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Roundtable: Variety’s Awards Team Looks to Predict an Uncertain Year

The Invisible Man Minari The Father
Mark Rogers/Universal Pictures; Dick Johnson: Netflix; One Night In Miami: Patti Perret/Amazon

Though most theaters are shuttered, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has said it will continue as planned with next year’s Academy Awards, albeit with a few new rules and a new date — April 25, 2021. That means it’s still very early and much remains to be seen, including which movies might move into the following season. Variety’s awards experts took a stab at imagining what the Oscars will look like next year, and what films have already made waves — along with which pics could be coming down the line. Participating in the roundtable are awards editor Clayton Davis and artisans editor Jazz Tangcay, with deputy awards and features editor Jenelle Riley leading the discussion. You can also tune in every week to hear their take on the race on Variety’s new Awards Circuit Podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Jenelle Riley: So obviously we have an unprecedented awards season ahead of us. There have been virtual screenings and drive-in premieres and Zoom Q&As and some really great swag going out to voters already. How do you think studios are faring so far in this new era of campaigning?

Jazz Tangcay: I think they have pivoted to the new landscape as well as they possibly can. They’ve taken to the drive-ins, although are voters really going to travel two hours for a drive-in when they hate going to Hollywood or Beverly Hills? Voters barely will travel. So, it’s how they make their films available and how easily?

Clayton Davis
: I think some studios are adapting well. They are really getting ahead of this unknown time and starting to think outside the box in terms of how to campaign, and which items to focus on. It’s going to be interesting to see how many things from this year will stick and become the norm.

Tangcay:
The only criticism I’ve heard is the Q&As aren’t really interactive …

Riley:
There’s really no way around that. People miss live events and meeting up in person.

Tangcay:
But overall they have done really well. And I agree, how much will stick and become the norm? I think it’s going to be a long time before people feel safe doing screening rooms again. People don’t want to go to screening rooms until there’s a vaccine.

Riley:
I’d say Amazon took the early lead in the swag game with their premiere dinners — they sent meals to people along with “tickets” to watch their films online. They themed them well to the movies and they were pretty amazing. But those were for early premieres; let’s see what they do for their awards slate!

Tangcay:
They went right for it, and they did it with a cause. Which made it even better; supporting small businesses.

Riley:
Onto the movies! Every now and then I hear grumbling about how can there be an Oscars with no movies, and this aggravates me to no end. There have been so many great contenders that have come out or played festivals already. Off the top of my head, I’m talking about recent fest faves “One Night in Miami” and “Nomadland” and “Ammonite” or films out of Sundance like “Minari” and “Promising Young Woman” and “The Father.” I’m a big fan of “The Sound of Metal,” which actually premiered at Toronto last year. “First Cow” also premiered at Telluride last year and could be a dark horse contender. Or you’ve had films that are out now, like “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Tenet.” The latter might get a boost from hitting DVD release in December, where people can finally check it out.

Tangcay:
“Da 5 Bloods” is also out and “On the Rocks” has played festivals.

Davis:
Agreed on all of those mentioned, but this also offers up a great opportunity for the Academy to think outside the box some. While all the films mentioned are in contention, they would also be in a “conventional” year. We could see some voters lean in on films like “Miss Juneteenth,” first film that distributor Vertical Entertainment has made available on the platform, or “Palm Springs,” hardcore comedy but something that Hulu truly believes in since it was so beloved at Sundance. I’d also like to see them lean into some new genres too. “The Invisible Man” for horror or dare I say, “John Lewis: Good Trouble” or “Boys State” on the documentary side of things. The whole expansion to 10 nominees was supposed to allow these types of movies a chance to break into the top category, and we’ve yet to really see it.

Riley
: Speaking of horror, “His House” is one of my favorite movies of the year. If genre films have made some recent headway at the Oscars thanks to “Get Out,” this film deserves to as well.

Davis: For sure. And as the Academy announces their diversity and inclusion initiative set to take effect in 2024, this is a year where they can show some independence and look at films and performances they haven’t before.

Tangcay
: The docs are great this year; so many good ones: “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” “Boys State,” “Crip Camp,” “I Am Greta,” “The Dissident.” I wonder; will the election docs fare well if [Democratic candidate Joe] Biden wins?

Davis
: It’s hard to tell what kind of mood the country will be in with the election and the outcome. There are a lot of films that have better or worse chances based on the outcome. In addition to those you mentioned, there are more great docs. “John Lewis: Good Trouble” and “The Way I See It” are both directed by Dawn Porter, and she’s going to be a powerhouse this season. “Dick Johnson Is Dead” and “MLK/FBI” could also be dangerous on the circuit. I’m also keeping a close eye on “Totally Under Control” from Alex Gibney.

