Oscar 2021: Joyous Show for Pandemic Era?

Oscar Producers Promise a “Joyous” Pandemic-era Awards Show


Steven Soderbergh, Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher
Tasos Katopodis/WireImage; Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images; Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

This year’s Oscar producers, Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher and Soderbergh, are adding the COVID-19 variable. The producers discuss their plans for the big night, at L.A.’s Union Station, April 25. 

Building the Oscars stage at Union Station?

SODERBERGH: We loaded in last week. The sets are being built now and it’s going around the clock. We will be there, that’s for sure. The question is who else will be there with us?

Biggest logistical challenge?

SODERBERGH: Building a set inside Union Station is a challenge, but not one that anybody on this production hasn’t faced before. The biggest logistical challenge is figuring out how to incorporate the people who can’t be in Union Station in a way that is consistent with our very rigorous and specific aesthetic approach to the show. We want the show to feel of a piece and if we are going to pull people in remotely we want the kind of control over that that you would have if you were making a movie. And that’s been the hardest part.

Percentage of nominees and guests in L.A.?

SODERBERGH: That’s evolving. We have a new list today that’s different from the one we’ll wake up with tomorrow. We’re nearing the fail-safe point where that ratio is going to have to lock, but it’s still fluid. Somebody had an idea that started with the words, “What if” and we all went, “That’s better, let’s do that” and that set in motion new flurry of activity. This thing is a fucking bronco and it will be right up until show time. It’s just sort of relentless.

Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, the venue for the 2021 Oscars show.
Ron Greer/ Stock.Adobe.com
Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, the venue for the 2021 Oscars show.

Jesse, producer of the Grammys

COLLINS: The biggest takeaway was the sense of community amongst the artists. Everybody loved being in room watching others perform. You could tell that everyone is tired of being in their house. That sense of community is something  we’re driving towards with this show.

Nominees participating from venues in Europe?

SODERBERGH: We can control the surroundings and make sure, in the case of London, we can have elements within that space that tie you to Union Station. We’re working to make sure that each of those remotes have some direct sort of visual correlation to what we’re doing or at least contribute to the movie-like feel of what we’re doing in terms of where they will be.  The Oscars can be like a Biennale or a Met Ball and have a different aesthetic each year and have somebody come in and really do an artistic rebuild each year so that 10 years in the future you go, “Oh that was the year so and so did it,” or “Remember when they did the Versailles theme?” We’re shooting a 3 hour film at Union Station with the prep 90 minutes before and one hour debrief afterwards, but our approach is to treat it like a movie shoot.

SHER: It also becomes a look into the specific way we got our community back to work safely. Steven worked with the DGA to create the Safe Way Forward with two of our doctor epidemiologists from Contagion. That allowed our community to go back to work safely with less than 1 percent infection.

Decision about having a host?

SODERBERGH: We debated it. We weren’t philosophically opposed to it but as the show began to take shape, it felt like it would be better served if each act was approached as discreet storytelling chapter and you have guides for each chapter.


SODERBERGH: They have a lot more to do here than a typical presenter. They have an act of the show, it’s their act and they’re out there telling these stories. Very personal stories about each of these nominees and films. The process that we put all the nominees through has been intensive, fascinating and incredibly worthwhile to tease out these backstories of these projects and these people. Because the three of us, not born in L.A., no connections to the entertainment industry, we had passion and that’s most of the people in that room actually. We want to dispel this myth that L.A. and New York are where everybody in the entertainment industry is.

Interviews incorporated into the show?

SODERBERGH: Only from a writing standpoint. There were  common questions before the questions got specific to their category and we’ve created some fun montages of 20 different people answering the same question and they’re terrific. We’re looking for places to use those, maybe in the pre-show, maybe as bumpers, absolutely as social media, but it was more for the writers to have material to work with. There are categories that are under siege. There’s a sense of, “Well why can’t we just have the people known by name publicly or faces are known by publicly get awards and do everything else in another broadcast or another context?” We will show that all these people are equal and we’re giving them equal time and attention. We’ve mixed up the sequencing of the awards in surprising ways.

Running time?

COLLINS: Three hours. Something that we’ve been working on from day one is to really give the show pace, to keep it entertaining, keep it different, keep it to where it doesn’t fall into a pattern where you feel like I can just look up the winners on Twitter, I don’t need to see how it happened. We want you to fall into the experience of the show and that will hold people and we will end it sharply at three.

Incorporating all categories while hitting running time? 

