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‘Nomadland’: The Perils of Releasing an Oscar Frontrunner in the Time of COVID-19

Months ago, Searchlight scheduled Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” for theatrical release on December 4 — and, sources indicate, that’s where it will stay. This is enough to make it an outlier: In what is usually the year’s most crowded release corridor for Oscar movies, it stands alone. It’s even holding its initial, intended date.

It could take shape as a platform release — a one-week qualifying run, possibly only in the area surrounding New York City. If worse comes to worst, it could end up being limited to a virtual cinema platform, and it might: Southern California theaters are already closed, and the New York region could follow suit.

Sources indicate the full run would start February 19, nearly four weeks before the March 15 announcement of Oscar nominees. A platform strategy with weekly expansion would allow for a wide release at the time of the nominations.

Although films can qualify for the Oscars by opening in any one of six cities by February 28, or by streaming/VOD if closings make theaters unavailable, other groups have different deadlines. The New York and Los Angeles film critics associations, always major influences, are this year sticking firmly to calendar-year eligibility.

For now, New York has multiple options with theaters in outlying areas as well as virtual and other home platforms. In the case of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, multiple sources say they will grant eligibility to films that intended to open locally, but were unable to do so and had major 2020 film-festival presence.


“Minari”

“Nomadland” would be the first of the major December releases, and the first to confront the headwinds that bring 2020 to a close. “The Father” (Sony Pictures Classics ) seems headed for eligibility, and “Minari” (A24) could also still try. (Universal’s “News of the World” and Focus’s “Promising Young Woman” are heading to wide release, excluding as of now Southern California. “Promising” premiered at Sundance this year). That comes on top of theatrical presence for contenders from Netflix and Amazon Studios, ahead of home availability.

Winning top prizes from the major critics groups would boost any film into prime Oscar contention. “Parasite,” “Roma,” and “Moonlight” all received New York and/or Los Angeles’ best film awards, with two winning Best Picture. Even films that didn’t win best film received attention, with “The Shape of Water” winning in three top Los Angeles categories before going on to win Best Film.

“Nomadland” has received the best reviews of any 2020 release, per Metacritic. It won top prizes at the Venice (the Golden Lion) and Toronto (Peoples’ Choice Award) festivals. However, COVID-19 interfered with what would have been a carefully constructed release pattern to keep momentum going. Searchlight is a veteran distributor that knows how to maximize grosses and win awards, but the times present unprecedented challenges.


“The Deer Hunter”

Universal

The “Nomadland” strategy has a decades-old precedent with critics’ groups: In 1978, Universal released Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” for one week in December. It won best film from New York and best director from Los Angeles. It did not return to theaters until late February, three days after nominations were announced. This was pre-screeners; the sole viewing possibility was studio-run showings for members. It went on to win Best Picture.

In 1984, the Los Angeles group chose Terry Gilliam’s unreleased “Brazil” as best film — despite it not having plans to open and with Universal planning to release its own re-edited version. The win forced the studio to release Gilliam’s cut.

In a week when Universal and Warner Bros. made game-changing announcements about windows and alternative-platform plans, it appears Searchlight believes a theater-based release is the priority. No one can be certain what the next few weeks will hold, but the game plan for this acclaimed film seems to be consistent with Searchlight’s past success: It launches top titles with maximum theatrical play.

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