Usually at this time of year, thoughts are turning to awards season and an enticing winter of quality cinema ahead, but – and you’re probably utterly sick of hearing it – this year it’s different. Instead, we have got shuttered cinemas and no prestige dramas to put in them anyway. Hollywood is in hibernation.
But the awards show must go on. Next year’s Baftas and Academy Awards are delayed until April, rather than the usual February. Deadlines and eligibility rules have been loosened: usually a movie must have screened in a Los Angeles cinema for seven consecutive days to qualify for the Oscars, but this year an online release is enough. So, good news for Trolls World Tour but potentially disastrous for cinemas.
In the absence of Hollywood competition, this could be the first year the best picture award goes to a movie by a streaming platform, which could be something of a tipping point. The current frontrunner is David Fincher’s Mank, which goes out on Netflix this Friday. It ticks all the boxes: Hollywood mythology (Gary Oldman plays the writer of Citizen Kane); marquee names; technical brilliance; impersonations of real figures (awards juries love that); and unanimous critical acclaim.
Mank’s chief rivals might include Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (a posthumous best actor for Chadwick Boseman seems likely), Da 5 Bloods and The Trial of the Chicago 7 – also all from Netflix. Or Regina King’s One Night in Miami (Amazon Prime Video). There are non-streaming contenders – Nomadland, for example – and big releases such as Tom Hanks western News of the World, due in January. Others could slip in under the wire, although these movies may well also have to release online to qualify.
It would be a tragic irony if awards season killed off the very institutions it was designed to celebrate. Traditionally, Bafta, the Academy and others have been the champions of Cinema – with a capital C – as worthy of gongs and black-tie formality and reverent speeches as any other artform. But the type of “cinema” the awards bodies were geared to celebrate is disappearing from actual cinemas, which are now powered by big-budget franchise movies. Awards buzz was one of the few tools left to staunch the inexorable defection. If the buzz goes to a Netflix movie instead, it’s another reason to stay at home, and another nail in the coffin of the industry.
It would be a double irony if Mank was the movie that sealed this deal. It is a loving, lavish homage to Hollywood at its height, not only in its detailed industry lore and its digital recreation of 1930s cinematography, but also in its nostalgia for cinema as both an auteurist artform and a popular medium with the potential to topple giants. Will either of those ideas still hold true after this year? The jury’s out.