At the Oscars, Frances McDormand Raises Hollywood’s Existential Question

The Four Percent


Sunday’s Academy Awards came after nearly 14 months in which most people haven’t gone to a movie theater. But only one star at the scaled down ceremony at a Los Angeles train station mentioned the industry’s biggest challenge.

“Please watch our movie on the largest screen possible,” Frances McDormand said after “Nomadland” won best picture, “and one day soon take everyone you know into a theater, shoulder-to-shoulder in that dark space, and watch every film that is represented here tonight.”

This is a make-or-break moment for movie theaters. Box office receipts plummeted 72% world-wide and 80% in the U.S. last year, according to the Motion Picture Association trade group. AMC Entertainment Inc., the world’s biggest theater chain, almost went bankrupt. And many small theaters without AMC’s resources have teetered on the edge of survival or shut down entirely, including Los Angeles’ beloved ArcLight Cinemas.

As theaters re-open this year nobody is sure whether audiences will go as frequently as they did a year-and-a-half ago, or whether many will prefer to keep streaming at home.

Ms. McDormand’s message was addressed to a televised audience that was the smallest in Oscars history, but still the biggest collective moment for people who care about film.

“One day soon” is key, of course, since Covid rates are still high in parts of the U.S. like the Midwest as just over half of adults have received at least one vaccine dose. Many are understandably hesitant about heading back to crowded theaters even with masks and social distancing and capacity restrictions in some states and counties.

Chloé Zhao became the first woman of color to win the Academy Award for best director, and the second woman to win that honor in the Oscars’ 93-year history. Her film “Nomadland” also won awards for best picture and best actress. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Press Pool

About 60% as many theaters were open this past weekend as two years ago, according to Comscore, a number that has been rising all year. And early box office reports show crowds are turning out for blockbuster movies. “Godzilla vs. Kong” has grossed nearly $100 million and big releases like “F9” are coming soon.

Even so, no one besides Ms. McDormand mentioned the plight of movie theaters, or reminded viewers of their importance to the art of cinema. It’s a particularly important issue now as Hollywood grapples with the question of whether audiences will return to theaters for the films the Academy Awards typically honor.

The low- to mid-budget dramas that the Oscars celebrated Sunday all came out as streaming films, even if they got a token theatrical release and grossed a few million dollars.

Best picture winner “Nomadland” premiered simultaneously on Hulu and in theaters “Judas and the Black Messiah” did the same on HBO Max, while “The Father” and “Promising Young Woman” were available to rent online a month or less after they hit theaters.

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That could easily become a permanent state of affairs. The types of films Oscar voters love have been declining at the box office for years, and even if theaters are open at full capacity in a few months, it’s possible most people now permanently associate them only with home viewing. If Oscar-worthy movies lose the gravitas that comes with a robust theatrical release, there’s a danger most people who still bother to tune into the Oscars will see them mainly as a guide to finding good films amid the deluge of options to watch online. The ceremony could seem like little more than an overproduced spin-off of the Emmy Awards to honor the best made-for-television films.

But part of what makes a movie a movie, most filmmakers will tell you, is that it was created to be shown on a big screen, in the dark, to a crowd of people. If the Academy Awards still have a purpose now that TV dominates the cultural conversation, it’s to highlight that difference.

With business and cultural forces pushing toward more streaming, the Oscars could push in the opposite direction. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could make the show a love letter to the big screen that focuses on what’s unique and important about movie theaters. And rather than just returning to the old eligibility rules, suspended during the pandemic, that mandate a one-week run in one theater in L.A., they could strengthen those requirements in the future to make sure that every nominee was really intended to play first and foremost in cinemas.

It probably wouldn’t be enough to reverse a global transformation in the way people consume media, but it would give the Oscars a purpose beyond self-congratulation and send a message that there is still something distinctive about film in a world overrun with content.

Write to Ben Fritz at ben.fritz@wsj.com

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