Netflix at the Oscars

Roma, a film written and directed by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, was one of the most talked-about dramas this awards season. Nominated for a total of ten oscars, it ultimately walked away with three: Best Foreign Language Film, Best Achievement in Directing, and Best Achievement in Cinematography. The film, which centers around the life of a domestic worker in a middle-class family and tackles issues of inequality, political instability, and familial relationships in 1970s Mexico, is the first Mexican film to win in the Best Foreign Language Film category, and was also one of the front-runners for the highly-coveted Best Movie award. But perhaps the most notable component of Roma was not its masterful screenplay, acting, or directing—rather, it was it’s distributor, Netflix.

The Academy Awards are, in a sense, a very traditionalist show, and it is notable that a movie by an industry disruptor like Netflix achieved such success at the Oscars. The Oscars have a 36-page rulebook of when, where, and how movies have to be produced and distributed in order to qualify for the awards show. Netflix’s streaming model is a relatively new concept, and stands in juxtaposition to established companies like Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers. While Netflix debuts its movies on its streaming platform and in theatres simultaneously, the major firms in the film industry like Paramount and Warner typically release movies in theatres before distributing them to a wider audience through DVD or services like Comcast. Many cinema operators like AMC have specific rules and timetables for when distributors may release their movies on the silver screen and when they may release them through streaming or other services. Historically, movies are released in theatres 90 days before they are premiered elsewhere, and Netflix’s unwillingness to do this was one of the reasons why major theatre companies refused to show its movie Roma in their cinemas.

In the past, Netflix has tried to buy the distribution rights to major commercially-successful films; it is speculated that Netflix tried to buy the rights to Crazy Rich Asians. However, the movie’s producers refused, instead preferring the traditional theatrical release of their movie. Failing to capture a number of blockbusters, Netflix has been forced to adjust its policies; for example, last year Netflix decided to hold theatrical releases for three of its movies before making them available on the steaming service, including Roma and Bird Box. While only for three weeks instead of the industry-wide 90 days, this was seen as an attempt to lure in lucrative new movies to the streaming service. Many have also seen this decision as an effort for Netflix to appease to the Academy Awards and conform to their requirements in order to win more awards in the future.

Roma is not the first Netflix movie to be nominated for an Oscar; the company’s movies have been nominated for the Best Documentary category every year since 2014, and won in 2017 for The White Helmets. In 2017, a film distributed by another streaming service—Amazon’s Manchester by the Sea—for the first time was nominated in the Best Film category. The success of movies made by streaming services at awards shows like the Oscars has, of course, not been without backlash. In the wake of Roma’s success at the Oscars, Director Steven Spielberg has spearheaded a push to prevent movies by Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and others from competing in the Oscars due to their unconventional distribution practices. Demanding that Netflix adhere to the strict 90-day rule of theatrical and subsequent streaming releases, Spielberg has vowed to revise Oscar rules in order to ban Netflix from the awards show—all in an effort to retain the traditional structure of the movie industry. In an interview for ITV, Spielberg shared that movies released through streaming services “deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar,” and, referring to Netflix movies, “once you commit to a television format, you're a TV movie.”

Netflix has been quick to respond. It has stressed the inclusive nature of its streaming service and its relative affordability to millions. It has also highlighted its role in empowering minority directors and giving a platform to those films who would otherwise be unable to distribute their films in cinemas. In a recent tweet, Netflix stated that, as a company, it loved cinema, and granting “access for people who can't always afford, or live in towns without, theaters; letting everyone, everywhere enjoy releases at the same time; giving filmmakers more ways to share art.” Netflix has stepped up its efforts to win the Best Film title; for example, it partnered with Martin Scorsese and plans on releasing one of his new movies next year in an effort to become a driving force in the film industry for years to come. The convergence of Netflix's policies with those of the Oscars is promising, and could be the start of many more awards for the company. The criticisms thrown at streaming services like Netflix are unfounded. The film industry has a duty to give people voices and tell the stories of the unheard, but it also has a duty to make sure those stories reach a general audience. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu do just that. While these companies have already changed the way we view television, they now threaten to turn the film industry on its head and to forever alter the way audiences view Oscar-worthy films. And that’s not a bad thing.