Who Benefits Most from the Oscars Qualifying VOD Releases

The Academy issued a temporary exemption for films having to skip a qualifying run in theaters. But this isn't about 'Trolls World Tour's Oscar chances.

While studios and theater owners battle about the issue of day-and-date VOD releases, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has decided to go easy on the film industry in these difficult times. The organization behind the Oscars announced a temporary change to their rules that will allow straight-to-video and streaming releases to be eligible for Academy Awards.

That’s right, qualifying runs in theaters will not be necessary for consideration this year, but that doesn’t mean AMPAS has completely opened the floodgates for the 93rd Academy Awards. This adjustment is strictly for releases that had theatrical dates in the books before COVID-19 ruined those plans. That means yes to Scoob! but no to the upcoming DTV Scooby-Doo! in King Arthur’s Court.

Speaking of Scoob!, that animated feature and Trolls World Tour are two of the major Hollywood releases that benefit from this decision. They could still each be nominated for Best Animated Feature, and the Trolls sequel might get a Best Original Song nod like the first film did. Meanwhile, Pete Davidson, who jokes about winning an Oscar in the video announcing The King of Staten Island is going straight to VOD, will indeed be eligible to win an Oscar, maybe for Best Original Screenplay.

Could this be an incentive for more studio releases to skip theaters during the pandemic? Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s meant to be. Nor is it meant to be merciful towards Hollywood studios who are making the controversial decision to give the people their entertainment sooner than later. The movies that are most in need of the decision are the indies and the documentaries that don’t have as much choice.

Take the documentary Slay the Dragon, which is one of the best nonfiction films of the year so far. It’s co-directed by Barak Goodman, who earned an Oscar nomination in 2001 for Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, so the Academy pedigree is there. Magnolia planned for the doc to hit theaters and VOD simultaneously on April 3rd, but with the closing of most cinemas, the film only landed on the small screen.

Could the doc have delayed its release? Yes, but it’s presumably more of a burden for small distributors like Magnolia to change its plans and postpone a film due for VOD release, especially as abruptly as the case with Slay the Dragon. Plus, this particular doc focuses on a political subject matter — gerrymandering — that’s of interest at this precise moment in time due to it being an election year and a census year.

Under its intended release, a doc of its caliber would have been strongly considered. No, the original day-and-date release would not have been a factor. The Oscars don’t actually bar films that open theatrically and on VOD on the same day, so long as the theatrical release includes screens in LA and NYC (Trolls World Tour still wouldn’t have counted if none of its drive-in showings were in those cities). Without the rule exception, Slay the Dragon would have been unfortunately disqualified.

Another film that may be cheering now is Crip Camp, the Netflix documentary chronicling the history of the disabled rights movement. Not only is it a phenomenal work, comparable to the Oscar-nominated feature How to Survive a Plague (the two films share a producer in Howard Gertler), but it’s the second doc presented by Barack Obama and Michelle Obama through their company Higher Ground Productions. The first with their name on it, American Factory, just so happened to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature this year.

And there are plenty of others. Neon, which had three documentaries shortlisted in the Best Documentary Feature category last year and went on to earn two nominations for one of those films, Honeyland (the doc was also a contender for Best International Feature), would also be hurt without the temporary rule change. Next month, the distributor will see the release of two docs, Spaceship Earth and The Painter and the Thief (the latter is my favorite of the year so far), and while they’re attempting some interesting ideas for projecting the films outside the home, they wouldn’t have been able to include a proper LA or NYC run as part of that.

Regarding the matter of qualifying runs overall, by the way, the Academy has also widened its scope for eligibility. Once theaters open, movies will be able to qualify not just with runs in LA and NYC but also in Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Hopefully, that part sticks. Additionally, online screenings of films through virtual film festival efforts will be allowed an exemption as well.

The special circumstances for this year’s movies are also likely to help smaller movies in general, not just documentaries. If the pandemic extends into the fall, aka awards season, then major Hollywood releases may be held for consideration next year. Especially if the big theater chains have anything to say about it. That could potentially allow for indies to have a better shot than normal at the Oscars.

This could be A24’s year again with Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari already a decent contender given its dual Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award wins at Sundance last January. The same company has a new film by Sofia Coppola — On the Rocks — set for the fall. As for Neon, they could maintain they weren’t a fluke with their Parasite success this year and get another Best Picture nomination with Ammonite.

Of course, Netflix, whose aforementioned Crip Camp also won an award at Sundance, is sure to benefit the most. That is if they can prove they’d had plans for qualifying runs for all of their Oscar hopefuls, such as David Fincher’s Mank, Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, and Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, all due in the fall, plus another acclaimed doc out of Sundance, Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead.

Depending on how the year continues — but even going by how the industry has already had to adapt and adjust during the COVID0-19 pandemic — the 93rd Academy Awards are going to be an interesting look back at a year unlike any other in the history of cinema. Or at least in the history of the Oscars. Who knows whether the Academy’s special allowance will be reflected in the nominees come January. But at least we’ll understand that they tried to make things fair.

Christopher Campbell: Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.