LOS ANGELES — Steven Spielberg directing a dance-filled musical through the streets of New York. Lady Gaga channeling her Italian roots. Will Smith back on the big screen. This year’s award season was supposed to celebrate Hollywood’s return to glitz and glamour. No more masks, no more socially distanced award shows or Zoom acceptance speeches, no more rewarding films that very few people had seen.
Now, between the Omicron spike and NBC’s decision not to televise the Golden Globes on Sunday because of the ethical issues surrounding the group that hands out the awards, Hollywood’s traditionally frenetic — and hype-filled — first week of the calendar year has been reduced to a whisper. The AFI Awards were postponed. The Critics’ Choice Awards — scheduled to be televised Sunday night in hopes of filling the void left by the Globes’ absence — were pushed back. The Palm Springs Film Festival, an annual stop along the awards campaign trail, was canceled. And most of those star-driven award favorites bombed at the box office.
The Academy Awards remain scheduled for March 27, with nominations on Feb. 8, but there has been no indication what the event will be like. (The organization already postponed its annual Governors Awards, which for the past 11 years have bestowed honorary Oscars during a nontelevised ceremony.) Will there be a host? How about a crowd? Perhaps most important, will anyone watch? The Academy hired a producer of the film “Girls Trip” in October to oversee the show but has been mum on any additional details, and declined to comment for this article.
Suddenly, 2022 is looking eerily similar to 2021. Hollywood is again largely losing its annual season of superficial self-congratulation, but it is also seeing the movie business’s best form of advertisement undercut in a year when films desperately need it. And that could have far-reaching effects on the types of movies that get made.
Many were hoping to return to an awards season this year like those of the past, but Covid continues to upend major events.Credit…J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times
“For the box office — when there was a fully functioning box office — those award shows were everything,” said Nancy Utley, a former co-chairman of Fox Searchlight who helped turn smaller prestige films like “12 Years a Slave” and “The Shape of Water” into best-picture Oscar winners during her 21-year tenure. “The recognition there became the reason to go see a smaller movie. How do you do that in the current climate? It’s hard.”
Many prestige films are released each year with the expectation that most of their box office receipts will be earned in the crucial weeks between the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. The diminishing of the Globes — which collapsed after revelations involving possible financial impropriety, questionable journalistic ethics and a significant lack of diversity in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which administers the awards — had already hobbled that equation. If the Hollywood hype machine loses its awards season engine, it could prove devastating to the already injured box office. The huge audience shift fueled by streaming may be here to stay, with only blockbuster spectacles like “Spider-Man: No Way Home” drawing theatergoers in significant numbers.
“The movie business is this gigantic rock, and we’re close to seeing that rock crumble,” said Stephen Galloway, the dean of Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts and a former executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter. “People have gotten out of the habit of seeing movies on a big screen. Award season is the best single tub-thumping phenomenon for anything in the world. How many years can you go without that?”
The Academy Awards were created in 1929 to promote Hollywood’s achievements to the outside world. At its pinnacle, the telecast drew 55 million viewers. That number has been dropping for years, and last year it hit an all-time low — 10.4 million viewers for a show without a host, no musical numbers and a little-seen best picture winner in “Nomadland.” (The film, which was released simultaneously in theaters and on Hulu, grossed just $3.7 million.)
Hollywood was planning to answer with an all-out blitz over the past year, even before the awards season. It deployed its biggest stars and most famous directors to remind consumers that despite myriad streaming options, theatergoing held an important place in the broader culture.
It hasn’t worked. The public, in large part, remains reluctant to return to theaters with any regularity. “No Time to Die,” Daniel Craig’s final turn as James Bond, was delayed for over a year because of the pandemic, and when it was finally released, it made only $160.7 million in the United States and Canada. That was $40 million less than the 2015 Bond film, “Spectre,” and $144 million below 2012’s “Skyfall,” the highest-grossing film in the franchise.
Well-reviewed, auteur-driven films that traditionally have a large presence on the awards circuit, like “Last Night in Soho” ($10.1 million), “Nightmare Alley” ($8 million) and “Belfast” ($6.9 million), barely made a ripple at the box office.
And even though Mr. Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story” has a 93 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it has earned only $30 million at the domestic box office. (The original grossed $44 million back in 1961, the equivalent of $409 million in today.)
According to a recent study, 49 percent of prepandemic moviegoers are no longer buying tickets. Eight percent say they will never return. Those numbers are a death knell for the midbudget movies that rely on positive word of mouth and well-publicized accolades to get patrons into seats.
Some believe the middle part of the movie business — the beleaguered category of films that cost $20 million to $60 million (like “Licorice Pizza” and “Nightmare Alley”) and aren’t based on a comic book or other well-known intellectual property — may be changed forever. If viewing habits have been permanently altered, and award nominations and wins no longer prove to be a significant draw, those films will find it much more difficult to break even. If audiences are willing to go to the movies only to see the latest “Spider-Man” film, it becomes hard to convince them that they also need see a movie like “Belfast,” Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white meditation on his childhood, in a crowded theater rather than in their living rooms.
“All of this doesn’t just affect individual films and filmmakers’ careers,” Mr. Galloway said. “Its effect is not even just on a business. It affects an entire art form. And art is fragile.”
Of the other likely best-picture contenders given a significant theatrical release, only “Dune,” a sci-fi spectacle based on a known property, crossed the $100 million mark at the box office. “King Richard” earned $14.7 million, and “Licorice Pizza” grossed $7 million.
“The number of non-genre adult dramas that have cracked $50M is ZERO,” the film journalist and historian Mark Harris wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “The world of 2019, in which ‘1917’ made $160M, ‘Ford v. Ferrari’ made $120M, and ‘Parasite’ made $52M, is gone.”
Still, studios are adjusting. MGM is slowing down its theatrical rollout of “Licorice Pizza” after watching other prestige pictures stumble when they entered more than 1,000 theaters. It is also pushing its release in Britain of “Cyrano,” starring Peter Dinklage, to February to follow the American release with the hope that older female moviegoers will return to the cinema by then. Sony Pictures Classics is redeploying the playbook it used in 2021: more virtual screenings and virtual Q.&A.s to entice academy voters while also shifting distribution to the home faster. Its documentary “Julia,” about Julia Child, hit premium video-on-demand over the holidays.
Many studios got out in front of the latest pandemic wave with flashy premieres and holiday parties in early December that required proof of vaccination and on-site testing. But so far in January, many of the usual awards campaigning events like screenings and cocktail parties are being canceled or moved to the virtual world. “For your consideration” billboards are still a familiar sight around Los Angeles, but in-person meet-and-greets are largely on hold.
Netflix, which only releases films theatrically on a limited basis and doesn’t report box office results, is likely to have a huge presence on the award circuit this year with films like “Tick, Tick … Boom,” “The Power of the Dog” and “The Lost Daughter” vying for prizes. Like most other studios, it, too, has moved all in-person events for the month of January to virtual.
“Last year was a tough adaptation, and it’s turning out that this year is also going to be about adapting to what’s going on in the moment,” Michael Barker, a co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, said in a telephone interview last week. He spoke while walking the frigid streets of Manhattan instead of basking in the sunshine of Palm Springs, where he was supposed to be honoring Penélope Cruz, his leading lady in the Oscar contender “Parallel Mothers.”
“You just compensate by doing what you can,” he said, “and once this passes, then you have to look at what the new world order will be.”