Oscars 2021: Advantage Goes to Streamers in Tech Categories As Studios Clear Calendars

Anne Thompson
·5 min read

The odd Oscar race is slimming as the pandemic forces studios to pull big-budget movies like “Dune” and “West Side Story” out of 2020, waiting for a time when audiences might return to theaters. Movies that were intended for theaters, but pushed to VOD or streaming will still be eligible for Oscars; these include “Soul,” “Mulan,” and “Wonder Woman 1984.”

There are still plenty of films to fill out the major categories, but the tech category’s landscape changes significantly without studio tentpoles. There’s still $200-million twisty globe-trotter “Tenet” (Warner Bros.), which will turn up in multiple craft categories including Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, Score, and Sound (now one category). Warners’ DC adventure “Wonder Woman 1984” will also offer strong visuals, effects, and sound design when it finally opens day and date in theaters and HBO Max on December 25. Winding up on Disney+, gorgeous China period adventure “Mulan” should also register with the crafts, especially Production, Costume Design and Score.

Harder to gauge is how craft branches will respond to smaller-scale Best Picture frontrunner “Nomadland,” a cinema vérité-influenced road movie shot in 2018 that throws professional actors into real trailer parks inhabited by non-pros. Nominations for Chloé Zhao’s Directing, Writing, and Actress Frances McDormand should be in the bag, along with Cinematography and Editing.

Truth is, crafts voters tend to respond to period or imaginary environments over natural exteriors. That’s why Paul Greengrass’ “News of the World” (Universal), a road movie set in post-Civil War America, could make a strong impression.

Other period literary adaptations include Armando Ianucci’s irreverent take on Charles Dickens’ “The Personal History of David Copperfield” (Searchlight), as well as rookie Autumn De Wilde’s witty adaptation of “Emma” (Focus), which should certainly awaken the Costume Designers branch, along with Francis Lee’s original “Ammonite” (Neon), a bodice-ripper costarring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.

Also likely to wow the crafts are several ’60s dramas including Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” (Amazon), based on the real-life meeting in 1964 of heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, football star Jim Brown, Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, and singer Sam Cooke, as well as historic drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros.) which follows the Black Panthers, and Aaron Sorkin’s timely historic/political courtroom drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which recreates the Chicago riots of 1968 and the subsequent trial.

The studios’ loss will be the streamers gain, as Apple TV+ (“Greyhound,” “Cherry”), Netflix (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”) and Amazon (“One Night in Miami”) picked up movies that might have been released by theatrical distributors. Netflix, especially, boasts several Oscar contenders likely to appeal in the crafts categories. Flashing back to heavy action in Vietnam is Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” which takes a group of war vets back to their wartime setting.

George Clooney’s “The Midnight Sky” is a gorgeously mounted sci-fi space thriller set in a dystopian future as the world is destroyed. Cinematography, Production Design, VFX, and Alexandre Desplat’s rousing score could come into play. Also for Netflix, Gina Prince-Bythewood directed the hell out of action-packed fantasy adventure “The Old Guard,” starring Charlize Theron as a world-weary superhero.

Likely to score big with the crafts is David Fincher’s impeccably produced ’30s and ’40s Hollywood drama “Mank,” which recreates William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon and pays elaborate homage to “Citizen Kane.” Even absent the usual wining and dining, Netflix is making sure everyone sees the movie (some Academy members were gifted bottles of whiskey), and it will send out screeners as well as the usual coffee-table books and other swag. In any case, “Mank” fits into two popular Oscar niches: black-and-white (“The Artist,” “Roma”) and backstage showbiz (“The Artist,” “Birdman,” “La La Land,” “Argo,” “All About Eve”).

Netflix also offers up not one but two musicals: George C. Wolfe’s August Wilson adaptation “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” set in 1920s Chicago; and Ryan Murphy’s more contemporary (and colorful) theater-to-movie adaptation “The Prom,” which takes the stars of a Broadway flop (Meryl Streep and James Corden) to the midwest. The first is a drama with music; the second is a rip-roaring escapist frolic with heart. Think “Chicago,” which took home six Oscars, or “Oliver!” which won five. On the other hand, “The Prom” could end up winning a bunch of Golden Globes.

Also offering up a lush musical setting is Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Paramount) set in the New York jazz age of the 1950s and ’60s and starring Andra Day as the troubled chanteuse.

Apple TV+ paid a fortune for the Russo brothers’ druggy romantic adventure “Cherry” (Apple TV+), based on Nico Walker’s autobiographical bestseller, which follows the dramatic roller-coaster ride of a lost Clevelander (Tom Holland) who falls in love, enlists in the army and trains as a medic, fights in Iraq, comes back damaged and addicted, and robs banks to feed his habit.

Another Apple TV+ pickup was “Greyhound,” a solid World War II movie starring Tom Hanks as the captain of a destroyer under attack from German submarines, which could fill out VFX and sound.

Likely to land in the consolidated Sound category is Darius Marder’s innovative “Sound of Metal” (Amazon), which takes the viewer into a punk drummer’s unique soundscape as he loses his hearing.

Many of these movies would have been in the running for craft nods, but now stand a much better chance of actually landing a few. Remember: many movies that pick up multiple tech nods are heading for the big one, Best Picture.

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