Give the Academy credit for one thing — it may have been onto something last May when it announced that the Oscars would be held on March 27, 2022. Industry observers typically lament such a late ceremony — why are we talking about the same 10 movies three full months after Christmas?? — but this year, an Oscars telecast in March is the best-case scenario for the Academy given the ongoing Omicron surge.
On Wednesday, Omicron’s increased rate of transmission forced Sundance to scrap the in-person plans for its 2022 festival, which like last year, will now be fully digital. Meanwhile, the alarming rise in COVID cases caused the indefinite delay of this year’s Grammys ceremony, which had been scheduled to take place on Jan. 31 at the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles. The Recording Academy has not set a new date yet.
AMPAS bought itself some time with a late-March Oscars ceremony, but the Academy will have to remain nimble in the weeks ahead, as it’s become clear that the pandemic requires a flexible approach. I wish I could take solace in the idea that no matter what happens, there’s nowhere for the show — and its ratings — to go but up, but the truth is that this year’s disappointing awards crop doesn’t inspire much confidence, especially if Spider-Man gets “snubbed.” I may fundamentally object to the idea of a Popular Film Oscar, but there’s no question the telecast would benefit from its inclusion in this year’s Best Picture lineup, even if Spidey doesn’t stand a chance to win the battle this time around.
As far as Sundance goes, the writing was on the wall when the festival’s (amazing) communications team recently reached out to me to double-check that I was still planning to attend in-person, which I naively thought possible when I checked off that box in December. I already knew by then that multiple people had canceled their travel plans due to their own sense of (dis)comfort, and it would only be a matter of time before Hollywood pulled out of Park City en masse. I had a feeling that the industry would not be able to wrap its collective brain around the idea of standing close together like herded cattle in those tents, or piling onto crowded buses, or taking Ubers from unvaccinated drivers. Don’t get me wrong, Sundance is my favorite festival, by far, but even I must admit that the risk of a mass outbreak just wasn’t worth it.
It’s a damn shame because I know how hard the Sundance team works year-round to put on a great festival, one that brings together people from all walks of life, not just Hollywood. Last year, I thought Sundance did an exceptional job with its virtual festival, and I look forward to another smooth ride when this year’s edition launches on Jan. 20, running through Jan. 30. The 2022 festival was already designed to be a hybrid festival, so it’s not like Sundance will have to make too many last-minute preparations on the tech end, especially with a year of experience under its belt already.
The Sundance Institute noted how it was a difficult decision, given that “as a nonprofit, our Sundance spirit is in making something work against the odds. But with case numbers forecasted to peak in our host community [Park City, Utah] the week of the festival, we cannot knowingly put our staff and community at risk. The undue stress to Summit County’s health services and our more than 1,500 staff and volunteers would be irresponsible in this climate.”
“While we’re disappointed to not provide the full hybrid experience and gather in-person as intended, audiences this year will still experience the magic and energy of our festival,” added Sundance leaders. The festival had already banned food and drink at screenings, which always seemed implausible, at best, since I take almost all my meals inside the theater during Sundance.
Speaking of which, I’ve been to a movie theater nearly every weekend for the last four months, and I’ve always felt pretty safe, though I’ll admit to getting lucky after the raucous public screening of Spider-Man: No Way Home I attended. The safety issue at Sundance, of course, isn’t so much about theaters as it is the notorious party scene in Park City. Whether you’re at a bar on Main Street, up in the mountains of Deer Valley at a private condo, or just hanging at a hospitality lounge, that’s probably where you’d be most vulnerable. Then again, people seem to be coming down with this Omicron variant no matter where they go or what they do, so who’s to say that a week spent inside a movie theater is a worse idea than any other?
The real problem is that Park City’s infrastructure isn’t set up to handle 100,000 people (or anywhere close to that) in the event of an emergency. It’s a small town in Utah, not a metropolitan city like Los Angeles, which has dozens of hospitals, some of which are among the best in the world. Sundance is also a 10-day festival, so if you were exposed to COVID-19 the first weekend, you’d be showing symptoms by the middle of the festival and it’d be Park City’s problem. Sure, Hollywood tends to migrate back to Los Angeles on the Tuesday of the festival, but I wouldn’t be in a rush to book a seat on those flights. Would you?
“The health and safety of those in our music community, the live audience, and the hundreds of people who work tirelessly to produce our show remains our top priority,” CBS and the Recording Academy said in a statement on Wednesday. “Given the uncertainty surrounding the Omicron variant, holding the show on January 31 simply contains too many risks. We look forward to celebrating ‘Music’s Biggest Night’ on a future date, which will be announced soon.”
So the Grammys will wait to find a new date on the calendar, just like the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Academy’s annual Governors Awards, and the Critics Choice Awards. The Oscars may soon find themselves in the same boat, depending on how long this post-holiday surge lasts, but by virtue of being held so late, there may not be much runway left for the show to move. You can move a January show to March, but can you really move a March show to May? I don’t think so.
So what does this mean for the Oscars? It means they’re vulnerable. The show may not be delayed, and it won’t be like this year’s minimalist Golden Globes, but if things stay the same with COVID, expect another intimate evening featuring a stripped-down, no-frills format. Stay tuned…