Riley
: Embarrassed to admit I’ve only seen a couple of those, but I adored “Dick Johnson Is Dead” and think it absolutely deserves best picture consideration.

Davis:
Thinking outside the box should also extend to below the line. I’ll be looking for the Academy to do some killer moves in the artisan categories. “Sound of Metal” will be an inspired inclusion in sound but also “The Invisible Man.” I think it would be dope for something from “Promising Young Woman” to pop up in costumes and makeup.

Riley
: I would give whoever did Carey Mulligan’s nails a special award. Speaking of, let’s take a quick look at the films that have already screened where actors have stood out. Mulligan is fantastic in “Promising Young Woman” and Kate Winslet always delivers in “Ammonite.” We’ve seen a star turn from Vanessa Kirby in “Pieces of a Woman” and Frances McDormand could win a third Oscar for “Nomadland.” Two smaller films with great performances I want to mention: Carrie Coon in “The Nest” and Sienna Miller in “Wander Darkly.” On the actor side, I’m a big fan of Anthony Hopkins in “The Father” and Riz Ahmed in “Sound of Metal” along with the entire cast of “Minari,” which I loved.

Tangcay:
Mulligan is fabulous, I agree. I liked Dev Patel in “The Personal History of David Copperfield.” Bill Murray will probably resonate in “On the Rocks”; they just seem to love him. Rashida Jones is also excellent in that film. Rachel Brosnahan could cross over with her lead role in “I’m Your Woman.”

Davis: I think Delroy Lindo (“Da 5 Bloods”) is going to have his time in the spotlight this year while I’m crossing my fingers for something as subtle but profound as Steven Yeun (“Minari”). In supporting categories, my standouts in the big ensemble films like “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “One Night in Miami” seem like they may have a hard time breaking through. I’m looking at Frank Langella and Eli Goree as those performers.

Riley:
I generally don’t like speculating too much on films that have yet to be seen, but let’s do it anyway. Obviously, everyone is anxiously awaiting David Fincher’s “Mank.” With that cast and crew and a film about Hollywood? That’s catnip to voters.

Tangcay:
The stills are stunning. It’s a stab at the debate on authorship of “Citizen Kane.” Also, yes, Hollywood loves a story about itself. I’m also looking forward to “French Exit,” just to see the return of Michelle Pfeiffer. We also have Tom Hanks in “News of the World” and obviously Gary Oldman for “Mank.”

Riley:
And both Amy Adams and Glenn Close in “Hillbilly Elegy.” They have 13 nominations between them! I’m also excited for Jennifer Hudson in “Respect” and Andra Day in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” as voters tend to love biopics and particularly musical ones.

Davis
: At first glance best actor was looking top-heavy and not “traditionally deep” of talent as we’ve seen in the past. There are so many question marks and things moving to next year. The Chadwick Boseman campaign for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is still working itself out and there’s no telling where they’ll land on lead or supporting. We still have no date for “Judas and the Black Messiah” so Daniel Kaluuya and/or Lakeith Stanfield may or may not factor in, plus it’s said they have similar screen time. The wind seems to be blowing towards Kingsley Ben-Adir going the lead route for “One Night in Miami” while we await the drop of Tom Holland (“Cherry”) and George Clooney (“The Midnight Sky”). It’s such a bananas year.

Tangcay:
Wherever Chadwick Boseman ends up, he has to be a lock, right?

Davis:
Posthumous nominations and wins are a rarity, plus I never use “lock” this early. Things change in an instant but he’s definitely the favorite at the moment, but again, the campaign will be key.

Riley:
Speaking of “Ma Rainey,” Viola Davis could land another nomination. Just just based on the roles in the play, it would be hard to deny her and Chadwick. Finally, I want to ask, what do you think the Oscars themselves will look like? Are we thinking it will be a virtual show? Or something more along the lines of the Video Music Awards, which was done on several stages and locations?

Tangcay:
I think if anyone can pull off a virtual Oscar show, it would be the producers of the Academy Awards. And I bet they would still hold it to high regard. Tuxes and gowns! It’s the Academy Awards. I’m sure we’ve learned from the Emmys. I would probably expect a stellar opening number too. So don’t be surprised.

Davis:
The Oscars are preparing for multiple types of “looks.” If I were a betting man, I would imagine a Dolby Theatre that will just have the nominees and selected press, spread out among the seats and balconies. And would carry on as “normal” that would emulate the Emmys in some way. The alternative would be similar to the Emmys but with every best picture nominee looking like the “Schitt’s Creek” party-room table with microphones there in an offsite location.

Riley:
I’m happy to hear this because above all, I do believe the show must go on.