It’s time to dispel murmurs heard in some of the conversations about Mudbound — stray reservations that some awards voters have mixed feelings about the Netflix distribution model. These misgivings may have begun back in May where a slight kerfuffle erupted when Netflix premiered Bong Joon-ho’s Okja at Cannes. Some in the audience booed, but so what? The Cannes audience booed Taxi Driver in 1976 — and then the jury awarded Scorsese’s first masterpiece the Palme d’Or. Some of the noise this year was because Okja would not receive a theatrical run in France, and part of it was probably because the French just enjoy making boo sounds. That reaction will not age well. The notion that a film isn’t cinema if it’s available to audiences online at the same time people can see it in theaters will soon seem as ludicrous as claiming a song isn’t real music if nobody hears it at a concert first.
All the same, the traditions of the past have a hold on us, in so many irrational ways. Some people are far more resistant to change than others, but nobody’s intransigence can stop the change from coming. It happens no matter who cheers it and who boos it. For too long the film criticism and movie blogger community has had the luxury of first-look advance previews as one of the few fringe benefits they can claim as their own. They (we) get to see movies and talk about what might win awards way before anyone else gets to see for themselves. At one time this exclusive perk involved invitations to VIP screenings. In 1989, VHS screener tapes democratized the process somewhat, and a decade later the now ubiquitous FYC DVD screeners made targeted pre-release viewings ever easier. No matter the format, getting on a list for such a freebie convenience has always been a closely guarded privilege. So the sensibilities of many insiders have now been apparently shaken given that streaming services can provide these ideal circumstances to virtually anyone for the modest price of a monthly subscription.
40 years ago, before home media was a thing, the old model of the Oscar race was this: movie is released, movie is well-liked, movie makes bank, the public essentially casts its preliminary vote at the box office to push movie into the Oscar race, and then the industry would name the best of the movies that had succeeded. Over the years, things began to change. As the Academy pushed Oscar Night from April to March, and then from March to late February, the phenomena of “awards season” became increasingly compressed and condensed. There is now too little time for public opinion to gel, especially for major films that have won those coveted release dates between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Still, the basic idea was still in play: movies that got Oscar buzz could still cash in at the box office. But a crucial chain of events had been flipped: when moviegoer enthusiasm once helped to guide Oscar voters, now Oscar nominations would be used to lure ticket buyers. This was bad news for movies released in spring or summer. After all, what point is there to launch an expensive Oscar campaign if the movie has already made all of the money it’s going to make? Does anyone sitting in studio executive suites still care enough to spend that kind of coin to win an award for filmmakers who have already been paid and served their purpose? It seems lately less likely, unless there’s a profit to made off the awards gloss.
Never let it be said that the film industry can’t be quick to adapt. From movie palaces in the 1920s to humble main street theaters in every town by the 1940s. Widescreen films that did what TV could not in the 1960s, to R-rated adult fare able to match European freedom in the 1970s. From art houses to multiplexes, drive-ins to IMAX. New revenue sources like VHS and DVD rentals. Now the dynamics of the movie industry has shifted once again to a “new abnormal” (read Lynda Obst’s book Sleepless in Hollywood). Streaming giants awash in billions of dollars can now do much more than distribute movies made by traditional studios — they are now able to be part of the business, winning bids for exclusive distribution rights and financing projects by top-tier filmmakers.
The films these new companies are creating are every bit as worthy of accolades as those produced through traditional channels, award-winning films like Manchester by the Sea from Amazon and the documentary feature Oscar winner, O.J.: Made in America from ESPN. There’s no way to resist change when the change has already taken place. It’s here. So why should Netflix get booed for exploring a new territory, a territory that offers so many new opportunities for filmmakers who find it increasingly hard to get the attention of studios fixated on tentpole franchises? More to the point, why should a movie as unique as Beasts of No Nation or a movie as powerful as Mudbound be slighted for being at the forefront of a potentially new delivery model?
Isn’t the whole idea that more filmmakers should have a chance to make the kind of movies that studios often pass on producing? And that more people should be able to see those movies that popcorn-profiteering movie chains don’t book? I think it is. There will be some who believe that movies need to be churned through the process of an exclusive theatrical run in order to prove their value, but movie lovers today see no need to wait for a largely inaccessible handful of films that Oscar voters get to pre-select. It’s absurd that millions of moviegoers across the country — and around the world _ often have to wait weeks or months for Oscar-nominated movies to finally reach their local movie houses, or be available via on demand or online rentals. Netflix wants to eliminate that waiting period. This way, Netflix subscribers get to see the same great movies at the same time the lucky few get to view them, and everyone can participate in the conversations that help determine whether or not those films deserve to win year-end honors. How is that a bad thing again?
I’ve seen just a few movies this year that I know I will be watching for years to come — movies that fundamentally altered the way I see the world. One of those is Dee Rees’ exceptional Mudbound. Not only might Rachel Morrison become the first woman ever to get an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, but there’s a good chance Dee Rees could become the first black woman to get a nomination for Best Director. And she deserves to. The film is good enough to earn nominations across the board, from writing, to directing, to acting, to cinematography, production design, and of course, Best Picture.
Mudbound is a film made by a true visual artist. Every frame is filled with visceral sensuality. Dee Rees takes us into a world we can almost reach out and touch, from the suction of mud tugging the boots of the characters back down to the earth, to the distant sounds of rural farming; from the rattling chassis of an old pick-up truck, to the flat smack a wooden screen door makes when it slams shut. Morrison’s camera captures the characters at their most weary and, occasionally, at their most joyful. As hard-hitting as the film’s message ultimately and necessarily must be, it’s the quieter moments in Mudbound that leave us breathless in their wake. No director this year has wrenched such realism from the classical compositions of its every shot.
There’s no reason a film as exquisite as this shouldn’t get the awards recognition it deserves. If anyone tries to argue that it’s because Netflix made sure their films can be seen on 60-inch home screens on the same day they premiere on 30-foot theater screens, then the whole awards pageant is a joke. Maybe it’s all a joke anyway. I don’t know. But I do know a great movie when I see one, and Mudbound is by far one of the year’s very best.
I don’t expect that everyone in Hollywood who perhaps got spooked by a few boos for Netflix at Cannes will embrace what Dee Rees has created. That is their right, I suppose (or their privilege, more like it). But I certainly hope the industry at large can appreciate what they see on screen. Screens of every size. I hope they can recognize what filmmaking of this caliber represents, not just for Netflix’ sake, but for their own. In order to remain relevant in a changing world, they have to be able to say that they are rewarding the best of all the great films from every producer, and not that they will only reward movies that come from studios that they’re accustomed to.
You can’t stop what’s coming. The change we all saw coming from a mile away has already arrived. There is no going back now. There is only knowing which way we’re headed, turning the car forward and hitting the gas.