Critics’ Choice Awards – which were to be televised Sunday night in hopes of filling the void left by the absence of the Globes – were pushed back. The Palm Springs Film Festival, an annual stop along the campaign trail for the awards ceremony, was canceled. And most of those star-driven prize favorites were bombed at the box office.
The Academy Awards remain scheduled for March 27, with nominations on February 8, but there’s no indication of what the event will look like. (The organization has already postponed its annual Governors Awards, which have presented honorary Oscars for the past 11 years in a ceremony that was not televised.) Will there be a host? How about a crowd? Perhaps most importantly, will anyone watch? The Academy hired a producer of the movie Girls Trip in October to oversee the show, but did not provide additional details and declined to comment on this article.
Suddenly, 2022 looks eerily like 2021. Hollywood is once again largely losing its annual season of superficial complacency, but it’s also seeing the film industry’s best form of advertising being undermined in a year when movies desperately need it. And that can have far-reaching consequences for the kind of films that are made.
“Before the box office—when there was a fully functioning box office—those award shows were everything,” said Nancy Utley, a former Fox Searchlight co-chair who helped run smaller prestige films like 12 Years a Slave and The Shape of Water during her 21-year tenure to Oscar winners for best picture. “The recognition there became the reason to start seeing a smaller film. How do you do that in the current climate? It is difficult.”
Every year, many prestigious films are released with the expectation that most of their box office receipts will be earned in the crucial weeks between the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. The Globes’ decline — which collapsed after revelations of potential financial impropriety, questionable journalistic ethics and a significant lack of diversity in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which controls the awards — had already clouded that equation. If the Hollywood hype machine loses its engine for prize season, it could be devastating to the already injured box office. The massive audience shift fueled by streaming may be here to stay, with only blockbuster glasses such as Spider-Man: No Way Home attracts large numbers of theatergoers.
“The movie industry is this giant rock, and we’re about to see that rock crumble,” said Stephen Galloway, dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts and former executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter. “People have given up the habit of seeing movies on a big screen. Prize season is the best phenomenon of banging a single tub for anything in the world. How many years can you go without that?”
The Academy Awards were created in 1929 to promote Hollywood’s achievements to the outside world. At its peak, the broadcast attracted 55 million viewers. That number has been declining for years and last year it reached an all-time low: 10.4 million viewers for a show with no host, no musical numbers and a little-seen winner of the best picture in Nomadland. (The film, which was released simultaneously in theaters and on Hulu, grossed just $3.7 million.)
Hollywood planned to answer with a total blitz for the past year, even before the awards show season. It deployed its biggest stars and most famous directors to remind consumers that despite countless streaming options, theater held an important place in the wider culture.
It hasn’t worked. The public remains largely reluctant to return to theaters on a regular basis. No Time to Die, Daniel Craig’s final turn as James Bond, was delayed for more than a year due to the pandemic, and when it was finally released, it made just $160.7 million in the United States and Canada. That was $40 million less than the 2015 Bond film Spectre, and $144 million less than 2012, the highest-grossing film in the franchise’s Skyfall.
Highly-reviewed, author-driven films that have traditionally had a large presence on the awards circuit, such as Last Night in Soho ($10.1 million), Nightmare Alley ($8 million), and Belfast ($6.9 million), barely made a mark. ripple at the checkout .
And while Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story has a 93% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it has made just $30 million at the domestic box office. (The original brought in $44 million in 1961, the equivalent of $409 million today.)
According to a recent survey, 49% of pre-pandemic moviegoers no longer buy tickets. Eight percent say they will never return. Those numbers are the death knell for the mid-budget movies that rely on positive word of mouth and well-publicized accolades to get customers in their seats.
Some believe that the middle section of the movie industry — the beleaguered category of movies that cost $20 million to $60 million (like Licorice Pizza and Nightmare Alley) and aren’t based on a comic book or other known intellectual property — can be changed forever. If viewing habits have changed permanently and nominations and wins are no longer a big draw, those movies will have a much harder time breaking even. When audiences only want to go to the cinema to see the latest Spider-Man movie, it becomes difficult to convince them to see a movie like Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white meditation on his childhood, in a crowded theater rather than in their living rooms.
“All of this doesn’t just affect individual films and the careers of filmmakers,” Galloway says. “The effect isn’t even just on a company. It touches on an entire art form. And art is vulnerable.”
Of the other Best Picture contenders to receive a major theatrical release, only Dune, a sci-fi spectacle based on a well-known property, topped the $100 million mark at the box office. King Richard made $14.7 million and Licorice Pizza grossed $7 million.
“The number of non-genre adult dramas that have cracked $50 million is ZERO,” film journalist and historian Mark Harris wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “The world of 2019, where ‘1917’ made $160 million, ‘Ford v. Ferrari’ made $120 million and ‘Parasite’ made $52 million, is gone.”
Still, studios are adapting. MGM is delaying Licorice Pizza theatrical rollout after seeing other prestigious pictures stumble as they enter more than 1,000 theaters. It also pushed for the UK release of “Cyrano”, starring Peter Dinklage, to February to follow the US release in the hopes that older female moviegoers will return to the cinema by then. Sony Pictures Classics is reapplying the playbook it used in 2021: more virtual screenings and virtual Q&As to entice academy voters while also moving distribution home faster. The documentary ‘Julia’, about Julia Child, came on premium video-on-demand during the holiday season.
Many studios stepped out ahead of the latest wave of pandemic with flashy premieres and holiday parties in early December requiring vaccination certificates and on-site testing. But so far in January, many of the usual awards ceremony events, such as screenings and cocktail parties, have been canceled or moved to the virtual world. For your consideration, “Billboards are still a common sight in Los Angeles, but in-person meet-and-greets have largely been put on hold.
Netflix, which only releases limited theatrical movies and doesn’t report box office results, will likely have a huge presence on the awards circuit this year with films like Tick, Tick… Boom, The Power of the Dog, and The Lost Daughter Competing for Awards. Like most other studios, it has also moved all personal events for the month of January to virtual.
“Last year was a tough adjustment, and it turns out this year will be one of adjustment to what’s happening right now,” Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, said in a phone interview last week. . He spoke as he walked the icy streets of Manhattan rather than basking in the sun of Palm Springs, California, where he would honor Penélope Cruz, his leading lady in Oscar contender Parallel Mothers.
“You just compensate by doing what you can,” he said, “and once this is over, then you have to look at what the new world order will be like.”