An Oscar race is no fun if nobody has seen the movies

The pandemic-warped release calendar means awards season feels more like a film festival

Question mark Rami Malek.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

You probably haven't seen the best movie of 2020 — at least if this year's awards nominees tell us anything.

Over the past week, traditional Oscar bellwethers like the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Critics Choice Awards announced their nominees and cemented this year's Best Picture frontrunners. But unless you're a critic or a voting member of an awards body, you couldn't actually catch up on watching any of them this weekend. Movies like Nomadland, Minari, The Father, Judas and the Black Messiah, and The Mauritanian all received major nominations, while remaining unseen by the general public. Because they still aren't out yet.

For film buffs, much of the enjoyment of awards season is getting to debate the best movies of the year, and argue about what deserves a nomination and what doesn't. The disconnect, then, between the announcement of this year's awards contenders and the ability to actually watch those movies isn't doing anyone any favors. Because where's the fun in that?

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Part of the problem stems from awards season orbiting around the Oscars, and the Academy's method of determining eligibility. In a regular, non-plague year, movies qualify for the Oscars if they came out between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31. But that doesn't necessarily mean that all the movies that contend for an Oscar can always be seen by everyone in the same calendar year. In order to compete for an Oscar, a movie only needs to play in a theater in Los Angeles County for a minimum of seven days. The antiquated requirement sometimes results in movies having short, week-long "qualifying runs" just in Los Angeles (or occasionally also in New York), before the movie is then pulled from theaters and held until its official wide-release date early in the following year. Though it's not common, this does happen: 2014's Map to the Stars had an Oscar-qualifying run in the fall, before a formal release in February of the next year.

Things are, of course, a little different this year. Due to the pandemic scrambling the film release calendar for 2020, the Oscars decided to push back the closing of their eligibility window from Dec. 31, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021 — meaning movies like Nomadland, which doesn't come out until the end of this month, are still eligible for what is, in effect if not quite in name, the "2020 Academy Award." The awards bodies, and in particular the New York and Los Angeles film critics associations, also introduced the concept of a "virtual qualifying run," due to their insistence on maintaining calendar-year eligibility standards. The result was a movie like Minari, which doesn't open until this Friday, having a seven-day run in select theaters to anchor it as "technically" a 2020 film.

Studios put a lot of time and effort into campaigning for major industry awards, and though there's no exact science to it, current wisdom holds that the best time to release your film if you want it to win an Oscar is October or November — close but not too close to when the eligibility window closes. By moving the 2020 cutoff date to the end of February, the new height of the 2020 Oscar season shifts back to December and January; indeed, that's when competitors like Promising Young Woman and Prom became available for streaming. Bumping too close against the end of the year, much less wide-releasing a movie the next year, is usually considered foolhardy.

Nevertheless, Minari, Judas and the Black Messiah, and The Mauritanian are only coming out this Friday, and you'll have to wait until even later in the month to see The Father and this year's Oscar frontrunner, Nomadland. Meanwhile, all these films are racking up nominations at the other awards competitions, resulting in frustrating situations like the Golden Globes' Best Picture for Drama section, where the general public has only seen three of the five contending films. Though a small handful of fans potentially saw Nomadland and The Father during their "virtual qualifying runs" last year, audiences are otherwise left twiddling their thumbs at home.

The decision to hold films until February for release is certainly strategic on the part of the studios. Yet-unreleased movies will now be able to tout their Globe or SAG nominations in their opening-day advertising (as well as catch the eye of Oscar voters). But delaying films until deep into the new year also drives us into the situation we're in now, where it's almost mid-February and the average person still can't watch, much less talk about and debate, the movies deemed by critics and voting bodies to be the best of last year. On the one hand, the shift means that such movies will get more attention when they do get released due to the awards attention, a boon for projects that might have been missed otherwise when going straight-to-streaming. But it also turns award ceremonies — which are at least meant to offer an authoritative evaluation of the prior year's best works — into something more like a film festival, as a sort of hype machine for movies most people haven't yet had a chance to see.

It seems unlikely that, in a future where physical theatergoing is safe and doable again, studios would pass up the chance to release movies in the fall and early winter, when they can rake in money at the box office, and opt instead to hold a movie for January or February, which are traditionally dump months, and when there is no certainty of the benefit of an "Oscar bump." But maybe not. Especially as studios explore new forms of distribution that bypass the traditional theatrical release and lean more heavily on streaming options, qualifying runs could get increasingly ridiculous, so that many of a year's biggest hits don't actually come out until around the Oscar ceremony the following year.

Showbiz411 writer Roger Friedman aptly called 2020 "the year of the theoretical Oscar," because the awards season conversation largely revolves around films that no one has seen and that still aren't available to the public. As a result, at-home fans this year are missing out on the fun and excitement of this much-delayed awards season — because studios have uninvited them from the conversation.

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