How the Pandemic Changed 2021's Oscar Campaigns

oscar campaigning 2021
Illustration by Mojo Wang

An unusual awards season has prompted studios and distributors to test new methods for connecting with voters and fans alike.

Mike Knobloch, president of global film music and music publishing at Universal Pictures, has been reminiscing a lot lately about how the studio pulled off its first project under COVID-19 restraints. While recording the Academy Award-nominated orchestral score for the Tom Hanks Western News of the World, Knobloch says composer James Newton Howard did the “unimaginable” by recording and executing his work from another country. While musicians safely gathered at London’s Abbey Road Studios, Howard remained at home in Los Angeles. “He had to come to terms with not being able to get on a plane and be in a small control room at a recording studio for any of the sessions,” says Knobloch, “and that was a tough adjustment.”

Although the pandemic has altered the way in which all films, including Oscar contenders, are produced, an unexpected silver lining for News of the World is that such a successful pivot made for a compelling campaign narrative. While Knobloch stresses that a score’s ability to elevate the viewing experience should come first for award consideration, within industry circles, “being able to tell that story of innovation and the first-ever, never-been-done-before techniques that went into making it happen adds some depth and dimension to the final product,” he says. “Not that it should be graded on a curve, so to speak, but there is a pretty incredible story behind the making of the score under some more-challenging-than-ever constraints.”

Amy Dunning, vp music at Netflix — which is behind half of the films with best original song and/or score nominations — agrees that while this year’s nominees are all “very different” in scale, they “share an intimate sensibility” largely as a result of being crafted under similar COVID-19 restrictions. (Da 5 Bloods and Mank are vying for best original score, while The Trial of the Chicago 7, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga and The Life Ahead all have songs competing for a trophy.)

In terms of campaign strategy, rather than continuing its Netflix Soundcheck event that the platform hosted in 2019, the team switched to a virtual version called Netflix Playlist, which still allowed contenders to engage with the film-music community through performances and panel discussions. “Even without in-person events, the craftsmanship and work that talent invested in creating these songs and scores was celebrated,” says Dunning.

She also cites a successful virtual Q&A with best original song nominees Celeste and Daniel Pemberton (for “Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7), moderated by last year’s winner in the category, Elton John, who has been a vocal fan of the track. Dunning says another contender, “Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, has “taken on a life of its own” thanks to a grassroots campaign, Óskar for Húsavík, started by residents of the real Icelandic town, which typically relies on tourism that has been all but absent the past year. As the Óskar for Húsavík website states: “When we learned that the song, that has become a sort of an anthem for our people, had a chance of an Oscar nomination, we sprung into action.”

The campaign trail doesn’t end with a nomination: Knobloch and his team are looking at ways to keep Howard top of mind before voting closes April 20. He says that, more than changing strategy, he has kept tabs on changing consumer habits through the pandemic, and adds that knowing how to best engage with fans in a direct (but safe) way is a top priority. “It’s pretty clear that people have been at home and haven’t been traveling or outdoors as much,” he says, citing Clubhouse as an effective online platform for connection and promotion.

“Obviously you can’t fill a concert hall with musicians and an audience, but I think it’d be pretty easy for everyone to grab their phones and get on Clubhouse and have James sit next to a piano and field questions about working with [director] Paul Greengrass and the challenges of recording remotely from L.A. to Abbey Road,” he says. “It’s a new platform that can be used to further that direct, organic connection with people and a way for James to interact with fans. Whether it’s during awards season or any other time.”

This article originally appeared in the April 3, 2021, issue of Billboard.