MCN Commentary & Analysis

42 Weeks To Oscar?

The single most significant public event in the possible Oscar season to come happened today. Disney and Lin-Manuel Miranda moved Hamilton into 2020.

No, I am not saying that Hamilton is a lock to win Best Picture. It is possible that it won’t be nominated. It is possible that it will be nominated and lose. Etcetera. That is not my point.

Cannes and Venice are dead for 2020. Telluride, Toronto and New York are iffy, regardless of what they say now. For there to be an Academy Awards as is traditional in February, at least three of the six months of the year, starting in July, will have to have movie theaters open and operating in a relatively traditional way, in terms of movies being released and non-industry audiences being able to see them in relative safety. And I believe that two of those three months have to be some combination of October, November and December.

The festivals are the festivals. They are the ignition to the season. They are not The Season.

The Hamilton decision is multi-layered.

First, The Oscar thing. It is a natural contender. A film shot on a stage has always been a TV thing, going back to PBS and even the early days of HBO, when shows like Camelot were a part of the Original Programming mix long before series became their groove. But welcome to 2020, where the lines are blurrier and blurrier.

And oh yeah… it is going to be a Streamer.

Second, Streaming. There is endless talk about “all options on the table” and “out-of-the-box thinking,” but it is exciting when a choice made by a big company actually allows for all options and shows out-of-the-box thinking. This is a case of that. Just a few months ago, in a culture far, far away, Disney bought Hamilton rights. The “movie” was shot in 2016 and was likely finished except for a few touches and sitting on Tommy Kail’s shelf at home, waiting for the right moment.

When Hamilton movie rights were sold, all the way back in February, the plan was to release the Freestyle Love Supreme doc (Lin-Manuel Miranda & Co’s origin story) on Hulu in May 2020, followed by In The Heights (the second act) in June 2020, followed by Hamilton, sometime in 2021.

Coronavirus flipped all that, pushing In The Heights — a hot, New York, summery movie — into Summer 2021. And what do you do with Hamilton at that point? Compete against yourself? Push it all the way to 2022? Give up what was the symmetry of the three films being released in succession, as opposed to each being in a different year?

So Disney and Miranda (& Co) took a look at the goals that each had for the Hamilton movie and flipped the script dramatically. A full theatrical release always had a plan for a lot of free screenings for kids and the ticket price-challenged. Miranda has created special opportunities with his show from the start. And even so, there was likely a $140 million – $250 million worldwide box office opportunity for Disney and partners. And having the successful theatrical launch of Hamilton as a part of the Disney+ library afterwards was a not-insignificant added bonus.

But… Coronavirus. So what to do? The finished film was sitting on a shelf. So the cost of waiting was negligible compared to a film that had a big production investment and is sitting for an extra year or two. (Or course, no interest right now… but still.) They were really free to do whatever didn’t conflict with In The Heights (at WB).

You can start to see, now that it has been a live service for six months, that the Disney+ strategy is not going to be to pile up new content like Netflix, but to try to roll out one high-profile item every month or two. Check!

The Academy changed the rules for this year so that you can release something on streaming first and then theatrically qualify it. Check!

People are hungry for event programming and no one knows how the transition back to theatrical release will work in July or August… if they work out at all. Check!

Disney+ is a premium platform that is also the cheapest premium platform. $7 a month. No ups, no extras! A couple dollars more than a normal on-demand digital rental. Check!

The film cost Disney $75 million to buy… a lot for a filmed Broadway show, but not a lot for a phenom or for a high-impact event on Disney+ (even if they have much tighter budgets overall than Netflix). Check!

By releasing the film on July 3, it fits the independence day theme. And it beats Tenet to viewers, regardless of whether Tenet lands on time or not. So it is the first serious Oscar contender of the year. And it grabs publicity for weeks before Tenet tip-toes in (don’t be surprised if their July release ends up in IMAX only or some such thing for the first few weeks as audiences consider the choice to come back to theaters). And if the film plays great and things move forward for Oscar season, it will be the first non-Netflix film to start on streaming that will then spend the effort and cash to make a serious run at Oscar nods.

What I find exciting is that it isn’t making lemonade out of lemons or throwing something at the wall to see if it sticks. This feels like a change of plans with a full strategic logic of its own. And that, my friends, is a rarity amidst the paradigm-shifting hysteria.

And so the 2020 Oscar season – real or phantom – lurches to life earlier than expected. And it starts somewhere unexpected, Disney+.

