Get ready for the weirdest Oscars ever

A rendering of this year’s Oscars stage.
A rendering of this year’s Oscars stage.
Image: Rockwell Group
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The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has realized the only way to properly honor a very abnormal year for movies is to put on an equally abnormal award show. The result is sure to be unlike any Oscars you’ve ever seen.

That’s why it picked Steven Soderbergh, the renowned experimental director of films like Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Contagion, to be one of the producers of this year’s Oscars. He has vowed to eschew many of the ceremony’s staid traditions and make the broadcast look like an actual movie. It will be shot in 24 frames per second (as opposed to the usual 30) in a widescreen format, to give the night a cinematic feel.

“We just want the whole thing out of the gate to announce itself as just being different,” Soderbergh said on a call with reporters. In an interview with the Associated Press, Soderbergh added he’s using the pandemic and its devastating effects on the film industry to “challenge all the assumptions that go into an award show.”

What’s new at the 2021 Oscars

To start, this year’s Oscars, which air April 25 on ABC in the US, will be primarily filmed at Union Station, a Los Angeles railway station built in Art Deco and Mission Revival styles in the 1930s. The set, designed by Tony award-winning set designer David Rockwell, looks more like a retro dinner party than a conventional awards ceremony. The pre-show will feel like a behind-the-scenes luncheon, co-producer Stacey Sher told the Hollywood Reporter, rather than a traditional red carpet.

As in the past few years, the show will not have a designated host. Instead, there will be an ensemble of presenters passing the reins to one another, guiding the evening through its many awards, performances, and tributes. Soderbergh is treating this ensemble like a “cast” in a movie—each member with pre-written parts to play.

The only people in the room will be nominees and presenters, tested for Covid-19 beforehand. Some nominees will be allowed to video in from remote locations—but not using Zoom. It has to be via satellite link, Soderbergh said, so that the producers can control every aspect of the broadcast seamlessly and without technical  hiccups. The Golden Globe Awards were conducted largely over Zoom in February and received poor marks from viewers.

Sher, who co-produced Soderbergh’s 2011 pandemic thriller, Contagion, said the Oscars are working with the epidemiologists she consulted with for the film to ensure the Oscars production is safe for attendees and crew. On-camera actors will not be required to wear masks, just as they aren’t when filming movies or TV series. Still, Soderbergh hinted that masks will “play a very important role in the story of the evening.”

The experimentation is not likely to boost the broadcast’s TV ratings. In fact, the assumption that the show will yield record low viewership—as other award shows have during the pandemic—may be what encouraged the film academy to hand the keys over to a known risk-taker like Soderbergh. (ABC was still able to sell out its ad inventory despite this assumption.) The award fatigue—driven by too many shows that all look and feel the same—creeping across entertainment in recent years only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

On top of that, this year’s slate of nominated films are arguably the most unknown of all time, which will not help attract new viewers. A survey by the Hollywood research firm Guts + Data revealed that the majority of US entertainment consumers had not even heard of any of the eight films nominated for best picture. Nomadland, an independent drama that grossed just $6 million at the box office (it’s also streaming on Hulu), is the favorite to win the top award.

Another reason the Oscars might feel different this year is because, for once, they’re pretty diverse. Only four of the 20 nominees across the four acting categories are white Americans. Two women have been nominated for best director in the same year for the first time in Oscar history (Nomadland director Chloe Zhao and Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell). And 70 women received 76 nominations in total—the most ever in one year. Even if Soderbergh’s reforms don’t become permanent, hopefully the Oscars’ push toward diversity does.