A year ago it was over. In the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” shook Sundance and Hollywood in a way rarely seen since the festival was founded almost 40 years ago. It was your Best Picture lock or, at worst, a shoo-in for a nomination and Parker a shoo-in to win something, either Best Actor or Best Director. Eight months later those predictions vanished in a scandal that will be discussed for decades.
Another Sundance premiere, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” was also believed to have Oscar potential for its director and screenwriter as well as supporting actress Michelle Williams and, potentially, leading man Casey Affleck. Today ‘Manchester’ has six Oscar nominations and while ‘Birth’ earned none, the Academy has recognized more diverse nominees than previous years in films such as “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” “Fences” and “Lion.” So, as always, a little perspective when reviewing the awards season chances of a particular Sundance breakout.
To be blunt, the 2017 edition of the festival does not have a slam dunk Best Picture nominee. And, if no films make the Best Picture cut in 2018 it will be the first time since 2014 and only the second time since 2009. In fact, the Park City staple has launched 12 Best Picture nominees since 2010. Sundance has helped shape The Academy and awards season more than it gets credit for (perhaps because no film from the festival has actually won Best Picture), but there is no “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Precious” or “Beasts of the Southern Wild” coming down the mountain this year. Instead there is a ton of potential, but just potential. The good news is that Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” has the best shot at an Oscar nomination. The problem is that Netflix acquired it. That should be a good thing, right? Let us explain.
First and foremost, thank god for Netflix. The streaming service has been a champion of documentaries for years and helped numerous issues and stories come to the public’s attention because of it. Moreover, their willingness to invest in original productions led to four different narrative at the festival this year including the winner of the Grand Jury prize in the U.S. Dramatic category, “I’m Don’t Feel At Home In The World Anymore” (not really an Oscar player). The problem is a big one: there is no evidence The Academy sees Netflix as anything more than a streaming service when it comes to narrative features. When Netflix released “Beasts of No Nation” last year it earned major industry and guild kudos including Best Ensemble and Best Supporting Actor nods from SAG, a Costume Designers Guild award, a BAFTA Award nod for Supporting Actor and five Independent Spirit Award nominations. When the Oscar nods were announced it was snubbed across the board helping lead to the #OscarsSoWhite response. And this was after Netflix spent millions blanketing LA with outdoor for your consideration advertising.
There are a couple of reasons for this including the fact the company insists on releasing day and date in theaters and on its service effectively killing its box office potential (“Beasts” earned just $90,77 in theaters). Netflix’s competitor, Amazon Studios, has gone in a different direction with great success. Using other established theatrical distributors, Amazon has had two art house hits over the past year including “Love & Friendship” and “Manchester by the Sea,” both 2016 Sundance titles. They reaped the benefits with six Oscar nods including Best Picture. Those films won’t (or in “Love’s” case didn’t) appear on Amazon Prime, the company’s streaming equivalent, until months after the theatrical window is closed.
At this point in history, The Academy doesn’t view Netflix’s plan as a theatrical experience and the company’s branding doesn’t help. Amazon smartly differentiated itself from it’s streaming component by announcing itself as Amazon Studios. Even CBS Films, a division of CBS, made sure to add the “Films” on the end of its name so audiences and the industry would not confuse it with its broadcast corporate parent. Netflix still has the same title card in front of its movies that it uses for its streaming series. When that appeared – with the recognizable “thoom” sound – people snickered at one of my Sundance screenings. And not one, but a ton of people. It’s a problem and Netflix at least seems – from the outset – like they are being stubborn by not addressing it.
As for the movie itself, while slightly long “Mudbound” is quality Oscar bait. It has a moving and gripping story, fantastic performances from recognizable stars and a subject matter that resonates today. Jason Mitchell ,Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige and Carey Mulligan are all nomination worthy as is Reese in the Directing and Adapted Screenplay categories. The movie should play to Academy members, but that current Netflix release strategy and bumper is equilvalant to tying to hands behind your back and being unable to shake anyone’s hands during a political campaign. The independent film community wants Netflix to succeed desperately, but they may need to modify the way they handle narrative films to truly make an impact long term.