Anyone who reads me regularly knows that I believe in theatrical and that Oscar should remain as an award for theatrical movies. It’s not about Netflix so much as the wave of streaming that will become the norm for your television. Theatrical is just another thing. But the rules are what the rules are. And within that context, I will embrace the strategies and tactics and enjoy the ebbs and lows.

One thing is clear here… Hamilton is not giving away its shot.

21 Responses to “42 Weeks To Oscar?”

  1. Dan says:

    Maybe I’m missing something, but did anyone really think of a filmed stage play (opposed to an actual movie adaptation) as an awards contender?

  2. David Poland says:

    Still do.

    It’s not going to be an iPhone camera running in the 12th row…

  3. Rams says:

    I think a few pundits out there are thinking this is a full blown 70 mm adaptation of the stage show as a “real” movie. It basically is a Fathom Events type presentation (Newsies). In fact, I believe there was a filmed stage version of CATS back in the Nineties on cable. It’s a grab to gain more subscribers for Disney+. They really don’t have much original product ongoing.

  4. David Poland says:

    Didn’t you get the memo? TV is eligible for Oscars now.

  5. Rams says:

    Yes, I know about the Academy Streaming Awards. I have mentioned this before. In my household, the Oscars have ceased to exist. And this is from someone who watched and followed religiously for over 50 years.

  6. Dr Wally Rises says:

    On June 12 we’re getting not one, not two, but THREE new movies from banner-name directors. Spike Lee, Kenneth Branagh, Judd Apatow. None of them, of course, anywhere near a theater (although I know that two of them are force majeure).

    This would be unthinkable even five years ago. Now nobody even bats an eye.

  7. Bradley Laing says:

    I know you revised your MCN predictions of March 26, 2020, on twitter. But your prediction then, March 26, is that the United States (and Canadian) movie theaters would reopen between May 15 and June 1st? What is your prediction now?

    Japan’s film exhibition business, which shut down in mid-April in response to the government’s state of emergency declaration, has begun slowly reopening. Japan is the world’s third largest cinema box office market behind North America and China.

    On May 11 the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that it was arranging to lift the state of emergency for the 34 prefectures least affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The remaining 13, including Tokyo and Osaka, are still under emergency advisories, which include theater closures, until the end of the mont

  8. Sam E. says:

    I have to share Rams skepticism. Maybe it’s eligible but is there any precedent for a filmed stage production being nominated for Oscars?

  9. Rams says:

    James Whitmore was nominated for Best Actor in “Give Em Hell Harry” which was a filmed one man stage show released in the fall of 1975 in theatres. I actually saw the damn thing in a cinema. The same year Sean Connery and Michael Caine were passed over for Oscar bids in “The Man Who Would Be King”. You go figure.

  10. Bob Burns says:

    If they can make something Oscatr-worthy out of a filmed stage play, great. I’d like to see it, but I have doubts about quality.

    You can see such productions in theaters every other Saturday, already…. or could. But, in January, I went to a theater to watch a filmed version of Porgy and Bess, which will always be as revered as Hamilton. It was not within light years of being film awards-worthy. My way of saying that the quality and popularity of Hamilton, the play, is not enough to make it a contender.

  11. David Poland says:

    Well, Bradley, everyone is chugging along, hoping for July 1, but I am not convinced.

    America has fundamentally failed to make being out amongst people safe. We have a lunatic in the White House who cares more about being re-elected than saving lives. And so we are on an teeter-totter with no pre-vaccine ground under our feet. Other countries will be our role models. South Korea just had 140something people infected in one nightclub.

    Everything depends on everything… no matter what efforts are made. Obviously, exhibitors have to make potential patrons feel safe. But there could be a late July window that falls apart because of an incident or two. We could get a two-month window out of it and then see a shutdown again in September.

    Reports today are that the testing that they’ve been relying on at The White House is only 50% accurate. So who the hell would send their kids back to school?

    No one knows. No one can know.

    My suggestion had been, repeatedly now, that we separate the elements out – like media – so that distributors can move quickly if they decide it is time. But I can’t imagine Toronto happening. And as I said somewhere today, two full fall/winter months of exhibition are pretty much the low bar for having a proper Oscar show this year (next year). Will that happen? Who knows? No one.

    Would I go see Tenet at an IMAX theater with 49 other people in the room and a mask on the whole time? Yes. Would I go with 100 people in a 225-seat IMAX theater? Probably not.

