Health

Quiet awards season has Hollywood uneasy

Now, between
the omicron spike and NBC’s decision not to televise the Golden Globes on
Sunday because of the ethical issues surrounding the group that hands out the
awards, Hollywood’s traditionally frenetic — and hype-filled — first week of
the calendar year has been reduced to a whisper. The AFI Awards were postponed.
The Critics’ Choice Awards — scheduled to be televised Sunday night in hopes of
filling the void left by the Globes’ absence — were pushed back. The Palm
Springs Film Festival, an annual stop along the awards campaign trail, was
cancelled. And most of those star-driven award favorites bombed at the box
office.

The Academy
Awards remain scheduled for March 27, with nominations Feb 8, but there has
been no indication what the event will be like. (The organisation already
postponed its annual Governors Awards, which for the past 11 years have bestowed
honourary Oscars during a nontelevised ceremony.) Will there be a host? How
about a crowd? Perhaps most important, will anyone watch? The Academy hired a
producer of the film “Girls Trip” in October to oversee the show but has been
mum on any additional details and declined to comment for this article.

Suddenly,
2022 is looking eerily similar to 2021. Hollywood is again largely losing its
annual season of superficial self-congratulation, but it is also seeing the
movie business’s best form of advertisement undercut in a year when films
desperately need it. And that could have far-reaching effects on the types of
movies that get made.

“For the box
office — when there was a fully functioning box office — those award shows were
everything,” said Nancy Utley, a former co-chair of Fox Searchlight who helped
turn smaller prestige films like “12 Years a Slave” and “The Shape of Water”
into best-picture Oscar winners during her 21-year tenure. “The recognition
there became the reason to go see a smaller movie. How do you do that in the
current climate? It’s hard.”

Many
prestige films are released each year 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 diminishing of the Globes — which collapsed
after revelations involving possible financial impropriety, questionable
journalistic ethics and a significant lack of diversity in the Hollywood
Foreign Press Association, which administers the awards — had already hobbled
that equation. If the Hollywood hype machine loses its awards season engine, it
could prove devastating to the already injured box office. The huge audience
shift fueled by streaming may be here to stay, with only blockbuster spectacles
like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” drawing theatergoers in significant numbers.

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“The movie
business is this gigantic rock, and we’re close to seeing that rock crumble,”
said Stephen Galloway, dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and
Media Arts and a former executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter. “People
have gotten out of the habit of seeing movies on a big screen. Award season is
the best single tub-thumping phenomenon 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 pinnacle, the telecast drew 55 million viewers. That number has
been dropping for years, and last year it hit an all-time low — 10.4 million
viewers for a show without a host, no musical numbers and a little-seen best
picture winner in “Nomadland.” (The film, which was released simultaneously in
theaters and on Hulu, grossed just $3.7 million.)

Hollywood
was planning to answer with an all-out blitz over the past year, even before
the awards season. It deployed its biggest stars and most famous directors to
remind consumers that despite myriad streaming options, theatergoing held an
important place in the broader culture.

It hasn’t
worked. The public, in large part, remains reluctant to return to theaters with
any regularity. “No Time to Die,” Daniel Craig’s final turn as James Bond, was
delayed for over a year because of the pandemic, and when it was finally
released, it made only $160.7 million in the United States and Canada. That was
$40 million less than the 2015 Bond film, “Spectre,” and $144 million below
2012’s “Skyfall,” the highest-grossing film in the franchise.

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Well-reviewed,
auteur-driven films that traditionally have a large presence on the awards
circuit, like “Last Night in Soho” ($10.1 million), “Nightmare Alley” ($8
million) and “Belfast” ($6.9 million), barely made a ripple at the box office.

And even
though Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story” has a 93 percent positive
rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it has earned only $30 million at the domestic box
office. (The original grossed $44 million back in 1961, the equivalent of $409
million in today.)

According to
a recent study, 49 percent of pre-pandemic moviegoers are no longer buying
tickets. Eight percent say they will never return. Those numbers are a death
knell for the midbudget movies that rely on positive word-of-mouth and
well-publicized accolades to get patrons into seats.

Some believe
the middle part of the movie business — the beleaguered category of films that
cost $20 million to $60 million (like “Licorice Pizza” and “Nightmare Alley”)
and aren’t based on a comic book or other well-known intellectual property —
may be changed forever. If viewing habits have been permanently altered, and
award nominations and wins no longer prove to be a significant draw, those
films will find it much more difficult to break even. If audiences are willing
to go to the movies only to see the latest “Spider-Man” film, it becomes hard
to convince them that they also need 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 filmmakers’ careers,” Galloway said.
“Its effect is not even just on a business. It affects an entire art form. And
art is fragile.”

Of the other
likely best-picture contenders given a significant theatrical release, only
“Dune,” a sci-fi spectacle based on a known property, crossed the $100 million
mark at the box office. “King Richard” earned $14.7 million, and “Licorice
Pizza” grossed $7 million.

“The number
of non-genre adult dramas that have cracked $50M is ZERO,” film journalist and
historian Mark Harris wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “The world of 2019, in
which ‘1917’ made $160M, ‘Ford v. Ferrari’ made $120M, and ‘Parasite’ made
$52M, is gone.”

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Still,
studios are adjusting. MGM is slowing down its theatrical rollout of “Licorice
Pizza” after watching other prestige pictures stumble when they entered more
than 1,000 theaters. It is also pushing its release in Britain of “Cyrano,”
starring Peter Dinklage, to February to follow the US release with the hope
that older female moviegoers will return to the cinema by then. Sony Pictures
Classics is redeploying the playbook it used in 2021: more virtual screenings
and virtual Q&As to entice academy voters while also shifting distribution
to the home faster. Its documentary “Julia,” about Julia Child, hit premium video-on-demand
over the holidays.

Many studios
got out in front of the latest pandemic wave with flashy premieres and holiday
parties in early December that required proof of vaccination and on-site
testing. But so far in January, many of the usual awards campaigning events
like screenings and cocktail parties are being canceled or moved to the virtual
world. “For your consideration” billboards are still a familiar sight around
Los Angeles, but in-person meet-and-greets are largely on hold.

Netflix,
which only releases films theatrically on a limited basis and doesn’t report
box office results, is likely to have a huge presence on the award circuit this
year with films like “Tick, Tick … Boom,” “The Power of the Dog” and “The
Lost Daughter” vying for prizes. Like most other studios, it, too, has moved
all in-person events for the month of January to virtual.

“Last year
was a tough adaptation, and it’s turning out that this year is also going to be
about adapting to what’s going on in the moment,” Michael Barker, a
co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, said in a telephone interview last
week. He spoke while walking the frigid streets of Manhattan instead of basking
in the sunshine of Palm Springs, California, where he was supposed to be
honoring Penélope Cruz, his leading lady in Oscar contender “Parallel Mothers.”

“You just
compensate by doing what you can,” he said, “and once this passes, then you
have to look at what the new world order will be.”

© 2022 The
New York Times Company

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