A dance-filled musical directed by Steven Spielberg through the streets of New York. Lady Gaga taps into her Italian ancestors. Will Smith has returned to the big screen. The Oscars were meant to be a celebration of Hollywood’s return to sparkle and glamour this year. There would be no more masks, no more socially distant award events or Zoom acceptance speeches, and no more recognising films that only a small number of people had watched.
Hollywood’s normally hectic — and hype-filled — first week of the calendar year has been reduced to a whisper, both to the omicron rise and NBC’s decision not to televise the Golden Globes on Sunday due to ethical questions surrounding the organisation that gives out the awards. The AFI Awards have been rescheduled. The Critics’ Choice Awards, which were supposed to air on Sunday night to fill the hole created by the Globes’ absence, were postponed. The Palm Springs Film Festival, which is held every year as part of the awards season, has been cancelled. And the majority of those star-driven Oscar contenders underperformed at the box office.
Suddenly, the year 2022 appears to be disturbingly similar to the year 2021. Hollywood is losing its yearly season of shallow self-congratulation once again, but it is also seeing its strongest form of advertising undermined at a time when films urgently need it. And it might have far-reaching implications for the sorts of films produced.
“Those award presentations were everything for the box office — when there was a properly working box office,” said Nancy Utley, a former Fox Searchlight co-chair who helped convert lesser prestige films like 12 Years a Slave and The Shape of Water into best-picture Oscar winners during her 21-year career. “It was because of that recognition that I decided to see a smaller film.” In the current context, how do you do that? It’s difficult.”
Every year, a large number of prestige films are produced with the assumption that the majority of their box office revenues would be garnered in the weeks leading up to the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. That equation had already been hampered by the demise of the Globes, which feel following disclosures of suspected financial malfeasance, poor journalistic ethics, and a notable lack of diversity in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which administers the awards. If the Hollywood hype machine fails to deliver during awards season, it may be disastrous for the already battered box office. Only blockbuster spectacles like Spider-Man: No Way Home draw substantial crowds, indicating that the massive audience shift fuelled by streaming may be here to stay.