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A coronavirus cough gives Oscar the chills

We’re all familiar with the cautionary adage about not giving an inch to a slippery person or group, lest they respond by taking a mile.

In the same vein is the proverb about not allowing a beseeching camel to stick its nose under your tent, for fear the beast’s entire body will soon follow.

You can expect to read variations of these warnings — and also rebuttals — for months to come in any discussion regarding the 93rd Academy Awards, following an announcement this week that potentially turns the COVID-19 health crisis into an existential one for Hollywood.

Momentarily abandoning its central requirement that movies must first have a theatrical release to qualify for Oscars, not an online or TV one, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said it will allow “for this awards year only” films from streaming services like Netflix and Disney Plus to compete for its coveted gold statues without first appearing on the big public screen.

“The academy firmly believes there is no greater way to experience the magic of movies than to see them in a theatre. Our commitment to that is unchanged and unwavering,” said academy president David Rubin and CEO Dawn Hudson.

“Nonetheless, the historically tragic COVID-19 pandemic necessitates this temporary exception to our awards eligibility rules.”

You can tell how reluctantly the academy opened the door to “streamers,” as the industry calls them, because many Hollywood denizens believe that widespread adoption of streaming is a death sentence for movie theatres.

Such fears are commonly cited as the reason why the Netflix drama “Roma” lost Best Picture to the comedy “Green Book” at last year’s Oscars, even though Netflix had played by the rules by giving “Roma” a brief theatrical run.

But the academy’s hand was forced by the coronavirus scourge and its social distancing requirements, both of which have no clear end in sight.

The old rules said that a film must screen in a Los Angeles County commercial theatre for at least seven consecutive days, a minimum three times daily, to be eligible for Oscars.

But with L.A. theatres closed since mid-March — along with most theatres worldwide — and with no likelihood of COVID lockdowns significantly easing until late summer at the earliest, the academy could hardly maintain its “theatre first” stance if it wanted to have a strong selection of films available for awards considerations.

Studios, producers and filmmakers are weighing their options in the light of cold COVID reality, asking whether its better to wait for an unforeseen date when they could release their films to theatres, or stream online now to reap potential profits from captive audiences huddled inside their homes.

Just this week, producer/director Judd Apatow announced he was abandoning plans for a theatrical release for his new comedy “The King of Staten Island,” starring Pete Davidson of “Saturday Night Live” fame, and will instead opt for a June 12 online release as a paid video on demand (VOD) offering.

The film is a Universal Pictures release, as is “Trolls World Tour,” the family adventure movie that is currently available as a VOD paid offering. Universal shocked the industry early in the pandemic lockdown by scrapping a major theatrical release for “Trolls World Tour” and shifting the movie online, to the fury of exhibitors who are mindful of those inch/mile and camel’s nose proverbs, and fearful of their theatres remaining closed forever.

Universal Pictures is calling the "Trolls World Tour" digital release a success and suggests it may be the beginning of a sea change in how movies are released.

Theatre owners strenuously disagree. Their concerns seemed justified this week when Universal announced it had made more money with its “Trolls World Tour” online release than it had with the theatrical release of the original “Trolls” movie in 2016.

NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell has started musing about how henceforth the studio may begin releasing films day-and-date on both theatrical and online screens, breaking the “windows” (to use another industry metaphor) that traditionally separate big screen and small screen releases by months.

Large exhibition chains AMC Theatres and Cineworld (which hopes to purchase Canada’s Cineplex) have retaliated by saying they won’t screen Universal releases, when the time comes that they can again screen any kind of movie.

But when will that time come? The coronavirus works by its own clock and scientists say we could be well into 2021 before the world begins to return to anything resembling normal life.

And will moviegoers once again flock to public movie theatres, even after they get the all-clear from doctors and politicians? Will they feel safe sitting close to someone whose cough could give them the chills or worse?

That’s the really big question out of all this and you have to sympathize with the dilemma facing moviemakers, distributors and the academy. Will the streaming Oscars become not just a temporary adjustment, but rather a permanent reality?

An industry built on the magic of movies could use an extra dose of that magic right about now.

(This column originally ran in the Toronto Star on April 29, 2020.)

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