Some of us may feel done with COVID-19, but it’s clear that the disease is not done with us. That’s why plans for this year’s Oscars, set to take place April 25, are “etched in Jello,” according to Steven Soderbergh.
The director of 2011’s prophetic pandemic drama Contagion is producing the 2021 telecast with his longtime collaborator Stacey Sher and pandemic-era-awards-show expert Jesse Collins, who has already shepherded the most recent Grammy and BET Awards telecasts, as well as The Weeknd’s Super Bowl halftime show. Their plans were mostly shrouded in secrecy until this week, when the trio sat down for the first time with Vanity Fair to discuss their vision for this year’s looming awards show—and what it’s like to organize a massive live event in the midst of shifting safety protocols and unforeseen roadblocks.
“I had opinions, like everybody, in how the Oscar shows have been presented in the past. So this was an opportunity to try some stuff,” Soderbergh said. “Frankly, if this wasn’t a pandemic year, a lot of the things we’re going to try wouldn’t get approved by the board, or maybe even by ABC. So it’s kind of a strange alignment of planets when they approached me. There’s an opportunity here to rebuild what this show should look and feel like.”
“Community is a really important theme: what we’ve lost in this time and what we’ve found in the importance of storytelling,” added Sher. “The Oscars are different than every other award show. We are cinema romantics. We hope this is a love letter to people who make films.”
There have, of course, been highs and lows as various live telecasts have tried to adjust to the realities of the COVID era. Shows that didn’t try to deny that reality, like the Grammys and the Emmys, have been successful, said Collins. But, “the ones that said, ‘We’re going to do the same things but without an audience,’ just didn’t work as well. The audience wanted to see progression, and they wanted to be entertained.”
To that end, the producers are planning a show that’s entertaining on its own merits—and not just as a vehicle to hand out statuettes. “The most exciting thing about this show is that it is going to feel like a film, in the sense that, at the end, we hope it’ll feel like you watched a movie,” said Soderbergh.
“Everybody will be a character: Every nominee, every person that gives an award, will feel like characters in a film. And in the end, you’ll know who everybody was and what they wanted. You’ll have a connection to everyone in this show. What we want to do is have this three-hour movie in which some awards are given out.” Even the graphics, he said, “have a very cinematic aspect to them, so we’re going to have this opening that we think is going to be….” At that point, a smiling Soderbergh cut himself off, wary of spoiling anything that could potentially shift due to the evolving safety protocols.
Either way, he and his fellow producers have set an ambitious goal—one that won’t necessarily end with the 2021 telecast. “We are hoping the show becomes something like the Biennale or the Met ball, where somebody comes in and rebuilds it every year,” the director said. “We don’t see why you couldn’t start doing that.”
If reimagining the Oscars is difficult in a normal year, in 2021, it’s like “trying to build a house of cards on the deck of a speeding boat,” said Soderbergh. Originally, the trio wanted to present the awards in three separate locations—New York, London, and Los Angeles—with a separate host for each. But then their first choice for a London site became a testing facility, and finding a venue in New York that was both affordable and big enough proved impossible. So the producers doubled down on L.A., asking nominees to show up in-person at either the Dolby Theatre or Union Station and saying there would not be an option to Zoom in for the show. After backlash, the producers announced this week that they will also create European outposts for nominees unable to travel or quarantine in Los Angeles.
“Our hope was to get everybody in when things seemed they were getting better, and then it changed again,” said Sher. “Our goal in setting out to have a show where everyone matters and every category matters was certainly not to say, ‘and only if you’re in the U.S. and you can get here.’ There was never, ever, for a second a moment where there wasn’t going to be a way to include everybody.”
“Again,” said Soderbergh, “this is why we kept postponing these meetings that we were supposed to be having, where we were telling people what we’re planning to do. And we kept pushing them because the guidelines kept changing…. So it became clear, we’ve got to have a hub in the U.K. There’s just no way around that. We have a surprise throw to another location that we won’t reveal, but it’s super cool. And we have the segment at the Dolby as well.”
The trio’s biggest hurdle now is “trying to coordinate getting the nominees to our broadcast partners in all of these other territories, to get them into a studio where we can control how it looks and how it sounds, and make it look integrated into everything else that we’re doing. That’s a huge logistical challenge,” Soderbergh added. “It’s just crazy. But the good news is we have an incredible team and everybody’s working seven days a week, 12, 14 hours a day, if not more, to try and make this all look easy.”
Despite all these challenges, the producers want this year’s ceremony to have a celebratory air. They’re hoping to pay as much attention to, say, best sound as they do to best actress, “reminding people that every one of these nominees is the LeBron of those categories,” said Soderbergh. “We love watching people who are proficient at something that seems almost impossible for us mortals to do. These people are the best of the best at what they do: all of them.” They want to televise the historically private moment when a winner’s name is engraved on the statue, an idea inspired by Soderbergh’s 2001 Oscar win: “It’s official at that moment.”
They haven’t completely finalized how they will incorporate live music performances into the show, though they have commissioned Questlove to oversee the telecast’s musical components. He’s already written original music for the show’s brief trailer, and the producers promise there is more to come. “You will definitely feel his presence throughout the show,” said Collins. “He’s been an incredible part of the creative process, and he’s going to bring a lot of cool, a lot of fun, a lot of energy. You know, we want this show to have pace, we don’t want it to drag, and I think he will be a big part of that.”
And while they promise tons of glamorous moments, they’re also hoping that the Oscars red carpet will be more about celebrating designers and costume designers than “excess preening,” said Soderbergh. “We’re using the pre-show as an opportunity to continue to contextualize the broadcast, knowing that people want to see stars get dressed up. So there will be that.” But the correspondents who will interview nominees for the pre-show won’t be asking fluffy questions: “They can have a real conversation with them about their path to April 25. You know what I mean? We really want to see if it’s possible to make an award show that is not disposable. Maybe it can’t, but we’re really going to try.”
To that end, in addition to the Academy’s $4 million donation to The Actors Fund and $2 million donation to the Motion Picture and Television Fund, Soderbergh said there will be a charitable component to the night that they are not yet ready to confirm. “We’re trying to do a show that is sincere without feeling self-important,” he said. “Because of the events of the last year, [we have to] rebuild our relationship and our friendship with the audience. And part of that, I think, is for all of us to remember how much we love movies.”
One thing the producers can say for sure? For the third year in a row, the Oscars will not have a traditional host. “The way we are going to use presenters this year is going to be different,” said Soderbergh. “And we haven’t even used the word host, frankly. We’re calling it our ensemble, because there’s a sort of overarching structure to the evening that they all participate in. So it’s just that word, the H word, just really doesn’t apply to what we’re doing.”
— Cover Story: Anya Taylor-Joy on Life Before and After The Queen’s Gambit— Zack Snyder Explains His Long-Awaited Justice League Ending— Tina Turner Is Still Haunted by Her Abusive Marriage— Emilio Estevez’s True Hollywood Stories— Armie Hammer Accused of Rape and Assault— Why Black Panther Is Key to Understanding The Falcon and the Winter Soldier— 13 Oscar-Nominated Movies You Can Stream Right Now— From the Archive: Meet the Real-Life Teen Burglars Who Inspired The Bling Ring— Serena Williams, Michael B. Jordan, Gal Gadot, and more are coming to your favorite screen April 13–15. Get your tickets to Vanity Fair’s Cocktail Hour, Live! here.