Amid strikes, what will this year’s Oscar season look like?

The delay of some big titles, like 'Dune: Part Two,' has ramifications for coming releases like 'May December' and 'Killers of the Flower Moon'

By Kyle Buchanan

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Published: Sun 10 Sep 2023, 2:42 PM

Three years after the pandemic forced the majority of Oscar season to take place on Zoom, Hollywood may be facing another circumscribed awards circuit.

Dual strikes by SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America have already had a significant effect on this year’s movie calendar: Studios have opted to push several big theatrical releases such as Dune: Part Two to 2024, since SAG-AFTRA is prohibiting its members from promoting major-studio films amid the walkout. That same ban could radically reshape the Oscar season landscape, since awards shows and the media-blitz ecosystem built around them depend on star wattage to survive. (The strikes have already prompted the Emmys to move from September to January, and other ceremonies could be delayed, too.)

So, what will the season look like if the strikes continue into late fall or winter? Expect these four predictions to come to pass.

Streamers will be at a major advantage

The post-pandemic theatrical landscape is already difficult enough for prestige titles: Last year, best-picture nominees The Fabelmans, The Banshees of Inisherin, Tár and Women Talking all struggled to break out at the box office. Subtract the months of press that the stars of contending films are called upon to do, and the financial forecast for speciality films grows even more dire. If striking actors aren’t available to promote this season’s year-end titles, many studios will think twice about releasing them.

Streamers don’t have the same problem, since they worry more about clicks than box office numbers. So far, Netflix, Apple and Amazon have been proceeding full speed ahead with their awards-season slates: Although the actors in streaming films such as Nyad (with Annette Bening as long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad), Saltburn (a thriller about obsession) and Killers of the Flower Moon (a historical drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio) may not be free to do much press, there’s ultimately no more effective advertisement for a streamer than simply throwing big pictures of a movie star on the app’s homepage.

Directors are the new stars

The monthslong awards circuit can raise a filmmaker’s profile considerably: Near the end of their seasons, auteurs such as Bong Joon Ho (Parasite) and Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (Everything Everywhere All at Once) were as recognizable as movie stars, and often just as mobbed at awards shows. Still, if the actors strike continues for several more months, studios will need to rely even more on their directors, since they may be the sole representatives of their films who are available for big profiles, audience Q&As and ceremonies.

Well-established auteurs such as Martin Scorsese (Killers of the Flower Moon) and Christopher Nolan (Oppenheimer) will be at a particular advantage here, as will new-school academy favourites such as Greta Gerwig (Barbie) and Emerald Fennell (Saltburn). The latter two have a significant side hustle as actors, which may prove appealing in a season that will lack thespian faces, although their fellow actor-turned-director Bradley Cooper will be in a bit of a bind: How can he promote Maestro, his forthcoming Leonard Bernstein movie, if he also stars in it?

‘Barbenheimer’ could rule again

The dual release of Barbie and Oppenheimer proved to be the cinematic event of the summer, as Gerwig’s doll comedy broke box-office records and Nolan’s biopic defied the doldrums that have recently plagued prestige dramas. Both films were already poised to be major awards contenders, but the decimation of the year-end theatrical calendar will only reinforce their dominance.

For old-school voters who still prefer to support theatrical releases instead of streaming films, Barbie and Oppenheimer might as well be running unopposed. The punt of Dune: Part Two to 2024 will only further help those two films’ awards cases, as the craft categories where the first Dune dominated — such as production design, sound, editing and visual effects — are now decidedly up for grabs.

Up-and-coming actors may miss out on breakthroughs

Awards season can sometimes feel like a glamorous grind, requiring stars to commit to months of near-constant interviews, actor roundtables, audience Q&As and hotel-ballroom hobnobs. Still, the season is invaluable when it comes to raising an actor’s profile. Up-and-comers become A-listers through their sheer ubiquity, and some of this season’s rising stars will miss out on the career glow-up that’s possible from a prolonged awards press tour: I’m thinking of people such as May December actor Charles Melton, who nearly steals the movie from its leading ladies, Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore (who play an actress and a Mary Kay Letourneau-like teacher, respectively).

Although it would be a fine line to walk, it’s possible that some of the smaller studios may seek interim agreements with SAG-AFTRA that would allow actors to do Oscar-season press. For example, A24 has secured interim agreements with SAG-AFTRA to continue shooting films since it is not among the studios the guilds are striking against. Could the company secure a similar carve-out that would allow the cast of its summer hit Past Lives to become awards-show fixtures? If the strikes continue and no such arrangements are possible, Oscar voters may be forced into an unprecedented position: Without all the usual noise that surrounds an awards contender, they’ll simply have to decide whether to nominate a performance based on its merit alone. What a concept!

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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