Every year, the Oscar race is about questions: Who will be nominated, who will win? This year, there’s an added one: What’s the future of moviegoing?

COVID has changed everything big and small— including awards eligibility, meaning a theatrical window was not necessary to qualify for awards. As cinemas closed in 2020, many studios’ opted for simultaneous streaming/theatrical releases. Others decided to bypass theatrical completely.

Was this an emergency measure or an act of panic?

Naysayers are predicting that moviegoing will fade away completely. They’re wrong, of course. But everyone — including all Oscar contenders — needs to pitch in to avoid the worst.

Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group, is a 35-year industry vet and one of the smartest guys in town.

At this year’s theater-owners gathering CinemaCon, “I made the point that theatrical movies make a cultural impact and that’s what makes long-term value,” Rothman tells Variety. “Cultural impact creates [intellectual property]. There is no ‘Wandavision’ without the ‘Avengers’ movies; there’s no ‘Mandalorian’ without ‘Star Wars.’ You create enduring cultural impact with theatrical films.”

Rothman cites four big summer hits that outperformed expectations: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Gold Rings,” “A Quiet Place Part II,” “F9: the Fast Saga” and “Free Guy.” It’s no coincidence that all had exclusive theatrical windows. Since summer, other big-screen exclusives did extremely well, like Sony’s “Venom: Let There Be Carnage.”

Rothman explains, “You want the experience of going to a theater, to get out of the house; second, you want to see that particular film. If that’s available at home on the same day, you’ve removed half the reason for moviegoing.

“There is no economic model to make a profit with day-and-date releases. Taking these multimillion-dollar investments and loss-leading them to your streaming service — it’s a good Wall Street strategy, it’s not an IP-creation strategy.”

What does this have to do with Oscars? Everything.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was started in 1927, partly to offset the negative image of Hollywood scandals, and partly to encourage moviegoing. The latter goal is more urgent than ever.

Yet at the April 2021 Oscarcast, nobody even mentioned moviegoing until the issue was raised by Frances McDormand, in the last few minutes of the show. The telecast had no film clips, so there was little to encourage home viewers to see this year’s nominees, much less to revive their moviegoing habits.

This awards season, Oscar hopefuls need to stay on message, not only that their film is worth seeing, but that moviegoing is fun and rewarding. The messaging is not just during the 2022 Oscar ceremony, but in the buildup, as contenders give interviews, partake in Q&As, appear at film festivals, et al. In a post-COVID era, exhibs need a boost more than ever.

When the pandemic hit, most distributors switched their films to streaming companies, shrugging that it was the only possible choice. Of course it wasn’t. Rothman has explained why big-screen viewing makes sense in terms of money — and Sony Pictures Classics (the specialty division of Sony) showed that a big-screen release strategy makes sense in terms of Oscars.

In 2020, most majors premiered their films on streaming. SPC was one of the few that resisted, staying loyal to theater owners and facing much online skepticism. SPC wound up with six Oscar nominations, including two key wins for “The Father.” The company will follow that process for Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers,” as will big Sony with film such as the Denzel Washington-directed “A Journal for Jordan,” starring Michael B. Jordan and Chanté Adams.

There’s still life in parts of the old business model. There are still dollars and Oscars in big-screen exclusives.

So, dear industry workers, please support this strategy. The job you save may be your own.