How Has COVID-19 Changed Film Fests and Award Shows?

By Trisha LopezLast Updated Nov 13, 2020 12:32:33 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: APU GOMES/AFP/Getty Images

Despite countless months of wearing masks, practicing social distancing and enduring lockdowns, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread to more people across the world. And although safety precautions have helped slow the spread of the virus, they've also thrown many businesses for a loop and disrupted entire industries — and the entertainment industry is no exception.

The novel coronavirus first made its big debut among A-listers in March of 2020 when actor Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, announced they'd contracted the virus while Hanks was filming in Australia. While the couple ultimately managed to overcome the illness, its impacts on the entertainment world were only ramping up.

As many major studios postponed what could have been the year's hottest movie releases, film festivals and awards shows also scrambled to figure out how to cope with the pandemic — and to keep entertaining us as the health crisis surged. While we still don't know what a post-pandemic Hollywood might look like — and probably won't for some time — we've gotten a chance to see how a globally revered industry has adapted to its new way of life.

Everything from film releases to awards shows has fallen prey to this upheaval. Some relatively disruptive changes had to be made to preserve and promote safety — just like in other industries — and the entertainment business has created and navigated pandemic-imposed adjustments with interesting solutions. Things are looking much different, and that could even lead to some surprising shifts in cultural perspectives. As the global health crisis has continued to drastically alter film festivals, awards shows and the everyday goings-on of the movie biz, we're beginning to unravel the takeaways.

A Massive Cannes-cellation Put a Damper on Festivities

All the glamour in the world — all the couture gowns, the red carpets, the glitzy parties — can’t change the fact that film festivals are by nature perfect superspreader events: The conditions are just right for one or a few sick people to easily spread the virus to thousands more. Hundreds of guests, many of whom travel to these events from around the world, pack into screening rooms to sit for several hours at a time watching films or listening to Q&A sessions in extremely close proximity to one another. Then they might spend a few more hours rubbing elbows at a party, all the while potentially exposing themselves or others to the novel coronavirus. Repeat this every day over the course of a week or so, and you're left with a perfect storm of transmission.

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Before most of us knew just how much the virus would impact the world, big-name film festival organizers hoped some brief delays would suffice for mitigating any potential effects of the developing crisis. But things got worse, not better. The Cannes Film Festival, which typically takes place in France during the month of May and is one of the most prominent annual film festivals, initially announced plans to postpone the event until late June. But as the French government extended lockdowns, organizers were forced to continue adapting, with the prestigious festival eventually conceding that the 2020 event wouldn’t take place.

Although organizers explored alternative methods of holding the festival, they ultimately determined a virtual event would be “antithetical to the spirit of the event” and that Cannes should only take place with thousands of industry professionals, spectators, photographers and members of the press physically present at a location. Instead, they released full film lineups for various categories and revealed plans to host an abbreviated, outdoor screening of just four films and several short films slated for the end of October.

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2020 quickly transformed into a year of unknowns as the impact of the coronavirus reached epic proportions, and it’s unknown what future changes COVID-19 may demand. Unpredictability may be the only constant as Cannes organizers shift their attention to planning for the 2021 season — they’ve scheduled the in-person festival to resume on May 11 of that year.

Fellow Festivals Followed Suit

Cannes is one of the earlier festivals in the year — the Sundance Film Festival, which takes place in late January, had already come and gone by the time the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic — and organizers of other events initially didn’t jump to follow the French fest’s lead when it came to making cancellations. But as it became clear that the pandemic was worsening instead of improving, it also became clear that hosting in-person film festivals wouldn’t be the responsible or safe thing to do. This prompted a variety of other well-known festivals to modify plans in response to the ongoing health crisis — but not all of them opted to cancel, instead choosing to get innovative with their offerings.

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The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which is known for being one of the more accessible film fests around, initially announced in late June that it would be presenting a “reimagined physical and digital festival” that still maintained a (modified) version of the interactions people cherish when it comes to these events. What exactly did that mean? In addition to hosting some in-person screenings for limited audiences by enforcing social distancing guidelines and setting up drive-in and open-air theaters for participants, TIFF took place in a primarily virtual format. 

This included “digital screenings, virtual red carpets, press conferences, and industry talks” that were “tailored to fit the moment.” TIFF organizers opened digital venues — live-streaming webpages — where festival-goers could virtually congregate and watch films, talks and other content online throughout the event’s mid-September run. All press and industry screenings happened digitally as well, with the festival ultimately being deemed a “slimmed-down success” thanks to its adaptability and novel platform that still engaged visitors.

