2021 Oscars Hope to Zoom Past the Pandemic with In-Person Show

The Oscars show aims to be an in-person event with no virtual participation allowed, despite the ongoing pandemic. What can event producers, in any field, learn from this attempt?


The 2021 Academy Awards, aka the “Oscars,” like many events, are adapting to the ongoing pandemic. Yet, the producers of this year’s ceremony set for April 25 appear ready to change things up for a show that has for so long embraced tradition, and well, has just seemed — long, as in, too long.

But will the telecast, often the second most-watched TV broadcast in the United States after the Super Bowl, be able to avoid yet another decline in viewership that has troubled so many other awards shows?

“Our plan is that this year’s Oscars will look like a movie, not a television show,” Jesse Collins, Stacy Sher, and Steven Soderbergh, show producers, said in a statement. A bold statement indeed, given that recent Oscars telecasts have run longer than a 10-part limited series on your favorite streaming service.

Started in 1929, the Academy Awards nicknamed the Oscars that honor achievements in motion pictures, have often been held during challenging periods throughout history, including World War II, the Vietnam War, and after the September 11 attack. Yet, with the pandemic, the event’s hosting organization, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) or The Academy, for short, decided to move this year’s show back to late April. This is in hopes of having an in-person event, that meets safety guidelines, but yet can still engage viewers watching from around the world.

Recently, the producers sent an open letter to this year’s nominees explaining in some detail how this year’s show will work. Here are the brief specifics.

- The show will be held in two locations in Los Angeles: in person at Union Station and at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood (where some additional show segments will take place).

- The event will be limited to nominees, their guests, and the presenters.

- Nominees will not be able to appear virtually from another location, via Zoom or another platform.

So what can event producers, in any industry, learn from this year’s Oscars? (Except for pleading with the winners to keep their acceptance speeches short and to the point.)

Open the Door to the Past. Back in the early days of the Oscars in 1927 and 1928, the event was limited to a small number of guests at the Ambassador Hotel in Hollywood. The actual handing out of the awards took less than an hour.

Ambassador Hotel (Creative Commons)

By hosting the Oscars this year at Union Station, an iconic building built in 1939, the producers appear to be trying to take advantage of a unique structure that meets the needs of the current situation, in this case, a venue that can host a small amount of in-person attendees.

For event producers in any field, consider looking back at past events, even from your organization’s early days, for ideas that just might work well for today.

Stories Matter. “Stories” was written in all caps in the producers’ letter to the nominees. The producers’ plan for the show includes featuring a brief interview with each nominee (recorded before the event) focusing on the story of how the nominees got to this important point in their careers.

Let’s face it; awards shows are boring. Especially if you are not nominated for an award. This year’s producers are smart to rework the show’s flow to focus on how these nominees got here and not so much on who wins what. Many who love watching movies will likely be intrigued about the whole process of movie-making, which can make the show more engaging, especially for those who are unable to view the show live and already know the results.

In short, always ask yourself, what story do you want your event to tell? What story will be memorable for all of the attendees, both in-person and virtual?

Call to Action. This year’s Oscars have an excellent opportunity to say something important about the times we live in, especially since so many of the nominated films focus on important subjects relevant for today. While viewers don’t want to be preached to, here’s the Oscars’ chance to be memorable, not just for the awards themselves.

If applicable, determine what action(s) you want attendees to take after your event ends, especially if it aligns with your organization’s mission.

Allow Virtual Participation. The show’s producers’ “No Zoom” rule feels insensitive to the current situation, especially for those nominees who choose, and for a good reason, not to attend the event. All-time great and four-time winner Katherine Hepburn never accepted in person any of her Oscars. But, that was her choice, and there wasn’t a pandemic going on.

Are the producers really going to prevent nominees from accepting their award? Even if a nominee sends in a pre-recorded acceptance speech on video from wherever they are?

While the producers want to avoid the show feeling like yet another long Zoom conference call, they will likely have to find a creative solution to allow virtual participants to be a part of the show.

And that should be the goal of any event producer creating a hybrid event. You don’t want your virtual attendees feeling left out, and also, you want to create an engaging and informative event that keeps your audience engaged from start to finish.

Perhaps the Oscar producers should look to last’s year’s Emmys for clues. Emmy producers provided the same streaming technology to all nominees to prevent technical glitches. Or, perhaps the producers can gather nominees in another location where they can be together, as in the case of the “Schitt’s Creek” cast and crew who gathered together for a viewing party in a Toronto outdoor location to celebrate their sweep of the comedy categories.

Remind people about your event. Frequently. Aside from diehard Oscar fans, it’s likely a lot of people are unaware the show is taking place in late April. Or they may even think that the event has already happened, or canceled like so many events last year.

The organizers should post reminders like crazy on social media and amp up advertising on streaming services where many of these nominated films exist. Not to mention the streaming services themselves should tout the show too. Netflix, which earned an overwhelming 35 nominations for various films, is already promoting its “Oscars Collection” on their home screen. A good move to remind their audiences of the award-worthy titles that viewers can now watch.

Save Room for the Unexpected. Event producers certainly want to have everything planned down to the minute, allowing for spontaneity can help keep audiences engaged.

Awards shows, especially the Oscars, are known for their unpredictable moments. Especially when someone completely unexpected wins. Remember when Bong Joon Ho won Best Director for “Parasite” last year and gave one of the best acceptance speeches ever? That’s the moment awards show producers live for.

And it’s a reminder to not over-script your event that could prevent such a spontaneous, feel-good moment from happening.

“The show must go on!” is a famous show business mantra. We’ll see what kind of show the Oscars turn out to be on April 25.

For Further Reading:

Writer, Producer, Documentary Film Consultant. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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