Having followed the film awards season races closely for an even longer time than I’ve worked at Variety, I sometimes feel as if these decades of kudos scrutinizing have lulled this trade paper journo into thinking I’ve seen it all and I can’t really be surprised at any outcomes. Which is hard for a guy who loves underdog tales, contrarian takes and heart-racing longshots. (Especially when the longshots have four legs, and they win, place and show.)

So I watch with delight when a “Moonlight” or a “Parasite” happens, and I start to think that maybe the times they are a-changin’ as the man once said. Miracles still happen, and perhaps even more often than they once did. Remember, those little miracle films both won the best picture Oscar before a global pandemic hit!

So I’m setting my awards race cynicism aside and taking my seat close to the track right now, because I’m definitely getting a big “anything can happen” vibe this year.

What does this mean in terms of all the basic rules we’ve learned over the past 30 years of Oscar contests? Doesn’t gravity (meaning marketing, box office and reviews) still apply?
Yes, but perhaps not as much or in the ways of the past.

With virtually no theatrical film industry for almost a year, it’s hard to measure hot and cold from the popular film marketplace. This means that the big theatrical marketing guns that accompany and complement the distributor’s Oscar campaigning efforts are MIA. And the film festivals, whose buzz screenings propel so many films into Oscar contention, have become virtual springboard events, quite a different animal for awards season consultants to learn to feed and ride.

Which leads me to wonder: Are the critics groups and association awards destined to have oversized clout beyond anything we’ve ever seen? Will the sudden and overwhelming dominance of the streamers turn the entire awards season applecart upside down? Or, come Oscar and Golden Globes time, will we see exciting upsets emerging from fresh, unorthodox and unexpected places?
I’ll offer one of the many terrific, but outside the pack, films released this year as my own personal bellwether of this year’s crazed circumstances and volatile unpredictability: “The Way Back.”

In normal times, a major Oscar-winning star like Ben Affleck delivering the finest performance of his career would get the writer-director-actor a place firmly in the middle of the awards contender pack for his work in Gavin O’Connor’s effective, uplifting redemption drama. But the harsh, cold Oscar season 2021 reality is, “The Way Back” was released the same week that most of America retreated into a discombobulating pandemic quarantine and its $8 million opening weekend was a yawn-inducing statistic “way back” in the frenzy of March 2020 COVID-19 Madness.

Cut to today, when that kind of opening would have industry-watchers tossing their faceguards in the air with joy. And, perhaps even more importantly for a longshot awards entry, none of the voters need to wait for screeners in their mailboxes or screenings an hour of rush hour traffic away.

Along with movie theaters, Broadway and the world’s film festivals, the Santa Anita racetrack has also fallen stony quiet in these coronavirus-ravaged times. I have no place to put those 20-to-1 bets I mentioned that I’m so often prone to wager. So here’s my tenspot on Ben and “Way Back” and here’s to an awards season where your horse can come out of nowhere, place first and take the Oscar crown.