Oscars Face Backlash for No Zoom Option at Academy Awards

The Oscars have issued a mandate that there will be no Zoom acceptance speeches during this year’s telecast, but that decision is causing consternation among nominees, who are worried they won’t be able to make the trek to Los Angeles.

Studio executives, awards strategists, personal publicists, and the stars and filmmakers who are up for awards this year are unhappy with the firm stance taken by Oscar telecast producers Steven Soderbergh, Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher. They believe that it’s unsafe and impractical to ask nominees to show up in person in the midst of a global pandemic. The Academy is facing major pushback to reconsider its position, because multiple nominees will likely be unable to attend. Many live overseas, where COVID rates are climbing, or are filming movies or TV shows in production hubs like Australia or the U.K.

Making productions work on Zoom has been one of the biggest hurdles for awards shows during the pandemic. From Daniel Kaluuya’s (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) muted audio reaction at the Golden Globes to Nicole Beharie (“Miss Juneteenth”) staring at a screen for about 10 seconds because of a delay before she heard her name announced on the Gotham Awards, there have been serious hurdles to pulling off a smooth virtual event. However, the decision to not allow Zoom speeches is now being seen as exclusionary. There’s a strong possibility that the entire slate of nominees in some categories, particularly the best International feature race, might not have anyone attending in Los Angeles. With fewer people on hand to pick up their statues, the broadcast could be lighter on the rousing acceptance speeches from major stars that make the Oscars appointment television.

Two meetings were scheduled for Friday, March 19 — one for film studio executives and the other for personal publicists — to discuss international nominees’ guidelines and the requirements needed to participate in the show. That meeting was postponed to Tuesday, March 23, before being abruptly canceled the evening before it was scheduled to take place.  No new date has been given.

“There’s been no clarity,” groused one studio executive. “It’s incredibly frustrating.”

This year’s nominees are more diverse than previous editions and some of the leading contenders are poised to make history. Seventy women received a total of 76 nominations, with Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”) and Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) becoming the sixth and seventh women to be nominated for best director. Nine of the 20 acting nominees are people of color, also a record. Under current and upcoming travel restrictions, several of those nominees may not be able to attend. Fennell and Zhao are frontrunners in categories including best picture, director, original and adapted screenplay. Neither of them are currently in the United States, nor are other nominees such as Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”), Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat 2,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7”), Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”), Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman”) and Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”).

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Emerald Fennell on the set of “Promising Young Woman.’
Courtesy of Merie Weismiller Wal

In an interview with Variety, Fennell was asked if she would attend the ceremony.

“I hope so,” she said. “I’m desperate to. The idea of missing it is so awful, and I can’t bear to think about it. Obviously, it’s whatever is safe and allowed, but I’m not going to break the law by swimming the Atlantic. Though I would if I had the time and the core strength.”

On Thursday, the United Kingdom will ban all international travel until May 17 at the earliest, and possibly until June. A £5,000 ($6,856) fine will be imposed for anyone traveling without “good reason.” That’s pocket change for some celebrities, but the optics might not look good. The U.K. will allow traveling abroad with a “reasonable excuse,” with the person having to fill out a form in order to travel. Some of the excuses listed include work and essential activities, though it’s unclear if attending the Oscars falls into either of those categories.

The Academy provided some information on the telecast and the attendance on the site for nominees. For travel and accommodations, the talent is responsible for all expenses related to the 93rd Oscars. That’s a cost that smaller indies are worried about shouldering. However, it’s fair to note that studios spend millions of dollars campaigning for the Oscars each year, with some spending $100 million or more.

In addition, some talent is currently filming in COVID bubble sets around the world. There are rumors that the Academy would ask for nominees to quarantine anywhere from five to 14 days prior to the ceremony. After attending the Oscars, the talent can’t just return to work — in many cases, attendees would need to quarantine for another 14 days after leaving the U.S. That would shut down productions from 10 to 30 days for people to attend the ceremony, potentially costing studios millions of dollars in delays. It does not appear that producers have asked for information on whether attendees have been vaccinated.

Security is also a major concern. In previous years, the Oscars would block multiple streets surrounding the Dolby Theatre. This year’s telecast will be held at Union Station in Los Angeles, where trains will continue to run. It’s still somewhat unclear where how attendees will flow between different indoor and exterior parts of the station and what contingencies are planned if Los Angeles has a rare rainy day.

The Oscars are hoping to figure out a way to recapture the magic at a time when awards shows are struggling to draw viewers. The Grammys and the Golden Globes, for instance, posted their lowest numbers ever, and this year’s crop of Oscar nominees lack any studio blockbusters like “Joker” or “Avatar.” That means that a battle between smaller movies like “Nomadland” or “Mank” for the top prize could be a difficult sell.

With producers eager to avoid Zoom thank you’s, there’s been a push to allow winners to pre-record speeches instead. But that comes with its own problems. There’s concern those speeches would appear flat, lacking the rush of excitement that comes with being declared a victor.  Also, talent and publicists fear the recordings of the losing nominees could leak online, making their clients look bad.

In addition, movie theaters are campaigning for the Academy to do a PSA for audiences to return to movie theaters. A source close to the Academy says the idea it has come up in discussions and expects what they call “a love letter to the movies, both in feeling and the physical sense.” Some movie theater owners were unhappy that no one acknowledged the economic devastation that coronavirus wrought on the exhibition space during the Globes or other awards shows.

“It would be a huge mistake if the Oscars doesn’t use its platform to get people excited about going back to the movies again,” said one theater industry executive. “They keep talking about the magic of the movies. Well, here’s a chance to show it.”

The Oscars will take place on Sunday, April 25 on ABC.