For the first time in Oscar history, there are diverse nominees in each of the Big Eight categories. If you’re in Canada, however, you probably haven’t had a chance to see several of the films. And it’s unclear when you will.
The best picture nomination for Judas and the Black Messiah is the first for an all-Black producing team. For the first time, two women are nominated in the same year for best director – Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman, and Chloe Zhao for Nomadland. In the best actor category, three of the five nominees are men of colour, and one of them, Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), is also the first Muslim best actor nominee. Two Black women – Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and Andra Day (The United States vs. Billie Holiday) – share a best actress nomination, the first time that’s happened since 1973. And the supporting actor, supporting actress and two screenplay categories also include diverse nominees.
The high number of nominees of colour may be a silver lining of the COVID-19 shutdowns. Hollywood delayed most of its 2020 wide releases, waiting for theatres to reopen. This allowed more attention to fall onto intimate, lower-budget films – which tend to feature protagonists and storylines outside the mainstream – that could have been steamrolled in a regular year. Many of the nominated films arrived via streaming and video-on-demand (VOD) services, which removed the pressure to equate quality with box-office success. People stuck at home may have taken a chance on fare they might not have driven to a cinema to see, and audiences outside urban centres, without arthouse cinemas, had access to movies they normally wouldn’t have.
Unless you’re north of the 49th parallel, that is. For all kinds of reasons – the entangling of rights to competing streaming services; theatrical distribution deals; and especially the fact that many cinemas in Canada simply aren’t open – we are still waiting our turn to see some of the top titles. For example, The Father – director Florian Zeller’s delicately harrowing view from inside the mind of a man (Anthony Hopkins) losing ground to Alzheimer’s, based on Zeller’s own play – is nominated for six Oscars, including best picture, adapted screenplay, actor (Hopkins) and supporting actress (Olivia Colman, playing Hopkins’s dutiful daughter). It’s scheduled to open in theatres on March 19 – in whatever patchwork of theatres are open – and on-demand March 26.
Nomadland is in a similar bind. Widely considered the front-runner for best picture and best actress (Frances McDormand), and nominated for four other awards, it’s now open in U.S. cinemas and available on the streamer Hulu, which Canadians don’t get. Disney-owned Searchlight was hoping to open it in Toronto cinemas on March 19, and other select theatres across Canada on April 9. But Canadians who want to see it as of April 9 will probably have to sign on to Star, the new add-on of the streamer Disney+.
This is the dark cloud around that silver lining. Arthouse distributors and streamers embraced home viewing for their Oscar titles, knowing that they weren’t likely to be monster box-office hits. (Oscar films rarely are, even in a normal year.) But a new blockbuster season is right around the corner. Will Canadians be cut out of it?
The United States is far ahead of Canada in COVID-19 vaccinations, and their theatres are reopening much more quickly. (Half of California’s residents were able to return to movie-going as of Tuesday, albeit at 25-per-cent capacity.) So by May, U.S. audiences could well be munching cinema popcorn and thrilling to Marvel’s Black Widow, starring Scarlett Johansson; Cruella, the swinging-Sixties-set backstory of the Dalmatian-clad Disney villainess, starring Emma Stone; and A Quiet Place Part II, John Krasinski’s follow-up to his alien-invasion jump-fest.
Meanwhile, we in Canada probably will be stuck in a much, well, quieter place. What if our theatres are still dark? Will Paramount, Disney and the other studios be willing to forego big box office returns, and make those titles available here if we can only watch them at home?
Warner Bros. may have its answer. To date the studio has sent its theatrical titles, which are also HBO Max titles – including Wonder Woman 1984, Judas and the Black Messiah, Tom and Jerry, and The Little Things – to premium-priced VOD here in Canada, where we have neither many open theatres, at least in such major markets as Toronto and Vancouver, nor HBO Max.
But that sound you hear is the thundering tread of the studio’s big spring title, Godzilla vs. Kong, due out March 31. It boasts a diverse cast, including Brian Tyree Henry, Eliza Gonzalez, Shun Oguri, Demien Bichir and Ronny Chieng, though it likely won’t earn them any Oscar love. With a budget of US$200-million, it is not intimate; indeed, it’s a monster – a pair of monsters – a steamroller, a juggernaut and a tsunami rolled into one. And here in Canada, we will watch it in theatres only, whenever the real monster, the pandemic, allows.
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