Could A Netflix Film Ever Win The Best Picture Oscar?

Julia Roberts announcing the winner in the Best Picture category on stage at the 2019 Academy Awards

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When Julia Roberts stepped on stage at the 2019 Oscars to announce the winner for Best Picture, we all thought we knew what was coming. Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s love letter to Mexico City, had already won two Golden Globes, four BAFTAs and three Oscars earlier that night. But when Roberts opened the envelope, it read Green Book. The backlash was swift: Spike Lee told reporters backstage that “the ref made a bad call” and the Los Angeles Times named the film “the worst Best Picture winner since Crash”. Did Roma lose because it was a black-and-white drama with subtitles and no internationally-recognised stars? Or was it because Hollywood still couldn’t stomach the idea of a Netflix production being crowned Best Picture?

Alfonso Cuaron and Yalitza Aparicio on the set of Roma


The global streaming service has endured an uphill battle with the industry since its first venture into financing original films. Founded in 1997 as a DVD sales and rental business, Netflix expanded to subscription-based streaming a decade later. Its first feature-length Oscar contender came in 2015 with Beasts of No Nation, a war film centred on an explosive performance by Idris Elba. The company purchased its distribution rights for $12 million, releasing it simultaneously in select theatres and online – thus abiding by Academy rules that require films to have their first public exhibition in a theatre in order to qualify. Despite recognition at the BAFTAs, Golden Globes and SAG awards, the film failed to receive any Oscar nominations. Some US cinema chains were hostile, viewing the online release of the film as a violation of the 90-day release window of exclusivity for theatres (the time it normally takes for a film to go from cinemas to DVD). As a result, the country’s four largest exhibitors – AMC, Regal, Cinemark and Carmike – boycotted the film and downgraded it to a limited release at independent theatres. After all, why should they support something that could threaten the theatrical distribution model by keeping film fans at home?

Idris Elba in Beasts Of No Nation


Netflix refused to go down without a fight. It sought out high-profile platforms for its releases, debuting the Tilda Swinton-vehicle Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories at Cannes in 2017. Both competed for the Palme d’Or, but their presence at the festival drew criticism from the Federation of French Cinemas and jury president Pedro Almodóvar, who argued that films in competition should be made for the big screen. Cannes responded with a new rule that required competing films to commit themselves to being distributed in French cinemas, something Netflix remained resistant to do because, under French law, a film could only appear on streaming platforms in France a full three years after its release in cinemas. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings pointed to the news on Facebook, writing, “The establishment closing ranks against us”.

Roma star Yalitza Aparicio at the 2019 Oscars

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The reality wasn’t quite so simple. Ahead of the 2018 festival where the rule would come into effect, Cannes’ director Thierry Frémaux told Variety, “Netflix is welcome at Cannes outside of the competition”. Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos responded by pulling its releases out of Cannes entirely, saying, “I don’t think there would be any reason to go out of competition… we are choosing to be about the future of cinema. If Cannes is choosing to be stuck in the history of cinema, that’s fine.” His approach was in contrast to streaming services like Amazon Studios who were playing by the rules. For Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, Amazon arranged a traditional theatrical run and honoured the months-long release window before making the film available on Amazon Prime. It paid off: the film became the first from a streaming service to be nominated for Best Picture and took home two Oscars.

Roma took home Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography and Best Director at the Oscars

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But Netflix wouldn’t have to change its distribution model drastically in order to succeed. Dee Rees’ Mudbound marked a major turning point. The film premiered online alongside a one-week theatrical release and Netflix campaigned hard to secure its four Oscar nominations. Despite the lack of a Best Picture nod, it provided a number of historic firsts for the Academy: Rees was the first black woman to be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay; Mary J Blige the first person nominated for acting and original song in the same year; and Rachel Morrison the first woman nominated for cinematography. Mudbound went home empty-handed, but Netflix’s increased credibility set the stage for them to dominate the following year.

