The show must go on, and the 2020 Emmy Awards will unfold this Sunday in a largely virtual format due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Much like this past year’s NFL Draft and major political conventions, entertainment fêtes like the Emmys and last month’s MTV Video Music Awards have been forced to reinvent themselves without live audiences, red carpets and the usual amount of hype.
A vaccine will eventually arrive and the pandemic will subside, but — as with every other facet of our lives — the coronavirus will continue to have short- and long-term effects on major awards events like the Oscars, Grammys and Golden Globes.
“I’m not sure we’ll ever go completely back to where it was before the pandemic,” says Don Mischer, the live-events veteran who has produced multiple Oscars, Emmys and Tonys ceremonies.
“The industry is obviously going to change because of COVID and many of those changes will be long-lasting or permanent,” says Josh Welsh, president of Film Independent, the organization behind the Spirit Awards.
With the 2021 calendar already drastically shuffled, the logistics of the Grammy Awards (Jan. 31) Golden Globes (Feb. 28), Film Independent Spirit Awards (April 24) and Academy Awards (April 25) will remain in flux, with producers monitoring health restrictions and best practices as those dates draw near. But the industry professionals and awards experts Yahoo Entertainment spoke with nearly all agreed that the telecasts will almost certainly be “hybrid” events that combine in-person moments from the venues as well as significant virtual elements.
“Hollywood is facing this fascinating challenge of being forced to adapt to current technology,” says Tom O’Neil, editor-in-chief of the popular awards-prediction site Gold Derby. “It’s absurd that we’re still watching the Oscars on broadcast TV, 40 years after the debut of cable, and now with all these streaming platforms. Old, traditional Hollywood still wears formal tuxedos and gowns to an event to honor themselves. And this COVID crisis is hurling them into this Zoom age.
“It’s forcing innovation on them, and that’s a great thing, and may rescue the livelihood of these award shows.”
As far as the ceremonies themselves, “Everything will be governed by what’s safe,” says Mischer.
Welsh is on the front lines of the ever-changing process of plotting a major awards show. “Planning for the 2021 Film Independent Spirit Awards has been plenty daunting, for the same reason that planning anything for 2021 is daunting,” Welsh says. “No one knows what the world will be like — when there might be a vaccine, when large-scale events will be possible, etc. Hope springs eternal but we are, above all, committed to the health and safety of our community. One of the biggest challenges has been establishing a timeline by which we need to make certain decisions, due to the fact that things are so fluid.”
Inside the ceremonies, we could see quarter-full or half-full venues when it comes to populating the audience, which would grow gradually over time, much like we’re seeing now in movie theaters and NFL stadiums that have opened to customers and fans. That conceivably means the Oscars could only be attended by nominees, presenters, select Academy members and their guests in socially-distanced seating, which would provide yet another surreal sight brought to us by COVID-19.
“I think there’s a version of the Oscars in-person where it’s just the nominees in the room, maybe some press,” says Clayton Davis, Variety’s film awards editor. “And I think there’s a version of the Oscars that tries to be as normal as possible, but [where attendees] are in every other seat. I think there’s a few different options on the table and I think the Academy is preparing for any one of them to take place.”
“You still want to have people come up on the stage and you want to have presenters,” says Anne Thompson, editor-at-large at IndieWire. “They’ll do whatever they can when the time comes, they’ll do the the best that they can with it.”
In June, Recording Academy President Harvey Mason Jr. told Variety that the Grammys were “simultaneously developing three plans for what the show would look like: One is the traditional show with the full crowd, two is a limited crowd and three is no crowd, and there’s creative around all three of those ideas: How and where we would film it. But none of them involve changing or postponing the [Jan. 31] date.”
The logistical challenges in planning are endless. “When I think back to past awards shows I’ve been to, it's so hard to imagine so many ‘normal’ things taking place, at least in the way they did in the past,” says Welsh, whose Film Independent Spirit Awards annually take place in a massive tent on the Santa Monica beach the Saturday before the Oscars. “A crowded press line on the arrivals carpet, people sharing communal food at tables, packed shuttle vans taking people to parking, presenters sharing microphones onstage as they announce winners, it goes on and on, the things that will need to change.”
Until there’s a critical mass of vaccinations, there could still be COVID tests being administered for attendees and masks required. Some nominees may not feel comfortable attending in person. Then there’s someone like Kate Winslet, who admitted the pandemic has made her re-evaluate the vigors and environmental effects of globetrotting to events like press junkets, movie premieres and awards shows, which she finds “stressful,” as she told Vanity Fair.
The absence of nominees could affect the virtual elements. Mischer sees that as one of the few positives to come out of the New Normal, pointing to the fact that the Emmys sent 130 video kits to quarantined nominees to film themselves for the telecast. “When I was doing these shows, including the Oscars and the Emmys, I kept wishing there was some way we could go into the homes and the families of the nominees,” he says. “So that when a nominee won an Oscar or won an Emmy, not only did we see the crowd at the Microsoft [Theater] or the Dolby [Theater], you could see their families as well. They may be in Oklahoma City. They may be in New Hampshire. They may be in East Lansing, Mich. We’re now more prepared to bring more people virtually into a setting, even if that setting is live.”
