What the delayed 2021 Oscars will mean for Hollywood — and how they’ll make history

Joaquin Phoenix, Renée Zellweger and Brad Pitt at the 92nd annual Academy Awards held at Hollywood and Highland on Feb. 9, 2020 in Hollywood, Calif. (Photo: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)
Joaquin Phoenix, Renée Zellweger and Brad Pitt at the 92nd annual Academy Awards held at Hollywood and Highland on Feb. 9, 2020 in Hollywood, Calif. (Photo: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s decision to postpone the 2021 Oscars two months — from Feb. 28 to April 25 — is not particularly surprising, especially in light of new spikes in coronavirus cases reported in multiple states casting further uncertainty on when the film industry will return to “normalcy.”

But the shift is certainly noteworthy for its historic nature.

Next year’s ceremony will mark only the fourth time the Oscars have been delayed in their 90-plus year history — and it’s the longest postponement by a landslide.

The 1938 Oscars were delayed one week after severe flooding in Los Angeles. In 1968, they were pushed back two days out of respect for Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated four days prior to the originally planned date of April 8. And in 1981, the ceremony was again delayed, this time by 24 hours, following the assassination attempt on actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan, who was set to help open the show — a decision made only four hours before the original ceremony.

Second to the actual date change, the most dramatic — and possibly most controversial — change the Academy announced was an additional two-month extension on the eligibility of films released.

While the Oscars typically determine nominees from a calendar year pool, the 2021 ceremony will open up eligibility to films released through the end of February, with nominations announced only 15 days later on March 15.

“For over a century, movies have played an important role in comforting, inspiring, and entertaining us during the darkest of times. They certainly have this year. Our hope, in extending the eligibility period and our Awards date, is to provide the flexibility filmmakers need to finish and release their films without being penalized for something beyond anyone’s control,” Academy president David Rubin and CEO Dawn Hudson said in a statement.

As New York Times carpetbagger Kyle Buchanan points out, the move was likely made not only to allow stalled productions to be completed (and also, of course, to ensure a safer ceremony), but perhaps for some political reasons as well: Namely, to dissuade studios from rushing their films onto streaming platforms and forgoing the theatrical experience when there’s still a high level of uncertainty as to exactly when all cineplexes will re-open.

There are several ramifications that could result from the date shifts.

As the Academy’s brass testified, it could help alleviate stress for certain filmmakers and their films — especially those you might consider “Oscar bait” — up against the gun to release in 2020. One such title, as IndieWire columnist Anne Thompson notes, is Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. The drama, about a fight-to-the-death battle between best friends in 14th century France, had to shut down mid-production on March 13.

The moves will greatly impact Hollywood’s release schedule in general. While there’s typically a swarm of dramas, biopics and other prestige projects released toward the end of the year to not only qualify for awards eligibility but profit from the holiday box office rush, now we’ll likely see those films more evenly spread out over a period of four or five months as they vie for sustainable Oscar buzz. January and February have long been considered “dumping grounds” for studios to release films with low expectations attached. Now we’ll likely get eight weeks of possible Oscar contenders after New Year’s. It’s also possible that some films that were moved from 2020, titles like the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical In the Heights, (June 26), the Will Smith-starring Richard Williams biopic King Richard (Nov. 25) and the Sopranos spinoff The Many Saints of Newark (March 12) could move up their current 2021 dates to qualify.

Not everyone is happy about the date shifts. Several pundits complained on Twitter Monday that expanding the eligibility deadline two months will hurt smaller films that did release early in the year — critical darlings like Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always and Shirley that helped engage an entertainment-starved country in quarantine. It could also hurt the seemingly uninterrupted flow of film releases on streaming — take Spike Lee’s critically-acclaimed Da 5 Bloods, which looked like it would have less competition in this year’s awards race before the ceremony’s date change announcement.

We’ll also certainly see a domino effect with other industry events. The Oscars are the Grand Finale of awards season, so expect the Golden Globes, all of the various guild awards and the Independent Spirit Awards (which always takes place the Saturday before the Oscars) to follow suit. In fact, within hours of the American Film Academy announcing the Oscars’ move, Britain’s BAFTA Awards was delayed from Feb. 14 to April 11.

That ripple effect could extend to fall film festivals, too. Fests in Venice, Telluride and Toronto, the trifecta of Oscar buzz-generating fêtes, might postpone from August and September to later in the fall. It could also complicate release patterns for films that debut at January’s Sundance Film Festival — which typically aren’t eligible until the following year but could now be raced into theaters and/or onto streaming platforms to qualify.

Whatever the true extent and impact of Oscars’ unprecedented move ends up being, it’s clear we’re approaching an awards season unlike any other.

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