The first film the Academy should have recognized from Netflix was Beasts of No Nation in 2015. SAG voters liked that movie so much, to Hollywood’s surprise, they not only gave its cast of mostly unknowns a SAG nomination for Outstanding Ensemble, they also gave Idris Elba—who had been passed over for an Oscar nomination—their prize for Best Supporting Actor. The Academy’s next chance to do right by Netflix was Dee Rees’ brilliant Mudbound. Again, SAG responded with a nomination for Outstanding Ensemble and a supporting nominations for Mary J. Blige. The Academy’s resistance then began to crumble, with nominations for Mudbound’s Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Song, and Blige for Supporting Actress.
But that was then. Last year Roma tied with The Favourite for the most Oscar nominations, in 10 categories across the board, and Alphonso Cuarón’s intimate epic ultimately went home with Oscars for Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Foreign Language film. It was clear things had changed.
Was there a debate last year about whether Netflix could pull off a win for Best Picture? Of course. But the argument was less about its distribution model and more about the fact that no international film was likely to win Best Picture as long as it could win in its own category, for Best Foreign Language Film. It makes no sense the Academy would award Cuarón three Oscars and then balk at Best Picture simply because it was a Netflix film. Roma’s case was unique and its Oscar destiny has little relevance to Netflix four juggernauts this year, all in the English language.
Part of the astonishingly fast headway Netflix has made in transforming the way the industry regards its status, is due, no doubt, to the hire of Lisa Taback to lead their awards campaigns. For years a consummate pro at shepherding brilliant movies through the awards gauntlet, Taback is largely responsible for elevating the Netflix Oscar game so elegantly that many people are barely aware that The Irishman, Marriage Story, Dolemite Is My Name, and The Two Popes are Netflix movies. The main thing distinguishing these cinematic achievements from traditional studio contenders is that, as of this week, three of the four films will be available for the entire country to watch—in fact, for most of the entire planet to enjoy—no matter where in the world a movie lover might live.
Additionally, Netflix has hired a couple of veteran awards writers—Kris Tapley and Krista Smith—to do some of their podcast interviews. Tapley will be hosting Call Sheet, and Smith is doing Present Company. They will be in-house writers who come from the awards circuit, with Kris fresh off his gig as Variety’s Oscar columnist and Smith from Vanity Fair, well-known for doing Q&A panel screenings around town. These will represent seamless transitions from experienced awards coverage directly into exclusive Netflix coverage, and it lends authenticity to their film credentials by hiring actual journalists rather than publicity writers.
There was some speculation by The NY Times’ Brooks Barnes that The Irishman’s premiere on Netflix over Thanksgiving weekend dented the box office ever so slightly by doing something the streaming service has never been done before — showcasing a film that played selectively in big cities at the very moment that awards voting began.
Of course that has been an experiment that may or may not pay off. As everyone is now able to see it, everyone can also talk about it, with a wide range of opinions—something that studio ordinarily like to a guide more closely heading into awards voting. But everything is happening so fast this year, it probably won’t matter much what Twitter thinks, not that it ever has.
How all these movies parts will land when the dust clears is a different story. With four movies heading into the race, and all four of them with a strong lead actor contender, it would be remarkable indeed if all four made the cut. But even if two out of the four scored nominations, it would be a triumph for Netflix, a studio that could come to dominate and transform the race, much the same way that Miramax and later the Weinstein Co did when they first burst onto the scene. They carved out a permanent space in the Oscar race and brought in win after win after win after win. They did this mainly by exercising impeccable taste in giving Academy voters the kinds of movies they liked, and sparing no expense to put their film in front of all the right people. Netflix—with no pressure to navigate fickle public whims and no need to worry about box-office numbers—could have the freedom to do the same thing, only better.
There is no doubt that we’re living through an important new era in American film history. Times are changing whether some people want them to or not. It’s great to see the big studios stepping up this year with major contenders—like 1917, Ford v Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Even if they may not be accustomed to having so many Oscar big guns battle it out in the multiplex, just as Netflix has had to fight to score victories the Oscar race.
The model so far seems to have worked best with Marriage Story, The Irishman, and perhaps The Two Popes. Dolemite Is My Name, on the other hand, was probably a film that could have benefited from a wider theatrical release, so that its enthusiastic word-of-mouth could have made it a cultural phenomenon. With the right platform roll-out, Dolemite Is My Name would likely have earned $100 million, giving it the kind of hardcore cred a movie like that needs, heading into awards season. Most pundits have been dropping it entirely from the conversation and focusing on the three other films instead, which is a tad bothersome for those of us who believe it is one of the best films of the year.
Either way, I don’t see how you look at this year and last and not see Netflix as a major game changer for the industry, not just in terms of the way we watch movies, but in how prestige movies have now once again become a broader, communal experience, not limited to the exclusive tastemaker enclaves of New York and LA. And that will ultimately encourage the entire industry to fill the Oscar rosters with attention-grabbing movies, restoring its place as an event that everyone can enjoy, even for people who don’t live in metropolitan areas where the nominated films have been cloistered for far too many years.
There continues to be free-floating anxiety about the impact of easy access to so much great cinema that streams directly into homes of movie lovers. It’s been startling to witness how fast it’s expanded, how popular it has become, and how it’s changing the way movies feel more closely woven into the fabric of American cultural discourse. But remember, we’re lucky to be alive during one of the best years for movies in recent memory, and a big part of that is because Netflix has brought so many good ones to the table.