Netflix has broken through in the documentary category at the Oscars — following the inroads HBO already made. But when it comes to Best Picture, there seems to be a kind of rigid hymen, as it were, that resists penetration by the mere trace of a “TV” production. You don’t have to be an industry insider or genius to figure out that Hollywood’s theatrical landscape is changing. Fast. Traditional studio output has shifted in strange unfortunate ways (read: Lynda Obst’s Sleepless in Hollywood for a deeper explanation of how and why we’re confronted with this new abnormal). Originality and imagination on Television and VOD are exploding. You will be hard pressed to find anything on multiplex screens as good in terms of writing and directing as HBO’s The Night Of, for instance, or as we’ve written about with enthusiasm, ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America.
The problem for old-school Hollywood is only going to get worse as millennials come of age — as the next generations embrace evolving video game narratives, long-form television, web series and everything else they can access and watch on their hand-helds. Sure, big branded entertainment is always going to sell to young people and nostalgic boomers who have been conditioned since birth to respond to it. Star Wars, for instance, isn’t going anywhere. Marvel isn’t going anywhere. Epic sci-fi, horror, torture porn, buddy action/buddy comedies aren’t going anywhere. And to a certain extent, the Big Oscar Movie still has the same built-in audience it has always had: the fall moviegoers who wait patiently for summer to end to discover the latest curated crop of smart, fulfilling, “important” films.
In some ways, there has never been a more exciting and attainable time to be an filmmaker than right now. You can make a movie with an iPhone and it can be seen by more people than a studio’s $100 million drama. There seems to be no end to the creativity and innovation on VOD platforms like Netflix and Amazon, as well as aspiring shoestring ventures on Vimeo and Hulu. This area of the industry is fertile ground that continues to evolve and grow rapidly because there seem to be no limitations holding it back.
Meanwhile, one realm that seems to be contracting is the Oscar enclave (or, as I like to think about it, “Oscar Island”). The number of films that typical Oscar voters prefer is shrinking each year. But if some Academy voters complain that there aren’t enough films to fill 10 slots for BP, they have nobody to blame but themselves. They’ve restricted their own choices with their apparent aversion to any distributor attached to a television or VOD platform.
One of the first undeniable signs that this had become a problem was when CBS Films tried to launch Inside Llewyn Davis into the Oscar race in 2013. If there has been any true face-slapping shocker over the past few years, it was the utter and complete shut-out of Llewyn Davis in all the major categories. It was only nominated for Cinematography and Sound, which is one of the saddest Coens-related Oscar moments I can recall in recent year. In hindsight, the best explanation is that there was some kind of weird prejudice against CBS Films. At first I thought the film was being “punished” because it was just too dark and no one liked Llewyn Davis himself — Oscar voters ordinarily will only go for downtrodden protagonists if they can somehow overcome hardship and prevail in the end. That was a reasonable conclusion to draw, especially considering the film did not hit with any of the guilds, even if it had been a critics darling. I also heard rumblings that creative people were “insulted” that a loser like Llewyn was the subject of the film — and quite a few could never forgive him for what happened to the cat. Still, given the prestige of the Coen brothers and their distinct artistic intentions, the lack of screenplay recognition and any acting nominations seemed very peculiar.
If the Oscar destiny of Lleywyn Davis was depressing, things only got worse with Beasts of No Nation. It has always been hard enough for an independent studio to break into the Oscar race. Tom Ortenberg’s Open Road became just one of a small handful of independent studios to win Best Picture last year (he also did it in 2006 with Crash). IFC Films had a hard time competing with Boyhood against Fox Searchlight’s Birdman. Add to that bias the predicament faced by Participant Media and its partners — indie producers with the audacity to bypass the studio system altogether and sell distribution rights to an upstart like Netflix. After being turned down by every major studio in town, the producers found support for Beasts of No Nation in the deep pockets of Netflix — and failed to receive a single Oscar nomination.