SODERBERGH: It’s more when the show digresses into pieces that aren’t directly connected either to the movies that have been nominated or the nominees are in the room. We stay on point from beginning to end and not to out the network but this is just the structure of how these shows work. When people say, “Why does it have to be 3 hours?” We’re told to make it three hours. We don’t want it to be more than three hours and the network doesn’t want it to be less than three hours. It’s built as a three-hour show. That means at least two hours and 15 minutes of actual show, but we’re hoping to fill it and also to make room for people to speak. My personal view is that speeches are not the problem, and so we’re going to test that theory this year.

Allocating more time for speeches than in the past?


What are you taking out in order to accomplish that?

COLLINS: There’s definitely some things that have typically been in Oscars that are not in this show, but the big difference is the approach. Not trying to do too much, be all things. We came up with underlying principle from the beginning that we were very fortunate that AMPAS and ABC were on board with from the beginning. It was very easy to decide if it didn’t fit into the show. We’re in new venue, we’re in this situation, it allows us to blow up structure and do awards in different ways and to change the sequencing.

SODERBERGH: There are at three things that typically would be in the show that are going to be in the pre-show and there will probably be more.

In Memoriam still in the show? 


Academy award trophies
A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images
Academy award trophies.

Setting the tone

SODERBERGH: When you look at the subject matter of the films themselves, it’s there. If we amplify the films themselves that message comes through and we don’t feel the need to piggyback on what they’re trying to say. We just want to present open and elegant space for the films to speak and the tone will be different. I think it’ll be joyous. I know there are going to be laughs — there’s some writing truly witty and sincere, but we want you to leave your snark at the door. That was the reason for the tagline, “Bring Your Movie Love.”  It’s an innocent request to show up with an open heart and not to be cynical.

SODERBERGH: It’s one year. So to assume that that is sort of a secular change in what films are going to be nominated is unfounded. It was 2020, these are terrific movies and we’re leaning into that.

COLLINS: It would be bad to try to force comedy around a serious film because we think the viewer can’t handle the seriousness of it. We’re trying to do very honest show. I’m most excited that I don’t feel that anything is forced, there are no pairings of two people that met backstage in the green room and have to walk out and pretend to be best friends and talk about their outfits. It all is grounded and real which is where we are right now that’s what we want.

ABC expectations about ratings?

SODERBERGH: We’re worrying about things we can control and that’s not on that list. We’re just making something that we would want to see, that we would think is a good show, because if you’re doing anything other than that, you’re second guessing and you’re lost. We want the nominees to have  special night and we want the winners to have opportunity to stand up in a room, be handed an Oscar and have that moment. Even though it’s been an incredibly challenging year, we didn’t want to cheat them out of that experience. We have tried to reverse engineer the show to them being able to stand up in front of their peers and hold that Oscar and say something. That’s why several million dollars are going into just making sure that that’s achievable in a safe fashion. It’s a huge part of the budget.

Learning from other award shows?

COLLINS: The viewer, after going through a year of COVID shows, is expecting something different. For many years, award shows were in a pattern and COVID has shook that up for better or for worse. The shows that have embraced that and said, “Oh let’s take this opportunity to do something different” have really worked and the three of us, our first meeting, Steven had this manifesto that just showed from the beginning there was no intent to do anything but break the mold.

SODERBERGH: This is a live show, it is not about perfection, it’s about intention, it’s about energy. If we have what we think is a really good idea and we execute that at 75 or 80 percent level, that’s better than 100 percent of a mediocre, old idea. We’re going with energy and emotion, but the key is just to tee it up so that the winners have been guided down this velvet lined chute onto that stage and really step into the moment and say something extraordinary.


Approximation of red carpet at the train station?

SODERBERGH: We’ll be set up in the two courtyard exteriors at Union Station.  We’ll use the pre-show to contextualize and frame up the show by both the way people are interacting, what they’re talking about, and the sense of community. Having been to a nominees’ luncheon, that was the best part of the process, and we really want to re-create that for the nominees and the fact that it’s going to be just them and their guests.  They’re going to be loose, to be happy and if they get to say something, that they’ll be inspired.

Dressing for this Oscars?

SODERBERGH: We said there’s no such thing as too formal, if you want to go full on then do it, but in our minds there is such a thing as too casual.

And masks?

SODERBERGH: They’ll have them. They’ll be provided them.

What are you most worried about?

SHER: When we started out this process all of Europe weren’t Level Four countries and we were hoping everybody was going to be able to be here. We’re not worried, we’re preparing, and we’re pivoting. There will reach a point where there’s a limited amount of things we can do.

SODERBERGH: I don’t think any of us worry. It’s about focus. Right now it’s all about the writing, making sure the writing is in keeping with the overall theme of the show, feel of the show, the tone of the show.