It is good news of sorts that the first official Academy Awards screener that was mailed to members this week, “First Cow,” is directed by a woman, Kelly Reichhardt, and features Asian actor Orion Lee. Diversity counts more than ever these days. The filmmaker’s minimalist style usually caters more to the Independent Spirit crowd as well as such international festivals including Cannes and Venice when it comes to cinematic honors. Her previous movies include “Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Meek’s Cutoff” and “Certain Women,” the last three starring Michelle Williams.
The 2021 Oscar nominations won’t be announced until mid-March and the 93rd ceremony won’t take place until April 24 due to delayed productions and constantly moving opening dates because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the well-reviewed “First Cow” had its premiere at Telluride Film Festival last year and opened theatrically on March 6 to a strong first weekend. But the release was cut short when movie theaters were suddenly shut down due to health concerns.
However, “First Cow” is also the first of a dying breed as the academy has announced that they will switch to a virtual downloads and will ditch the use of physical DVDs starting next year. At least A24 is ahead of the game with a 95% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes that focuses on the relationship between a cook and a Chinese immigrant who travel to 19th-century Oregon. John Magaro and Alia Shawkat are also in the cast.
Hollywood’s habit of sending out VHS copies and later DVDs started with director John Boorman (“Deliverance”), who wanted to promote his 1985 film “The Emerald Forest,” starring Powers Boothe as an engineer working in Brazil whose son is kidnapped in the Amazon Rainforest. When the movie’s distributor suffered business troubles, Boorman resorted to paying for video copies sent to academy members for no charge. He got zero nominations for his work, but he did start a tradition for making sure Oscar voters were able to see all the contenders in the comfort of their own viewing space.
The Academy of Arts & Sciences introduced a private video on demand platform in 2019 called the “Academy Screening Room” that is accessible online and via an Apple TV app for a fee. According to Deadline’s Pete Hammond, the online screening platform is already in use for voters, featuring movies promoted by Netflix, Universal, Focus Features, Bleecker Street and IFC Films for download.
Screeners last year arrived relatively late, with the Hulu doc “Ask Dr. Ruth” being the first to be sent to entire academy membership. The second was the animated film “The Secret Life of Pets 2.”
With the whole schedule of 2020 film openings in constant flux because of the rise in COVID-19 cases around the country, who knows which possible contenders will move their opening dates to next year or beyond if theaters continue to be shuttered.