Sunday night’s Oscars ended in one seismic Hollywood event that largely obliterated the memory of any earlier tremors. But some of those lesser quakes may actually turn out to have more lasting consequences than the Best Picture announcement omnishambles (our costly, impractical, left-field suggestion for how to avoid a similar cock-up in future? Color-coded envelopes). Among the less sexy but potentially more game-changing records broken at the 89th ceremony was this little nugget: 2017 saw the first Academy Awards at which movies financed by streaming services gained the industry’s highest honor. The highest-profile of those wins were all Amazon‘s: they can claim the two awards that Best Picture-nominated “Manchester By The Sea” picked up, as well as Asghar Farhadi‘s in absentia triumph for “The Salesman” as Best Foreign Language Film. But the Netflix mantelpiece had the bare look taken off it, too, when its documentary short “The White Helmets” picked up the award in that category.
So far, so inevitable, really — with both these online giants getting into movie production and acquisition in a big way, it was really only a matter of time. And ironically enough, Sunday night would appear to prove that Amazon, not behemoth Netflix, is currently winning the prestige race: the six nominations that ‘Manchester’ picked up, and the call-out that Asghar Farhadi was careful to include in his eloquent pre-written statement, have positioned the retail giant as the prestige online newcomer to be reckoned with (as opposed to A24, whose straight-out-the-gates Best Picture win for “Moonlight,” their first-ever fully-financed production, cannot be overstated, but is running to the established model of a newcomer independent production house, albeit an unprecedentedly successful one).
For one thing, for those in the know, Amazon providing a safe harbor specifically for Kenneth Lonergan, who was so burned by studio interference on his last film, “Margaret,” that it looked possible he might never direct another movie, is as clear a signal as it’s possible to send to the wider industry that they are filmmaker-focused. Their production arm, far from the warehouse-y, stack-’em-high-and-sell-’em-cheap vibe the brand might give out elsewhere, is about quality, good taste, and providing a new avenue for mid-budget auteur projects to get made and — crucially — seen in theaters. This past year alone, Amazon also backed Whit Stillman‘s “Love & Friendship,” Nicolas Winding Refn‘s “The Neon Demon,” Woody Allen‘s “Café Society” (and limited series “Crisis In Six Scenes“) and Jim Jarmusch‘s “Paterson” as well as ‘Manchester,’ and in each of those cases, it showed a willingness to play the traditional Hollywood game. The films all earned a substantial theatrical release through Amazon’s distribution partnerships before debuting online via Amazon Prime.
By contrast, Netflix’s biggest swing for the Oscar fences was in 2015 with Cary Fukunaga‘s “Beasts Of No Nation,” which sank without a murmur during its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release. Even though the notoriously secretive giant do not give out viewership data, head honcho Ted Sarandos was eager to quash the idea of the film’s underperformance and claimed it had more than 3 million views in its first fortnight of availability, and topped the Netflix movie charts in every market worldwide.
Whatever the case, there’s no doubt it disappointed on Oscar night, and Netflix’s relative reticence in the Oscar fray since has largely been seen as a reaction to that experience, even to the point of that reputation becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Subsequent events proved it was a bullet dodged: reportedly, they outbid all comers for Nate Parker‘s “The Birth Of A Nation” at Sundance 2016, but Parker and his team chose Fox Searchlight because a Netflix release would not give the film the same awards clout. And the word on the ground when Netflix shelled out at Sundance this year for another well-received, racially charged period drama from a rising black director, Dee Rees‘ “Mudbound“? “There go its Oscar chances.”
Because if Amazon’s big-category success and Netflix’s lack thereof at this year’s Oscars proves anything, it’s that even if it doesn’t matter anywhere else, to the Academy, the idea of a film conforming in some way to the traditional theatrical-release format is still key. The Academy’s rules are one thing (a film only needs a seven-consecutive-day release in a single Los Angeles theater to be eligible for Oscar consideration), but the Academy’s culture is another. And while the vast majority of voters will undoubtedly end up watching the films in question on the small screen, via screener link or DVD (making their experience much closer to that of the average Netflix user), still there is an ingrained idea that a movie is not a legitimate Oscar contender unless actual viewers are paying to see it in the cinema.
Perhaps this is simply them clinging to what Sarandos has called the “romance” of the big screen, but in 2017 the spark still seems to be there, and thus it makes one wonder whether, if they really are intent on making a splash at the Oscars, it’s not time that Netflix alter their strategy to bring it more in line with Amazon’s more “romantic” approach. On hearing the news that Netflix will be financing Martin Scorsese‘s “The Irishman,” which will reteam the living legend with Robert De Niro (name a more iconic duo, etc.), and with the mobster genre he’s so indelibly associated with, that was my initial assumption.
Whatever about promoting a socially relevant child-soldier movie from the director of a successful TV show, or the sophomore film from a rising black filmmaker, until now Netflix has never really worked with anyone so big — especially on the awards front — as to warrant them revisiting their model. But funding a $100 million-plus project from the most established of Oscar-winning American directors in a headline-friendly reunion with his indelible acting alter-ego in a project that looks way more akin to the Best-Picture-winning “The Departed” than it does the hard-sell “Silence“? Why wouldn’t they relent on their own “rules” just a bit if it meant Oscar glory?