When you have scores of Hollywood’s biggest names standing up for Cary Fukunaga’s movie, sponsoring screenings, working to spread the word about its brilliance; when you have an awards budget that is comparable to the big studios; and when you have a triple nomination for Idris Elba with Golden Globes/SAG/BAFTA — and still fail to garner any Oscar nominations? It also had the unusual boost of a SAG Ensemble nomination, which often equates to de facto Oscar recognition, given that the actors branch is the largest faction in the Academy. You have wonder what the hell is actually going on. Well, I’ll tell you what I think it was — that little red Netflix logo. I remember thinking if they could rebrand it somehow (they tried), or if they could take the distributor’s logo out of the credits entirely, it would go a long way towards the perception that Beasts really was a legitimate feature film and worthy of recognition.
But Netflix was trying to make Netflix happen. They had backed up their good sense with $12 million cash and surely felt justified in having their name prominently attached. Alas, none of the core AMPAS branches — acting, writing, directing, producing — were ready to let it happen. Worth noting, however, was that Netflix did get a documentary nomination with Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? And Winter on Fire. Clearly the documentary branch has no problem with this inevitable transition, perhaps because they know full well that the best market they’ve ever have for documentary films is VOD. They understand this. They accept it. They have no problem with it. Their selection committee is just looking for the best nominees they can find wherever they find them.
We have to ask ourselves, is there a perceived threat among the old-guard Oscar voters, or is it just a coincidence that fine films like these are being ignored in the Oscar race if they try to blur the lines between successful VOD distribution and theatrical release? Surely smart voters can see this is the future, and that the future is tilting toward increasing VOD access and diminishing theatrical release for the kinds of films they want to reward. Surely they can see that many of their own members are very same people being employed by new distribution system. Surely they can see the level of movie-making creativity being nurtured outside the system can rival and often surpass the formulas being fed through the studio sausage factory every year.
If the Oscars are to remain relevant, the only viable alternative is for the Academy to expand their ideas about what constitutes a great movie. They can go smaller and embrace shifting technology on the small screen — or they can go bigger and embrace shifting technology at the cinema. At some point in the future most audience members won’t know the difference between a Netflix movie and a traditionally released film. That much seems certain. Opportunities in the future also represent a potentially radical shift in the type of films Hollywood will embrace — even if those movies are, by and large, not the kind of thing the Academy is ready to acknowledge just yet.
We’ll have another chance to test these theories in mid-November when Amazon Studios rolls out Manchester by the Sea. Amazon will be conducting another intriguing experiment. Will they be able to break through where Netflix could not? In many ways, they seem to have even more of a stigma attached, in that they are Amazon, a well-known dot com startup from the early days of the internet that once was nothing more than an online a bookstore. They’ve now become the number one online retailer in the world, selling everything under the sun and distributing everything in the media universe. But spending hundreds of millions to build a new dynamic for movie distribution and production is one thing. Establishing the respect of a reputable brand that can appeal to Oscar voters is another.
Manchester by the Sea, it’s worth noting, is being distributed by Amazon for “all media” — all the fresh new alternative viewing options online. Roadside Attractions is the distributor for traditional US theatrical release, while Studio Canal is handling UK distribution. That means it’s likely Manchester by the Sea should have less problem being recognized by the Academy — certainly nowhere near the uphill climb that Beasts of No Nation encountered, when they tried to drastically upset the status quo with simultaneous theatrical and Netflix streaming access.
Woody Allen’s Cafe Society was backed by Amazon, as is his next film. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden are both financed by and at least distributed by Amazon Studios. This exciting new pattern is moving on one direction. It is only a matter of time before Oscar voters must get on board. After all, if the idea is to reward the best in film and the definition of film is changing to encompass new avenues for creativity, and if these companies provide a safe haven to keep alive the kinds of films Oscar likes to reward, shouldn’t the Academy be as happy to adapt to this new reality as audiences and filmmakers have proven to be?