Peter Bart: Screeners Pay Their Final Visit As Producers Pray That Food & Swag Will Stoke Interest In Virtual Awards Season

They fill the mailbox daily – the tightly packaged screeners that arrive like welcome anachronisms, some bearing familiar titles (Mank, Soul) but most as strangers (Wolfwalkers, Athlete A). Their sheer abundance reminds us of the creative energy out there; the “out there,” however, seems lost in the mist. “We need festivals and parties and hype,” observes Nick Jarecki, whose fast-paced thriller Crisis opens in March, searching for hype (he won the Kodak Auteur Award).

The well-oiled awards machine is churning out ballots, and the stars are hustling their wares, but it’s all an uphill climb. The Academy reminds voters daily that its electronic screening room provides an excellent alternative to screeners, adding the Roku platform. The soldiers of PR are further embellishing their virtual Q&A sessions – food and sparkling wine will accompany next week’s virtual premiere of Nomadland. Frances McDormand and director Frances Zhao will answer questions while their guests chomp.

There were times in the past when the Academy tried to ban food and drink at screenings, never imagining the possibility of in-home delivery. But quarrels over screening rules today seem even more anachronistic than screeners. Memories of lavish feasts afforded Academy members are surreal to today’s first-time voters. The studios no longer try to seduce voters with booze and swag; they just want to be remembered. Even the famously fed Foreign Press must subsist on reduced rations.

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The pre-Oscar movie blitz used to focus on festival winners and critics’ favorites. Voters tensely held off their decisions, awaiting the eleventh-hour arrival of a highly praised, big-budget vehicle. By contrast, this month’s blitz includes the claustrophobic Malcolm & Marie, in which Zendaya and John David Washington renounce each other face to face for 90 minutes. Also in the mix is Jodie Foster thriller The Mauritanian, plus Nomadland from Hulu and Searchlight.

Again, the water-cooler conversation and Instagram faceoffs reflect confusion about which project shapes up as a small-screen Globe possibility (February 28) or which as an Oscar feature contender (April 25). Or does it make a difference? The “did you see” conversations seem to swirl more around The Queen’s Gambit series than, say, Tenet.

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The identity crisis facing awards shows and their content inevitably has fostered revisionist thinking about format and content. The proposals for change are familiar: Reduce awards categories, eliminate self-serving acceptance speeches, etc. Stephanie Goodman, film editor of The New York Times, bravely proposes “that filmgoers nationwide should vote on their favorite films” – those surviving filmgoers, that is. She acknowledges that this hovers dangerously close to the Academy’s much-maligned “popular film” idea, but — given the fact that few films have achieved any degree of popularity — it perhaps might be reconsidered.

This is not too dissimilar from another radical proposal advanced some years ago to announce the actual totals on Oscar ballots. When the sleep-inducing Gandhi defeated E.T. the Extra-terrestrial in for Best Picture for 1982, the film audience might have welcomed learning whether a single vote decided that tally or whether it actually represented the Academy’s persuasion. The same insight would have been valuable in analyzing some of the Miramax surprises – Shakespeare in Love weirdly defeating Saving Private Ryan in 1999, for example.

When I proposed reconsideration of that rule 20 years ago, Arthur Hiller, then the Academy’s president, wrote that the change would “cheapen the Oscar and undermine its dignity.” I reminded Hiller at the time that he once had denounced the idea of sending out screeners, arguing that voters owed filmmakers the respect of viewing their work in theaters. “How can you evaluate the cinematography or even the music?” he insisted.

Perhaps he was ahead of his time. Starting next year, screeners will essentially be history. The cinema, hopefully, will nonetheless survive.

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