Just before the holidays, hundreds of actors, filmmakers, publicists, and executives were preparing to spend the first weeks of January hopping coast-to-coast for a series of awards-season events, from the clubby New York Film Critics Circle dinner to the massive Critics Choice Awards. And then, in the days leading up to the holiday break, omicron brought down the hammer, over and over again. Everything was canceled or postponed, including the AFI Awards, BAFTA L.A. Tea, the National Board of Review Gala, the Palm Springs Film Festival and Gala, and the Academy’s own Governors Awards, which was expected to attract virtually every awards hopeful just two critical weeks before nomination voting begins.
The lone event still standing in January is this Sunday’s Golden Globes ceremony, which the beleaguered HFPA has announced will not include any celebrity presenters or press, and will not be livestreamed either. (They will announce the winners on their website and social media during the event.) And with COVID cases surging in the United States, making any in-person gathering seem especially fraught, the movie industry will essentially sleep for at least several weeks, during what is usually the awards season’s busiest month.
“It’s harder for people to campaign but more importantly it’s harder for these movies to connect,” says one awards publicist who, like nearly everyone else in the industry, is scrambling to figure out how to navigate yet another virtual awards campaign.
Unlike last year, there was some hope that this awards season was going back to near normal. The scrapping of so many events just days or weeks before they were scheduled to happen means that the playbook for many studios and awards strategists has again been thrown out the window. Though they can seem like frivolous events, these galas and receptions on the road to the Oscars serve multiple functions when it comes to awards season and the film economy.
When so many industry insiders and awards are gathered in one room, there’s an ability to take the temperature of the season that’s impossible to replicate virtually. “When I return from these events and have meetings with my clients, I always say, ‘Here’s my take based on the applause barometer,’” says a veteran awards publicist. “Now I’m on Zoom call after Zoom call saying, ‘Don’t ask me.’”
In those rooms, most insiders can tell the difference between a film that is respected and one that is adored and beloved. That was the case in 2020 when Parasite took the industry by storm. Despite there being plenty of other renowned filmmakers and actors in the room, everyone wanted to meet the cast of Bong Joon Ho’s film. And when the film won any award, the applause was deafening. Another recent example? In 2018, Green Book had plenty of criticism and controversy surrounding it, but in those rooms it would be met with resounding applause— “through the roof,” says one rep. Both films went on to win best picture.
The post-awards-shows parties were often where filmmakers and talent could charm voters and hobnob with other contenders. Sources say many of the streamers had planned to transfer their post-Globes parties into post–Critics Choice parties, booking spaces around the Fairmont Century Plaza Hotel where the ceremony was to take place. That sort of networking has been especially advantageous to newcomers and international talent who may not be as familiar to voters. Bong was the belle of almost every party he attended during Parasite’s tour. “That kind of mingling can be a big benefit,” says a rep.
Many of the strategists that Vanity Fair spoke to shrugged when asked how these cancellations would affect their own strategies. They have, after almost two years of tumult, become used to being flexible. “I’m not really overly worried about it because we found a pretty effective way to campaign last year,” says the representative. Virtual interviews and panels will continue, and people will tune in because “people are really bored, and there’s an interest in that.”
What is lost is the intangible boost that a film or performer can get from being in a room with other voters or giving an incredible acceptance speech, even virtually—Andra Day and Daniel Kalauuya both benefited from this last year after accepting their Globes wins via livestream. “It’s hard to feel an emotional attachment to the movies or the people behind them because we haven’t seen them perform those professional roles,” says the awards publicist. “There’s real power in a great Golden Globes speech, or a speech at any of these events. It’s probably the best commercial you’re ever going to get for yourself and the movie.”
The phrase “Oscar bump” has traditionally been used for a box office bump that a film receives after it wins an Oscar, but these precursor events provide a boost too. “Not having these big moments at these events—that’s an enormous loss just in terms of marketing value,” says the awards publicist. It’s a lost opportunity for increasing chatter about the film, helping put a project that may have fallen out of the news cycle back into it, and potentially selling more movie tickets.