How Has the Pandemic Affected 2020’s Film Legacy?

Daniel Kaluuya’s mouth moved, but no one could hear what he was saying.

It was a moment emblematic of the pandemic as a whole: technical difficulties. The platform was Zoom, and the event was the Golden Globes — and an acceptance speech isn’t exactly when you want issues to arise. I almost had to cover my eyes so as not to cringe.

But Kaluuya recovered, the awards show recovered, and no one looked back. Perhaps it’s just the mere gratitude that we could have an awards show 12 months after the coronavirus arrived in our communities. Thousands have died, businesses have struggled, and we’ve wondered when we again could safely enjoy simple pleasures taken for granted like a night out at the movies.

The Judas and the Black Messiah star was fortunate to win Best Actor, let alone get nominated — and he has the coronavirus to blame for that. The film was one of many delayed because of the pandemic, originally intending to hit theaters in August but not debuting until February 12 in the United States — both in theaters and on HBO Max (for the first month of its release).

Judas came out just in time to be eligible for the Golden Globes, which extended the date range from the end of December 2020 to the end of February 2021. After all, the Globes themselves were delayed nearly two months, to February 28.

This time of year is typically spent gearing up for longer days and March Madness. But because of the coronavirus, it’s now also awards season.

Usually, it’s November and December when things start to heat up — even as the weather does the opposite. The memories abound of hitting the movies to catch award-worthy releases: bundling up to leave the house, driving through snowfall to reach the theater, and storing coats on our seats while we take in the next film on our list. It’s a special time of year and an even more special experience.

This awards season, a lot of the experience has gone digital. I most recently watched award frontrunner Nomadland with my parents at home via Hulu. My dad and I viewed Kaluuya’s performance in Judas and the Black Messiah a few weeks ago. Earlier in January, I had a religious experience streaming Sound of Metal alone in my apartment. Of films nominated for Globes, the only ones I took the risk to see in theaters were Promising Young Woman and Tenet — and practically empty theaters at that (a good thing for me, but a bad thing for theaters).

Tenet was supposed to bring the movies back last August. Director Christopher Nolan is a huge advocate for the moviegoing experience, and I get it: There’s a special feeling when you watch a film on the big screen versus at home. But there was no way a film would succeed in theaters in the middle of the summer, with fears of new waves of the virus expected to hit as the fall approached.

It was a bad situation that, with a health crisis on our hands, wouldn’t get any better. Theaters rely not only on ticket sales but also concession sales to turn a profit, yet would require attendees to remove their masks to munch on popcorn and sip on soda. In a venue that relies on people sitting side by side, not always six feet apart, limiting ticket sales alone was bad enough.

It’s no wonder that, with the struggles of Tenet, other studios delayed their film releases. Of course, as a film junkie, I’m going to advocate for instant at-home releases instead of continually pushing releases to dates when it may or may not be safe to pack theaters. We still don’t know when we’ll be back to “normal.” But studios have found mixed results from streaming. For every The Old Guard success story, there’s a Mulan — which only made $35.5 million in its opening weekend on Disney+ (who could’ve thought a $7 monthly subscription plus an additional payment of $30 for the film would turn off potential viewers?).

Christopher Nolan’s new sci-fi flick, Tenet, was hyped as one of the biggest summer blockbusters of 2020. Because of the pandemic, it only claimed $48 million in the United States and Canada. (Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros./The Hollywood Archive)

There’s a fine balance to the strategy we’re seeing play out, and I get why some films have gone digital and others are still playing the waiting game. As soon as everything goes digital, it sets expectations for this to continue, making it difficult to plant the reality in people’s heads that this is still a temporary solution.

Yet, 2021 at the movies is looking crowded as ever. It wasn’t just the big blockbusters that were halted, like the newest Marvel (Black Widow) and James Bond (No Time to Die) flicks. Indie works from studios like A24 and auteurs like Wes Anderson and Edgar Wright were bumped from 2020 to 2021. Add this to already planned releases like Spider-Man, Mission Impossible, and The Matrix, and it’s going to be a busy calendar.