    I think we are 50/50 that everything that involves being near people outside of our homes is cancelled for at least another 10 months OR that we find the tools that allow us to go back to a semblance of regular life.

    Could some company come up with the “pregancy test” level of testing that people can buy for $100 a month and test themselves with some accuracy every morning? Sure.

    What are the odds? Not good.

    Much as I hate Trump, I would LOVE him to be right about this just going away. But I don’t believe in lying moron egomaniacs or natural miracles of convenience.

  12. Stella's Boy says:

    I was thinking the same thing. It would be so nice to be wrong about this and hey everything is fine by July. But there’s no way. Right after my state’s auspicious supreme court struck down the governor’s stay-at-home order last night bars reopened and there’s pictures of packed bars with people elbow-to-elbow and not a mask in sight. The odds are definitely not good. Didn’t LA just extend its stay-at-home order through the month of July? I remember a week or so ago a few theater chains said June or July was the earliest they expected to reopen. But they obviously won’t be able to reopen everywhere because of local and state rules which are and will be a patchwork. Maybe in some parts of the country you’ll be able to see a Russell Crowe road rage thriller in theaters on July 1!!!

  13. Glamourboy says:

    Maaaaybe, if there was absolutely nothing else. If the BP nominees were Emma, Trolls, Scooby Too…..but the reason that Hamilton would fight an uphill battle for an Oscar is that all of the work that you see on the screen was created for the stage….and it already won ALL the awards, a few years ago for the work that was done. Besides some expected, splashy camera work, this will be a filmed version of something that was workshopped, rehearsed and performed for a completely different purpose. I mean, if any musical has a shot this year it would be West Side Story, if it still gets any kind of release–as it is a beloved musical, completely reinvented by a top director.

  14. Bob Burns says:

    Everything is going to come down to the question of liability…. and that question will be answered differently in Canada, btw. In the US, Mitch’s dearest legislative wish is a COVID liability shield.

    Suppose you are running a festival, and set it up along the lines David suggests. Would you be willing to accept institutional, and personal, liability for any lapses in your safety regime? …. in order to stage a pale shadow of a film festival?

  15. Stella's Boy says:

    So here in Wisconsin theaters large and small are staying closed for now. Nothing is opening before June, and many will open later than that. We are home to Marcus Theaters, the nation’s fourth largest chain, and their plan is to open 3-5 theaters companywide sometime in June as test cases. Apparently their plan as of now is to have all of their theaters open in time for Tenet.

  16. YancySkancy says:

    “If they can make something Oscatr-worthy out of a filmed stage play, great. I’d like to see it, but I have doubts about quality.”

    Obviously, I haven’t seen the Hamilton movie, and I have no idea how they shot it, but I wonder if maybe they took a page from the playbook of those live TV musicals of the last few years. The director, Thomas Kail (who directed the theatrical originals of both In the Heights and Hamilton), did Grease Live for Fox, and it was very well received.

  17. leahnz says:

    yowza your mobster lobster is a psychopath on a destruction bender and this is the concern?
    (maybe worry about ACTUALLY MAKING CINEMAS SAFE for people before re-opening them rather than PERCEPTION, like what level of appearance of safety will lure back crowds? it’s fucking ghoulish and kind of sums it all up: cart before the horse, the appearance of safety for the sake of $ rather focusing on actual public safety and the natural flow-on effect of people returning to the cinema because it’s safe. how is this not obvious)

  18. palmtree says:

    I am maybe the biggest Hamilton fan on the planet, but I’m not quite sure how you’d campaign for Hamilton as Best Picture. It’s still a concert film, which even if well-done, still only makes it a lock for best documentary. I mean, do you also see LMM and company getting nods for acting when they’re not acting for the camera, but they’re being recorded acting in front of a live audience, which is not nearly the same art and craft as film acting. It’s just a different medium. But I do think when the film adaptation of Hamilton happens, then it’ll win all the awards.

  19. cadavra says:

    Sorry, but I’m a purist. If you debut on TV or streaming, you compete for the Emmys. Period.

    And yes, a filmed stage play (in the literal sense of the term) is not a movie. I’d be willing to make an exception for acting categories (cf. “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry”), but that’s it.

  20. Rams says:

    With all of these awards shows (including the Oscars) allowing streaming things and whatnot to be eligible, they just shot their relevance to hell. Parameters are parameters. I won’t be watching or following. It is a sad state of affairs.

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