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Plenty of film festivals are more relaxed and intimate than the big-name shows like Cannes and TIFF, but they still faced the similar need to modify their typical formats in response to the pandemic. The Telluride Film Festival usually involves thousands of participants descending on the small Colorado town to enjoy a weekend of screenings during Labor Day. At first, organizers announced in May that 2020’s festival would continue as planned a few days after the holiday weekend — but with safety as a top priority. 

However, two months later with COVID-19 case numbers continuing to rise, Telluride Film Festival leaders released a statement that the event would be canceled entirely. “Even the best strategy [for an in-person event] is threatened by this out of control environment,” part of the statement read, revealing that the group decided unanimously it wasn’t worth risking lives to attempt a socially distanced event or encourage participants to travel. To do what they could, organizers still announced the festival’s 2020 lineup to bring attention to the films and provided information about screening opportunities for audiences who wanted to view and celebrate the features and shorts.

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Award Shows Have Scrambled for New Formats — and Gone Digital

Given the important role that festivals usually play in thrusting the year's best movies into the spotlight — and the fact that films often have to debut at festivals to be eligible for entry in awards shows — the future of this year's award season became uncertain in the face of the pandemic. The Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards and even the Oscars have been pushed back to later dates to give the world more time to regain its footing. 

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COVID-induced delays for movie releases also prompted some major changes in eligibility rules for award shows like the Oscars, which isn't set to air until late April of 2021. 2020's potential nominees were given until February 28 to officially premiere in order to allow more films a chance to qualify in the face of theater closures and diminished audience attendance at movies. Eligibility usually requires potential films to play in physical theaters for a certain length of time, but the reasons why that's proven problematic this year are as obvious to the Academy as they are to everyone else. That's why films that premiere on streaming platforms will qualify (with restrictions) for consideration for the first time this year — an adaptation that's wholly appropriate if the awards shows want better chances at honoring what's popular.

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What remains to be seen is exactly how all these shows will pan out — in terms of format at least. Although the Oscars are set to air live, nobody can predict the future state of the world at that air date. But other awards have already set some new standards for alternate solutions.

The 2020 Emmys managed to become a bright spot in awards adjustments thanks to the show’s pandemic-appropriate modifications. While the 72nd annual ceremony was originally supposed to happen live at L.A.’s Microsoft Theater, organizers elected to hold it in a remote format instead of canceling. And a solution came by way of everyone’s favorite pandemic communication tool; host Jimmy Kimmel introduced awards from the Staples Center to an audience of cardboard cutouts, and award winners gave their “Pand-Emmys” acceptance speeches from home via Zoom calls. Could it get more pandemic-aligned than Zoom?

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Future awards shows could potentially take their cue from the Emmys — although, like Cannes, organizers may lament the lack of authenticity that the in-person red carpet walks and seats full of clapping, bedazzled A-listers lend to the events. But that’s a small price to pay for keeping safety at the forefront amid a global health crisis, and viewers understand that it’s become necessary to revise and adapt during these times.

Interestingly, COVID-19 may not prove to be the biggest problem for some awards shows. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, fans have found themselves not only wondering what will happen with this year's shows but also reconsidering just how much they care about the shows in general. Awards show ratings had already begun to see steep declines, even before the world was thrust into quarantine. Just last year, both the Oscars and the Emmys hit an all-time low in viewership. Could the change in perspective that comes with living through a worldwide health crisis affect major Hollywood ceremonies even more in the future?

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Are Awards Shows Headed Back for the Future?

The usual arguments could be made for the reasons that award ceremonies have been tanking. Maybe they've gotten too politically polarizing or Gen Z is more into YouTube and TikTok than Hollywood culture. The other side of the COVID-19 crisis, however, may see another important argument crop up. While tabloids and Hollywood gossip may have seemed like juicy, harmless fun in a pre-COVID world, there's nothing quite like a deadly virus to put things into perspective.

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Some may argue that awards shows give us a little dose of escapism, a night to indulge in a bit of fun sparkle and a peek into an aspirational world that takes the focus off of reality for just a few hours. And others may claim that there are better, more philanthropic ways the millions of dollars that go into producing these shows could be spent during a time when millions of people are suffering and need help more than ever before. Whether you believe that hosting awards shows during a pandemic is a celebration of poor taste or you’re looking forward to indulging in a few hours of star-studded reverie, the one thing that’s certain is that everything is still uncertain.

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Like everyone and everything else, the entertainment industry has been forced to adapt to a new way of functioning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. And because the crisis so far has been largely unpredictable and more waves of infection threaten to change the teetering status quo at every turn, it’s difficult to determine how the entertainment industry will continue to be affected. The best-laid plans can become unrealistic and irresponsible almost overnight, and this may influence whether or not future awards shows will be able to air in any way that resembles their original, live format. Until those moments arrive, we'll have to wait with baited breath or creeping disdain — and hope the shows’ organizers have contingency plans in place, even if that involves cancellations.