What Does Netflix Have to do to Win the Oscar it so Desires?

By Tom Beasley on at

The dust has just about settled on one of the most divisive awards seasons in years. The Oscars telecast was dominated by a pitched battle, with three main contenders gunning for the coveted ‘Best Picture’ award. In the red corner, Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody entered the contest with more than £640m of global box office in its pocket. In the blue corner was eventual winner Green Book – a traditional Hollywood take on the unlikely friendship between a brash white driver and the black pianist he worked for in 1960s America. As Simon Mayo has repeatedly said on his BBC Radio Five Live show, it's “Driving Miss Daisy, but this time the racist is in the front seat”.

That brings us to the third contender, fighting out of the black and white corner – Alfonso Cuarón's Roma. The Mexican auteur's monochrome drama weaved a semi-autobiographical tapestry of freewheeling storytelling, set against the backdrop of 1970s Mexico City. Not only is it a slow-moving, black and white drama, but it's a story told in a language that isn’t English. It didn't seem like a particularly likely Oscar winner and, had it won Best Picture, it would have been the first foreign language movie to manage that feat.

However, distributor Netflix clearly thought the film had a chance. The streaming giant considered Roma to be its chance to come of age as an awards season contender, delivering a defiant, rude gesture to the anti-streaming core of ageing Academy voters. Depending on which reports you believe, Netflix spent between 15 million and 45 million pounds on a campaign designed to push Roma towards a shelf full of glittering statuettes. For a film that only cost around £11m to make, that's a massive and unprecedented spend.

Roma was the bookies' favourite going into the ceremony and was ahead of Green Book by a nose in the predictions of prognosticators. The professional guilds, which usually provide key hints as to the eventual winner, were completely split between a number of major competitors, but victory at the BAFTAs and the Critics Choice Awards seemed to put Roma in pole position going into the Oscars.

Image: ABC

However, none of these factors prevented Roma from losing. Just moments after Olivia Colman's surprising Best Actress win for The Favourite sent Twitter into paroxysms of delight, Julia Roberts's announcement that Green Book had won Best Picture transformed social media into a swirling maelstrom of rage. Business as usual, in other words.

On paper, Roma seemed like it would be a popular Best Picture winner among Academy voters. Cuarón is a beloved filmmaker with previous victories under his belt, critics adored the film to the tune of a 96% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a surprise pair of acting nominations suggested that the Academy's biggest branch was behind the movie. The fly in the ointment, it seems, was the Netflix factor.

Netflix has had an unusual relationship with the Oscars ever since the Academy shut out its widely tipped child soldier drama Beasts of No Nation in 2016, despite it receiving wide acclaim and awards success elsewhere. The film was admired by the Screen Actors Guild, which gave its Best Supporting Actor prize to Idris Elba and nominated the film for its Best Ensemble award – its closest equivalent to the Oscar for Best Picture. The Academy, though, turned its back and this has more or less been par for the course since. Netflix has had some success in the documentary categories, but had failed to crack the top tier of awards until this year.

In the wake of Roma's success – it won three Oscars and four BAFTAs, among numerous other gongs – there has been a severe and noisy pushback against Netflix's position as an awards-contending studio and its tactics to push its movies. Cinema icon Steven Spielberg has been perhaps the most vocal detractor in recent weeks, stating that he believes Netflix releases are “TV movies” and should be eligible for Emmys rather than Oscars. He is now actively lobbying the Academy to tighten the rules in terms of theatrical screening, so as to effectively disqualify Netflix films unless they completely change their distribution strategy.

On these shores, a number of cinema chains have cut ties, or threatened to cut ties, with BAFTA over its decision to award Roma the Best Film prize. BAFTA film committee chairman Marc Samuelson wrote to members last week to inform them that multiplex giant Cineworld has made a “unilateral decision” to withdraw its support of BAFTA, citing concerns over awards eligibility. Meanwhile, major chain Vue has also been embroiled in a public row over BAFTA's decision to, in the words of Vue boss Tim Richards, “endorse and promote a ‘made for TV’ film that audiences were unable to see on a big screen”. Richards dismissed Roma's exhibition in a limited number of Curzon cinemas as a “token effort” to justify the film's spot in the awards race.

It's clear that the film industry has ranted itself into a tailspin over the way Netflix has up-ended the traditional theatrical model by squeezing the theatrical window to an almost invisible pinprick. That tailspin seems to be a major factor in Netflix's inability to crack the big one and win an Oscar for Best Picture. So what do they have to do to break the deadlock?

Unfortunately for Netflix, there will need to be a sea change in the thinking of the Academy before it can win Best Picture. Despite the admirable diversification of the group's membership in recent years, under the stewardship of previous president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, much of its core base remains white, male and increasingly out of touch with the changing movie landscape. For example, the proportion of non-white Academy members has doubled in the last three years, but people of colour still only make up 16 per cent of the organisation.

It's not as simple, of course, as assuming that a younger, more diverse Academy will immediately favour Netflix. However, the victory of the decidedly middle-of-the-road, cosy Green Book over Roma this year seems to suggest that there's a clear pushback from the likes of Spielberg and his peers against a studio that is seeking to take a sledgehammer to the established order of things. The more the Academy increases its plurality, the less of a stranglehold those voices will have on the awards.

However, part of the onus must also be on Netflix. The cinema is the home of movies – the format in which they are almost always designed to be seen. If the company wants to win over some of its dissenters and position itself as a regular awards contender going forward, it needs to cede some ground. The problem is that, while Netflix may in theory be willing to show its films in multiplexes, many of those cinema chains demand adherence to the traditional 90-day window between theatrical exhibition and release on home entertainment formats. The three-week window Netflix experimented with for Roma will not be sufficient for many of the major exhibitors.

The next interesting test case for whether Netflix can hang in the Best Picture fight will be Martin Scorsese's The Irishman. Set for release at some point around the autumn sweet spot for awards contenders, the movie features a director of the same era as Spielberg who is a previous Oscar winner, shepherding a cast made up almost entirely of previous Academy Award victors. It's essentially the Avengers: Infinity War of mob movies, bringing together Scorsese, De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and Keitel for a massively ambitious caper spanning several decades, accomplished via eye-wateringly pricey de-ageing effects on the lead performers.

Everything about The Irishman screams “Oscars” and it's clear Netflix realises this. The studio purchased a presumably very costly advertising spot during the Academy Awards telecast to drop the first teaser trailer for the movie. It ended with the eye-catching promise that the film will be “in theaters this fall... and on Netflix”, as opposed to the “in select theaters” claim that accompanied the marketing for Roma. Reports have suggested Scorsese wants a wide theatrical release for the movie and the scuttlebutt is that Netflix is working overtime to get him what he desires. Presumably they're worried he'll go all De Niro in Casino on them with a hammer otherwise.

The Irishman is a big play for Netflix. Since it nabbed the movie from the thriftier suits over at Paramount, extensive special effects work has ballooned the budget to well over $100m, with some outlets reporting that it could be as high as $175m. Netflix will want to see its gamble rewarded on the stage of the Dolby Theater next year and, in order to do that, it's going to have to learn how to win friends and influence people, from traditionalists like Spielberg to cinema bosses worried about their wallets being squeezed.

Netflix has more money than anyone else in the game, and has assembled a crack team of some of Hollywood's most exciting filmmakers. In Oscar land, though, sometimes bottomless pockets aren't quite enough.