That’s happening out of necessity with the Emmys, but may very well be a regular aspect of awards entertainment moving forward.
“It’s what the viewers are learning to not only become accustomed to but like a lot,” says O’Neil. “They like the informality of Trevor Noah in a sweatshirt at home [hosting The Daily Show]. They like getting to see people in their kitchens, in their gardens or drop their laptops. There’ll be mass hugs with family members. So there’ll be a whole new way of them responding to wins and losses. It’s a good way for [the award shows] to get out of their smug little clubhouse.”
The virtual elements could also be a matter of budgeting going forward: The pandemic has followed a tumultuous few years for the bodies behind major award shows as the ratings for their telecasts continue to plummet year over year. The networks (or, possibly in the future, streaming services) that air the awards will likely look for more cost-cutting moves, including relying more on augmented reality, which enables producers to create scenery and action on hi-res LED screens, instead of on-location shoots.
“There is a struggle for survival among these academies that sponsor these award shows,” Mischer says. “Their incomes are largely derived from fees they get from the networks that carry the shows. I've been involved in both [the Oscars and Emmys] and I know. And they’re being threatened because the ratings are going down.”
Thompson sees the Oscars, the Biggest Kahuna of all award shows, soldiering through no matter what next April is like because of such dire straights. “The Academy cannot afford not to have an Oscars,” she says. “I think that they will be promoting and pushing and applauding and celebrating movies in a way that means more right now because they’re so threatened. And because the theaters are so beleaguered.”
Mischer thinks that, as a result, we may very well see lower profile categories like the sound and shorts categories at the Oscars nixed from the broadcast. Or they could be doled out on separate nights, much like the Television Academy this year devoted an unprecedented five nights (five nights!) to presenting its Creative Arts Emmys in categories that include technical achievements, guest performances, along with animation, reality and documentary categories.
“When you’re producing these things, you’re serving two masters,” Mischer says. "You’ve got to please the network who wants less of those awards on [the air]. … And the institution. Their whole philosophy is that the Emmy or Oscar for sound mixing is just as important as the Emmy or Oscar for director or for Best Picture.”
If the coronavirus is still a looming threat in early 2021, there exists the possibility award shows could move outside. Would the Oscars temporarily relocate from the Dolby Theater to an outdoor concert venue like the Hollywood Bowl? Anything’s possible. But “you’re playing Russian roulette when you move something outside,” says Mischer, who’s also produced Super Bowl halftime shows and Olympics ceremonies. “When you’re outside and it starts raining, you gotta keep going. It’s not like you’re gonna postpone it, you know? So you do run the risk.”
Speaking of outdoor activities, what will the red carpets look like post-COVID?
“My guess is that we will see some form of socially-distanced red carpet glamour,” says Thompson.
“I think people are going to be very weary of the return to normalcy, whatever that looks like,” adds Davis.
“If there’s still a serious mortal threat hanging over the public, they will certainly not wear formalwear, they’ll go business attire, which has happened at awards shows past,” says O’Neil, who references examples like during the Iraq War in 2003. O’Neil also points out that the red carpet circus is still relatively recent phenomenon in the grander scheme of Hollywood’s traditions, only really ballooning in the past 20 or 30 years with the popularity of cable entertainment news coverage. “I think COVID is about to prove that it’s not as essential as it seemed lately,” he says.
In May, the design firm 1540 Prods shared with The Hollywood Reporter renderings of what post-lockdown red carpet could look like, with socially distanced press pods separated by large glass walls.
Ultimately, there’s no question that, like with all walks of life, the coronavirus and our long national shutdown will have lingering effects not only on the festivities, but the awards circuit, and all the extravagant campaigning involved. The shows will go on, but the excessiveness that surrounds them will certainly be taken down a few notches. The shows could become less predictable as well. And it’s not just the coronavirus that will remain on everyone’s minds come 2021, given all the events of the year they’ll follow.
“I think the Spirits, and no doubt other shows, will reflect the moment we're living through with a different tone,” says Welsh. “This isn’t just the year of COVID, this is the year we are seeing a long overdue reckoning with racial injustice in this country. This is the year when environmental devastation is being felt in ever more extreme ways, and the year of an election that will shape the future of this country in the most profound ways imaginable. That doesn't mean that award shows need to become heavy, serious affairs, but we are definitely not having a ‘tell us who you’re wearing’ moment.”
“I think in the end, the award shows are going to benefit from this crisis, because they were on a predictable, boring trajectory downward,” says O’Neil. “And this I think can revitalize them, personalize them, make them create a stronger human connection with fans and viewers and open up creative possibilities that none of us are even aware of yet.”
“I believe very firmly that the Oscars are a good thing, that they support a lot movies that otherwise wouldn’t get any attention, or wouldn’t even get made probably. They’re beloved and popular,” says Thompson. “I know that there are plenty of people who say, ‘Bah humbug.’ But I’m a believer. And I think that they serve a really necessary function. But all the promotion that goes around it, the intensity of that, the ridiculous degrees to which celebrities are given god-like status and thrown fashionable clothes and tilting heels that are six inches high or whatever. It doesn’t have to be like that.”
Instead we might just be seeing winners celebrate while sitting on their couches and wearing slippers.
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