The Carpetbagger

Oscars Rule to Allow Films to Skip a Theatrical Release This Year

A number of other changes were announced, including the combination of two sound categories.

The Oscars will look different in 2021.
Credit...Patrick T. Fallon for The New York Times

The Oscars are making history again, but there’s a catch.

As movie theaters across the globe remain closed because of the coronavirus, the motion picture academy met Tuesday to approve several new rules and changes for the next Oscars telecast. Here’s the big one: For the first time, a streaming film may skip a theatrical release entirely and still remain eligible for the Academy Awards.

“The academy firmly believes there is no greater way to experience the magic of movies than to see them in a theater,” the academy president, David Rubin, and chief executive, Dawn Hudson, said in a joint statement. “Our commitment to that is unchanged and unwavering. Nonetheless, the historically tragic Covid-19 pandemic necessitates this temporary exception to our awards eligibility rules.”

The rule change is not expected to last beyond the 93rd Academy Awards, which are still scheduled for Feb. 28, 2021. It also comes with a strict stipulation: Only films that had a previously planned theatrical release are still eligible for Oscar consideration. That rule will bar traditional TV movies from entering the Oscar fray, but it may also complicate award-season bids for independent films that were banking on a buzzy fall-festival debut to net a distributor and release date. The academy also noted that the rule would remain in effect at least as long as theaters were closed under federal, state and local guidelines.

Still, it’s a significant concession from the academy, which had previously mandated that an Oscar contender be shown in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County for a qualifying run of at least a week. Major streamers like Netflix had reluctantly acceded to those rules in recent years, despite a business model with no vested interest in propping up the theatrical experience. Now, they’re free of that obligation for at least a little while.

The rule change may make old-school Oscar voters wary as those streaming services continue to gain ground during the pandemic, but it was widely seen as a necessary move to preserve this year’s prestige film season. Though many small- to mid-budget movies have pivoted to a digital debut in recent months, potential Oscar contenders like the Carey Mulligan dramedy “Promising Young Woman,” originally set for an April 17 release, have vanished from the calendar, waiting until the academy sorted out its eligibility requirements.

And while the Oscars may find themselves with fewer populist blockbusters to choose from if big-budget studio films continue to sit out 2020, Tuesday’s rule change should at least encourage enough digital releases to make this year’s awards contest an interesting race.

The academy also announced that the sound editing and sound mixing Oscars would be combined into one Oscar for best achievement in sound, a welcome development for voters who couldn’t tell the difference between the two categories. The move is also a win for ABC, which has sought to streamline the Oscar telecast. But it will make record-setting nomination hauls that much harder to attain, since the number of categories has been reduced from 24 to 23.

Additional changes will affect the best-score category, where a contending film must be made up of a minimum of 60 percent original music, a number that is raised to 80 percent for sequels and franchise films. Meanwhile, in the international feature-film category, all eligible academy members may now take part in the first round of voting; the initial selection was previously made by a special committee.

Finally, the academy will bar the distribution of DVD screeners, CDs, screenplays and hard-copy mailings after this season in a bid to become more environmentally friendly. Like many of this year’s films, those supplemental materials will migrate to a digital-only release.