Mary J Blige and Dee Rees on the set of Mudbound


Their 2018 releases included Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life, Paul Greengrass’ 22 July, and the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – but none received the financial backing of Roma. It was given a three-week theatrical run before debuting on Netflix, veteran Oscar consultant Lisa Taback was hired to lead an awards season campaign that cost over $25 million, and unable to take the movie to the Cannes competition, Sarandos took it to Venice, where it scored the festival’s top prize. On Oscar night, it came closer to the Best Picture statuette than any Netflix film before it, but what ought to have been cause for celebration instead became the beginning of an industry-wide assault against the streaming giant.

A spokesperson for Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Entertainment, told IndieWire that the director, who is an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences governor, hopes to propose new rules at the group’s next meeting that could ask streamers to engage in a longer theatrical release than is currently required to qualify for an Oscar. This came after the International Confederation of Art Cinemas’ open letter to the Berlin Film Festival which criticised the inclusion of the Netflix film Elisa & Marcela and described the company as one that “endangers the structures of cinemas as places of culture and the cultural diversity of the film market”. Tim Richards, CEO of Vue International cinemas, told Sky News: “A film is defined as something that has a wide theatrical release – so it is a real movie. Netflix and streaming services are in the home entertainment business.”

Director Steven Spielberg

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This argument was complicated by those who sprang to Netflix’s defence: filmmakers who’d relied on the company to distribute their work when traditional studios would not. Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma and A Wrinkle in Time, tweeted: “One of the things I value about Netflix is that it distributes black work far and wide. I’ve had just one film distributed wide internationally. Not Selma. Not Wrinkle. It was 13th. By Netflix. That matters.” Her next project, a mini-series about the Central Park Five called When They See Us, is also financed by Netflix and will be available in 190 countries. Franklin Leonard, the founder of The Black List, Hollywood’s annual survey of the best unproduced screenplays, added: “It’s possible that Steven Spielberg doesn’t know how difficult it is to get movies made in the legacy system as a woman or a person of colour. In his extraordinary career, he hasn’t exactly produced or executive produced many films directed by them.”

Ava DuVernay at the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscars party

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For many filmmakers, Netflix has not only amplified marginalised voices, but funded projects that could not otherwise have been made. 2019’s formidable line-up includes Dee Rees’ political drama The Last Thing He Wanted starring Anne Hathaway and Willem Dafoe; David Michôd’s The King with Timothée Chalamet, Robert Pattinson and Lily-Rose Depp; Steven Soderbergh’s Panama Papers project The Laundromat starring Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman; and Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating mob thriller The Irishman, an early front-runner for the 2020 Oscars. Speaking at the Marrakech International Film Festival in December 2018, Scorsese said, “The Irishman is a risky film. No one else wanted to fund the pic for five to seven years. Netflix took the risk.”

Scheduled for an awards-friendly autumn release, it could be Netflix’s passport to legitimacy in the eyes of the industry. The Irishman even has Cannes director Frémaux reconsidering the festival’s stance on streamers, with The Hollywood Reporter writing that a compromise could be proposed where upcoming Netflix titles are allowed to compete on the condition that, should they win the Palme d’Or, Netflix must commit to releasing the movie in French cinemas. When contacted for comment, the festival’s head of press told Vogue that “the discussions with Netflix are still ongoing. At this point, we have nothing new to declare.”

Other directors have weighed in on the need for cooperation between theatre owners, festivals and distributors. Sean Baker (The Florida Project) proposed a “theatrical tier” that allows Netflix members to pay a nominal fee to see the streamer’s films in theatres for free, while Paul Schrader (First Reformed) suggested that cinemas form alliances with two-tiered streaming systems. “Distribution models are in flux,” added Schrader. “It’s not as simple as theatrical versus streaming.” But throughout the controversy, Netflix has been reluctant to compromise, and its success has prompted other streaming platforms to follow suit. Head of Amazon Studios, Jennifer Salke, recently announced plans for a more flexible release strategy with more films skipping theatres; and the growth of Disney, AT&T and Apple’s streaming services could be a harbinger of the streaming-first future Netflix had always envisioned for the industry. Whatever the outcome of their discussions with Cannes and the Academy, one thing is certain – despite initial resistance, Netflix is slowly but surely changing the game.


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