Preparing for a Surreal Oscar Night

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The coronavirus pandemic reshaped a treasured experience: going to the movies. In theaters. With popcorn and sticky floors. And with other people. On Sunday, the pandemic is expected to remake the 93rd annual Academy Awards, too. The director Steven Soderbergh is among the producers of the show, for one, and though the vast majority of nominees will attend in person, the ceremony will be more intimate, with stars rotating in and out of the main area. Kyle Buchanan, who writes The Projectionist column for The New York Times and who usually attends the Oscars in person, will be reporting from home this year. Below, he discusses the state of the film industry and what else will be new about the broadcast.

What do the producers have planned for the Oscars this year? How will the awards show be different?

It will be primarily at a different venue, Union Station, and the crowd will be more intimate to adhere to Covid guidelines: Instead of an audience of thousands, only the nominees, presenters and their plus-ones are allowed to attend. It will also be shot in 24 frames per second, rather than the customary 30, to give the show a more cinematic feel. (That lower frame rate is why movies look like movies, instead of like soap operas.) And after months of Zoom ceremonies, it might be nice for a show to look as glamorous as its guests.

My understanding is that, before the pandemic, the months leading up to the Oscars were usually pretty action-packed with lunches, dinners and parties, as producers courted academy voters. How has this changed with Covid? And how has your job changed as a result?

Everything’s gone virtual, which is a wan approximation of the awards-season circuit. The buzz doesn’t build the same way, the shows and speeches are flatter, and nobody is sticking around to watch a post-screening Q. and A. on Zoom. Studios are still giving it their best try, but I think people are eager to go back to a packed calendar of parties and premieres. I know I am: I miss scanning those ballrooms and bringing you the stories you didn’t see on TV.

With theaters closed, it has been an unusual year for the movies. What is the mood in Hollywood right now?

Unsettled. Nobody is quite sure what a return to the movies will look like. For every encouraging sign, like the surprisingly healthy box-office returns of “Godzilla vs. Kong,” there’s a news story like the closure of the ArcLight theaters in Los Angeles, or Disney’s announcement that it will send “Black Widow” to its streaming service on the same day it bows in theaters. The movie business definitely won’t be the same on the other side of this pandemic.

What will be the biggest difference?

When audiences expect to see new movies like “Black Widow,” “Cruella,” and “In the Heights” on their streaming services, will there still be a strong incentive for them to go to theaters? Studios have claimed that their emphasis on streaming is necessary during the pandemic, but that effectively disguises a corporate mandate to prop up new services like Disney+ and HBO Max by any means necessary. If studios keep sending their best and biggest product straight to streaming, then the theatrical industry is going to significantly contract.

You have an impressive track record when it comes to predicting the Oscar winners. How do you do it?

Good instincts, the ability to talk to lots of voters during the season and a maxim that has always served me well: In a very close race, I usually predict the film I’m less enamored with will win. That way, even if I end up being wrong, I’m happy about the outcome!

What will you miss most on Oscar night?

I’ll miss the feeling of being in that room. I’ll never forget how the crowd reacted to that historic best-picture win for “Parasite” last year: Everyone leaped to their feet, and the roar was the most deafening I’d ever heard at the Oscars. A viewing party with friends certainly has its own charms, but there’s no beating the real thing.


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