April 17, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Here comes Steven Soderbergh to save the 2021 Oscars show

Who else could produce next year’s Oscars other than the guy who made “Contagion”?

I imagine that question was posed more than once at the motion picture academy’s headquarters before Tuesday’s announcement that Steven Soderbergh will produce the 2021 Academy Awards ceremony along with Stacey Sher (who produced “Contagion” as well as Soderbergh’s best movie, “Out of Sight”) and Jesse Collins.

“We’re thrilled and terrified in equal measure,” the trio said in a statement, precisely encapsulating the feeling I have every day as I tentatively crawl out of bed, singing a variation of “Oh what a beautiful morning / oh what a beautiful day / I’ve got a terrible feeling / an emergency alert’s coming my way.”)

We’ve known the 2021 Oscars were going to be different. Back in June, the motion picture academy pushed the ceremony’s date two months to the end of April because of the COVID-19 pandemic. What will the show look like? Who knows. Last week, it was reported that the academy was dead-set on an in-person show and the next day, everyone was backtracking, maintaining that the situation was “fluid,” which, translated, means: We’re juuuuust a little unsure if anyone wants to show up at the Dolby Theatre and huddle together for an Oscars selfie. Check back next year.

It’s all pretty simple: Because we don’t know what the world will look like five months from now, we don’t know what the Oscars will look like, either. It could be almost entirely virtual, like this year’s Emmys. Or maybe it’ll be an intimate affair with just the nominees attending.

Soderbergh’s involvement, however, guarantees that the show isn’t simply going to be different. It’s going to be downright peculiar. Soderbergh’s three decades as a filmmaker has been marked by experimentation, restlessness and invention. He shot a movie entirely on an iPhone (“High Flying Bird”). He made a four-hour movie about Che Guevara. He retired and then returned, going on a workaholic bender. If he doesn’t shoot, edit, direct and produce the 2021 Oscars, it will feel like he’s slacking.

But Soderbergh isn’t exactly one to wrap his audience in a warm embrace, making him an interesting choice in a year that the motion picture industry finds itself besieged on several fronts. By the April 25 ceremony date, movie theaters will have been effectively hobbled for more than a year. And with Warner Bros. shuttling its entire 2021 film slate to HBO Max, streaming them on the same day they’ll open in theaters, prospects for the near future feel grim. (Soderbergh’s latest, the playful Meryl Streep drama “Let Them All Talk,” premieres on HBO Max Thursday.)

No one wants a goopy generic Oscar montage about the Magic of Movies. But the 2021 Oscar telecast does need to remind audiences why, at some time in the (hopefully) near future, they should think about rolling off their sofas, climbing into a car and braving the hell that is the Hollywood and Highland parking structure (or whatever parking purgatory is adjacent to your local multiplex) to watch a movie on a big screen surrounded by other human beings who will probably be on their phones even more now, the cumulative blue-light illumination equaling the brightness of a thousand suns.

So, in addition to honoring the best of 2020 (let’s hope people will have had the chance to see “Nomadland” by then), the 2021 Oscars need to be something of a PSA for movies. And, again, shelve the shoddy, generic montages. Soderbergh should craft everything himself or enlist friends like Christopher Nolan, a self-appointed Patron Saint of Cinema, who, after blasting the Warner Bros. move to HBO Max, would assuredly be happy to create some kind of tubthumping expression about Why Movies Matter.

And, yes, Soderbergh’s movies are often chilly and contained, dazzling but detached. But he can be a showman. And he has worked with pretty much everyone in Hollywood. Bring back the men of “Magic Mike,” solo and socially distanced. Give the “Ocean’s Eleven” crew another job, then spin off George Clooney into an “Out of Sight” reunion with Jennifer Lopez. If they can’t be in close confinement, get creative. Maybe have them riff on Soderbergh’s groundbreaking first feature, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.”

Soderbergh already tipped his hand a bit, telling the Associated Press last week that he’s curious if this year’s Oscars will “skew more indie-cinephile.”

“The question is: Do you embrace that and say: ‘That was this year,’ and not be pants-on-fire about it. Just go: That was this year,” Soderbergh said.

It’s true. That was this year. And there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that reality with the Zen attitude of one of Soderbergh’s old pals and saying, “All right, all right, all right.” But the academy needs to ensure that the ceremony keeps an eye on the industry’s future too. We’ve lived through a version of “Contagion.” Now let’s wash our hands (for at least 20 seconds!) and find a way forward.