Tom Brook has been covering the Academy Awards for BBC since 1982 but this year’s Oscars are by far the strangest.
In the past, there was always “a formula, a clear road map to follow when you are covering the Oscars,” says Brook, the presenter of BBC World News’ long-running Talking Movies. Then something happened threw a colossal spanner in the works: the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Oscar nomination announcements, the Oscar nominees luncheon, the big red carpet, the ceremony, the press room, the after-party — most of that isn’t happening this year,” the New York-based Brook, 67, tells 8days.sg over the phone, a few days before flying to LA.
The 93rd Oscars will be held on Apr 25 (Apr 26, Singapore time) from the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood and Union Station and international locations via satellite.
Brook admits that he was at first skeptical about Union Station as a venue. Then he saw the place himself. “I was very impressed,” he says. “It’s a very beautiful building built in 1939, a combination of [Spanish Colonial Revival] architectural style and Art Deco styles.”
“I think it would work out really well,” he continues. “The main reason they chose it is because it meets social distancing requirement that they need and they couldn’t have gotten that just using the Dolby Theatre [which has been the home of the Oscars since 2002].”
Even though this year’s Hollywood’s Biggest Night will not be as epic and glamorous as past editions, Brook is glad that the Oscars are still happening at all despite ongoing health crisis.
“There are all kinds of criticisms of the Oscar ceremony but this is the only time of the year when movie industry comes together,” says Brook. If the Oscars do well, it will serve as a psychological booster for an industry badly hit by COVID-19.
“There are a lot of wounded souls in the film industry right now — people out of work, cinemas struggling,” he says. “Just last week, when I was in Los Angeles, one much-loved local cinema chain [Arclight] closed its doors for good. It is a really difficult time.”
Here, Brook shares with us his Oscar predictions, the Oscar-nominated movies he has yet to catch, and how he hopes this year’s show will "change the face of Oscar presentation in the future".
8 DAYS: The folks behind the Academy Awards show are determined to make it happen, one way or another. What’s at stake at this year’s Oscars?
TOM BROOK: Steven Soderbergh is the main creative force behind this year’s Oscars. It will be an in-person event, and not one big Zoom show. The track record of these [virtual] award shows this year — the Golden Globes, the Grammys, the SAG Awards, the Emmys — while they were engaging in varying degrees, had all been a disaster in terms of the ratings. I think that they are very worried about the ratings for this Oscar show. Last year, pre-COVID, the Oscars got their lowest ratings in history — 23.6 million viewers in the US, a drop from 29.5 million from the year before — so no one has great expectations about the ratings.
I do think Steven Soderbergh — who is very creative, a very mature [storyteller] — realises, ‘Well, maybe we are not really going to make much head way with the ratings because the movies in contention this year, while fine pictures, a vast majority of the audience have not heard any of them. So that’s not going to attract the TV audience. Based on what [Soderbergh] said at the press conference the other day, he wants to create something that is intimate, something that does appear to be put together by an organisation, something that is authentic.
Not all the details are in yet, but the Oscars ceremony is going to be very different. It’s going to appear as if it’s a three-hour movie and the presenters will be announcing different chapters in this movie and the nominees will be playing a part. How it’s all going to pan out, I am not so sure. He recognises that the film industry — like any other industry everywhere — has been through a lot of pain in the last year and, in a way, he wants to address that, [to get] people to feel committed to one another throughout the ceremony, I think the love of cinema will come through. It’s been a very, very difficult year. He may pull this off. Psychologically speaking, it’s really important that this year’s Oscar ceremony is viewed as a success, if not by the way of ratings, at least creatively.
How is your Oscar coverage affected by the safe-distancing protocols? There won’t be the usual interviews on the red carpet…
It’s like a mini-red carpet — it’s tiny. It’s within the outdoor areas at Union Station. The only journalists accredited are the lucky few who represent broadcasters who bought the rights to the Oscar show. BBC hasn’t done that. So I am not getting on the red carpet. A good friend of mine is. I was speaking to him about the arrangement. I think what’s happening on the red carpet will be a real reflection on the need for safety in the time of COVID-19. He showed me some floor charts: everyone will be at on the red carpet and the nominees will be kept seven feet (about 2m) from the journalist. It’s going to be small scale and with a lot attention paid to safety. But there will be, presumably, the feel of the Oscars.
In a perverse way, this all can be a good thing because I do think the Oscar telecast needs reinventing. When you think of it, the Oscars, as a TV show, hasn’t changed since the first telecast in 1953. It’s basically one or two people on the podium announcing nominees and winners and people coming up to the podium and everybody applauding. Maybe, if Steven Soderbergh pull it off, it really will be a great thing that’s going to change the face of Oscar presentation in the future.
Speaking of reinvention, this year’s nominations set many records and many credited that to the Academy’s attempt at diversifying its membership, following the #OscarsSoWhite backlash. Last year, the Academy invited 819 industry professionals — 45 per cent are women, 36 per cent are underrated ethnic and racial communities, and 49 per cent are international, from 68 countries. Is there room for improvement?