Assuming vaccination continues going well, it’s looking to be an optimistic second half at the movies this year. Still, all of the postponements have had me worried this awards season: Can we actually salvage 2020 as a year in film? What does this look like for the legacy of this dark year in history? Am I being selfish for exerting so much worry on this topic when people are dying?

But in a time full of so much human suffering, we must find ways to enjoy the things that make life worth living, and film is one of those things for many of us. It’s a break from all of the pain of the world, plus it’s a medium that touches us in unique and personal ways — while we watch in more unique and personal ways than ever.

Streaming at home has allowed millions of households to partake in the experience while we strive to slow the spread of a deadly virus. Sure, theater companies have their own opinions, and I understand why they fear for these ever-evolving business decisions helping some industries (streaming services) and hurting others (theaters). But I still hold onto my fear of arts theaters, let alone big chains like AMC, closing locations and limiting our ability to enjoy such simple pleasures once the pandemic is over.

The past year in film took a bit of a dip compared to previous years, but it still had its special movie moments. We got another masterpiece from Pixar (Soul). We got Aaron Sorkin’s strongest screenwriting effort to date (The Trial of the Chicago 7). We got a modern classic (Nomadland) that transcends the film medium and stands as a legitimate frontrunner for Best Picture at the Oscars — one that could win the award even in a strong year.

Looking at 2020 as a year in film, we must look at it as 2020 plus two months — aligning with the eligibility of films in their annual awards shows. This means Judas and the Black Messiah and The Father also deserve consideration. Both may end up with multiple Oscar nominations, including performances from Kaluuya and Anthony Hopkins and masterful directing and screenwriting. Put these all together, and it hasn’t necessarily been a weak awards season, just one where we take everything a little less for granted.

If we add in the delayed works from Anderson (The French Dispatch), Wright (Last Night in Soho), and Denis Villeneuve (Dune), who knows how much stronger 2020 could’ve been? But let’s not get lost in the hypotheticals — we’ve already spent enough time of this as we overanalyze how many more people we could lose from the coronavirus, as well as how much longer it’ll take to vaccinate the public.

If there’s any certainty to hold onto, it’s that film in terms of quality has never been in a healthier state. While it has bent the structures we have in place to package and deliver works to the consumers, it hasn’t thwarted the mass of talent that is gracing our screens.

“That was the best awards show I’ve ever seen,” my dad texted me the day after the Globes. Part of his raving review may have been the fact that we got to enjoy the show together after a challenging year. Part of it may also have been that you could see that sentiment on the faces on the winners — all talented, all gracious, all deserving.

The virtual acceptance format made for much more humbled acceptance speeches. The reactions were more immediate and personal — you could hear the excitement out of the winners’ living rooms, from Jodie Foster to Chloe Zhao to Andra Day. It didn’t stop Jason Sudeikis from sounding high or Sacha Baron Cohen from making digs at Rudy Giuliani, but it gave us the stark realization that — when not speaking to us from a raised pedestal — these people are a lot easier to appreciate when they’re on our level.

I’d like to think we’re appreciating them more than ever as we face the harshest realities of the pandemic.

Gillian Anderson, for her performance in The Crown, was one of many winners at this year’s Golden Globes. Like others, she gave her acceptance speech over Zoom. (Photo Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Hollywood Foreign Press Association)

Now that the Globes are done, the Academy Awards are next. But we won’t get wind of the nominations until March 15, with the awards show following over a month later on April 25. At that point, Easter will have already come and gone, we’ll have a new champion of the NCAA Tournament, and we’ll be a few weeks into the MLB regular season.

It’s going to be another new experience for all of us, but we’re going to appreciate it for what it is — Zoom technical difficulties and all.

Featured Photo Credit: Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime), Mank (Netflix), Dune (Chia Bella James/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

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