I think there has definitely been an improvement. It’s very good to see, when the nominations came out, how many women, Black people, people from other races and different religious origins being nominated, so there is a forward movement. Hopefully, it will continue. You talk about the membership in the Academy changing, it still is, as far as I know. [The Academy] still is, basically, dominated by older white men, so there is definitely room to bring in other people [from other races].
I like the idea of how they are bringing in people from different countries. I think that influenced a lot of choices in a way. Why do I like it? It makes the Oscars a bit more about international, [representing] world cinema as opposed to being Hollywood. For years, they favoured Hollywood or British productions and it’s good to have international members who will bring in a whole range of other movies, and getting nominations in categories other than Best International Feature.
But there are still some glaring omissions. I was thinking about, the other day, the Academy doesn’t or have difficulty embracing Indian cinema. I was thinking about it because The White Tiger, which is based on an Indian book and shot in India, got a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. I was doing a bit of reading: no Indian film has ever won Best International Feature or Best Foreign Language Film, which is startling, given that India has the most prolific film industry in the world. That’s why I think the Academy becoming more heterogeneous will be good, it will bring all kinds of great international cinema to a wider audience.
Come to think of it, the pandemic also forced the Academy members to watch more movies at home because there are no awards parties to attend, to distract them.
I really don’t know what’s going on with the Academy membership. They haven’t had familiar guideposts, other awards to necessarily to guide them, they are left to their own devices. I think a lot of them got lost. I picked up rumours that they don’t have a clue, even at this late stage in the game, about what half the films that are nominated for Best Picture are about. In that sense, it’s very strange. Journalists, people like myself, know more about the movies than the Academy members. The Academy members are really lagging because they don’t all have the same access to movies that we do. There haven’t been any Academy screening this year; [the members] watch the movies through the Academy online portal… so you’re right, it did result in some unexpected choices.
Be honest, Tom, have you see all 41 Oscar-nominated features? I know I haven’t.
Obviously, as journalist, I have to cover my backside. I have seen all the Best Pictures nominees, all the movies in the major Oscar categories. Tonight, I will finish off watching the International Feature nominees and one more documentary feature. I haven’t seen the short film nominees, I’ll be honest about that. I got to see 14 more of those. Hopefully, I get time to do that.
So what are your predictions?
Best Picture is Nomadland. Best Director, Chloe Zhao. Best Actor, Chadwick Boseman. Best Actress, Frances McDormand. Best Supporting Actor, Daniel Kaluual. Best Supporting Actress…I don’t know. That is a hard one for me. I’ll go out on a limb and say Maria Bakalova for Borat Subsequent Movefilm. I thought she was really good. For Best Documentary, I didn’t like it particularly, but I think My Octopus Teacher will win. Best International, Another Round; I like that Danish Film. Best Animated Feature, Soul. Nomadland will get Adapted Screenplay and The Trial of the Chicago 7 will get Original Screenplay.
Why do you think Nomadland struck such a chord?
I think there are a number of factors. Nomadland has done well because it is a film about something of substance. It’s about dislocated lives and itinerant people in the wake of an economic crisis. That was something audiences can latch on to given to what’s going on with COVID-19. I think that was certainly a factor. The other thing is, in a way, it touches the right buttons for an Oscar-winning film, so people fall into it, in terms of voting. It has an epic quality, it’s set in the American West with big skies, it’s of import and has fine performances. The other thing is, sometimes these things just gain a life of their own because Nomadland was minted as an Oscar frontrunner in September last year at the Venice Film Festival where it was launched and it retained that title and then it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s interesting. I really like the film when I first saw it. When I watched it again, I didn’t get much out of it the second time around; it wasn’t as profound. I found that Sound of Metal [the drama about a drummer struggling with the lost of his hearing] was an okay film [initially]. Then I, kinda had a rude awakening when I realised this movie is actually very profound. It’s about how do we deal with losing our faculty — do we go crazy with technology by trying to bring back our hearing? Or do we somehow accept the beauty of our loss and move forward?
So that’s the film that ultimately moved me the most. It’s strange bunch of films, the Best Picture candidates. They are all fine films and you can’t knock them. But there’s nothing jaw-dropping. Sound of Metal has a big impact on me but none of them made me weep.
The Oscars will be be simulcast live on meWATCH and Channel 5 on Monday (Apr 26), 6.30am (SGT), with the Red Carpet coverage (same-day encore on Channel 5, 6pm), followed by the main show at 8am (same-day encore on Channel 5,10.30pm). An ‘international version’ will air on May 1 (Sat), Channel 5, 11.30am. The show will be available for catch up on meWATCH till May 19.
Catch Talking Movies’ Oscar Preview on BBC World Worlds (StarHub Ch 701) on Sat (Apr 24), 8.30pm, Sun (Apr 25), 8.30am, 3.30pm and Mon (Apr 26), 3.30am on BBC World News (StarHub Ch 701); and the Oscar Review Special on May 1, 8.30pm.
Photos: BBC World News, TPG News/Click Photos, Searchlight Studios