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Mary J. Blige, Mudbound & Netflix’s Ongoing Courtship of the Ever-Reluctant Oscars

Streaming’s ongoing disruption of the traditional theatrical model and TV broadcasting norms has now reached the point where we barely even notice it anymore. Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel won Best Comedy at the Golden Globes? So what? Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle and Transparent each already did that. Ditto for Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale winning big at the Globes after already being coronated at the Emmys. Mudbound’s Mary J. Blige was just nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in a Netflix movie? Cool, but why does that matter? Casey Affleck actually won an Oscar for a streaming movie last year, Amazon’s Manchester By the Sea.

Actually, no. Blige’s nomination matters. Affleck’s movie eventually ended up on Amazon, but it enjoyed a traditional theatrical release since Jeff Bezos doesn’t see the point in leaving money on the table by completely foregoing movie theaters. Sometimes the Amazon movies that do make it into theaters probably shouldn’t have (sorry, Elvis & Nixon); other times, they’re Manchester By the Sea or The Big Sick and they gross over $40m domestic.

Yeaaaah, Netflix doesn’t care about that shit. Mudbound, First They Killed My Father, I No Longer Feel at Home in this World – who cares about box office. Just tell me how many subscribers we added this quarter. Ted Sarandos has sunk millions into failed Oscar campaigns, and he has repeatedly tried and failed to be made a member of the Academy’s Board of Governors. However, he’s long resisted disrupting his own day-and-date model to stage a big exclusive theatrical release. Put it into a couple of theaters to qualify for awards. That’s it.

The Academy used to have a really big problem with that, completely snubbing critical darling Beasts of No Nation in 2016 even though it had Idris Elba in career-best form, director Cary Fukunaga red-hot off of True Detective, and a revelatory performance from child actor Abraham Attah. Elba, for one, was nominated by the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and SAG. The Oscars, though, left him hanging, rejecting his performance and the film entirely, mostly on principle since to certain voters it’s not really a movie if it doesn’t play in theaters. Because, after all, doesn’t that simply make something like Beasts of No Nation a TV movie? And why reward the man, Sarandos, who is killing movie theaters one by one? The Academy celebrates an industry which is entirely dependent on those theaters!

That seems like so long ago, doesn’t it? Since then, the Academy has (controversially) purged itself of older, non-active members and added hundreds of younger, more diverse members. Yesterday’s Oscar nominations reflect that the old guard still holds some sway, embracing Oscar bait like Darkest Hour above industry expectations (for the record, I actually like that movie quite a bit). However, Spielberg/Streep/Hanks’ The Post was largely rejected, a horror movie was nominated for Best Picture, a woman and a black man for Best Director, a black woman for Best Screenplay, a transgender person for Best Documentary, a comic book movie for Best Adapted Screenplay, a monster movie in which a woman and amphibian man have sex led the way with 13 nominations, and a Netflix movie, Mudbound, was nominated for 4 separate awards – Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay, Song.

After their respective nominations, both Logan‘s James Mangold and Shape of Water‘s Guillermo del Toro spoke of their joy at finally seeing the Academy embrace genres other than standard prestige dramas. Hear, hear! However, that’s not the only change underway. This year’s Oscar nominations also signal the old Netflix bias is being chipped away. The streaming giant has been making hay in the documentary categories for a while, finally winning last year for the short The White Helmets. This is the year one of their feature films finally made the cut.

Yet there’s still the feeling that going to Netflix ensures a movie a wide audience but instantly gives it a tough hill to climb come awards season. One famous detractor, Christopher Nolan, whose Dunkirk was just nominated for 8 Oscars, thinks Netflix is shooting itself in the foot, “They have this mindless policy of everything having to be simultaneously streamed and released, which is obviously an untenable model for theatrical presentation. So they’re not even getting in the game, and I think they’re missing a huge opportunity.”

Now, we’re starting to hear more stories about producers turning down Netflix at film festivals for the exact reason Nolan mentioned. I, Tonya could have gone to Netflix at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. Sarandos certainly had the highest bid. However, not everyone is ready to forego the experience of seeing their movie with audiences in movie theaters. Plus, if timed right the box office boost from significant Oscar nominations can provide greater rewards and, much further down the road, residuals, all of which you piss away by taking Netflix’s cash.

Netflix’s loss was Neon’s gain, as the new distribution company from a former Alamo Drafthouse founder scooped up the rights.

For example, many have argued that if given a normal theatrical release, Mudbound could have made it into the running for Best Picture, Director and all of the acting categories. Emphasis on could because I’m not so sure about the should. Mudbound is great and Mary J. Blige is great in it, but it didn’t make my top 10 list. Is its lack of representation in more categories a Netflix bias or simple reflection that the film doesn’t completely work for everyone?

Additionally, Netflix’s The Meyerowtiz Stories, which was almost as well-reviewed as Mudbound, was completely shut out by the Oscars and just about every other major awards entity. Maybe that failure speaks to timing, Netflix’s lackluster promotion, Dustin Hoffman’s, um, troubles, genuine streaming bias, or simply means Meyerowtiz isn’t good enough despite whatever RottenTomatoes says.

This to say nothing of Boon Joon Ho’s Okja and Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, two prestige plays on Netflix’s part in 2017 which yielded zero awards buzz between the two of them. (Okja at least made the Academy’s shortlist for Best Visual Effects. So, there’s that.)

But two years ago everyone agreed Beasts of No Nation was amazing except for the Oscars. This year, Mudbound couldn’t be denied. Is it only a matter of time before a Netflix movie makes it into the Best Picture race? Amazon beat them to the punch last year with Manchester By the Sea, but Amazon is largely bailing out of the awards contender business. Netflix is happy with Bright and looking to buy off a troubled Cloverfield movie from Paramount. But those are just two movies. Netflix plans on releasing 80 Originals this year, up from 50 last year. Should they scoop something up from a festival or manage to hit big with one of their in-house Originals the door might finally be open for a genuine run at Best Picture.

And if it isn’t, Sarandos will try to kick the door down from within the Academy. He’ll keep trying to be voted onto the Board of Governors. He’s already been nominated to join the Academy’s Executive Branch, where he hopes to change some minds and work his way up the leadership ladder. As he told Vanity Fair, “I think it’s really important to our filmmakers to know that if they’re doing the best work of their life and it turns out to be the best film of the year, that they can compete fairly for that Oscar. The Academy should be celebrating the art of moviemaking in all of its forms, not the art of distribution and what room a movie may or may not be seen in.”

He’s going to have a fight on his hands. Some Academy members have actually proposed changing the rules to disqualify any films which have day-and-date releases, instantly disqualifying any Netflix Originals. Think of it as the “Fuck You, Netflix” rule the same way we call the expansion to 10 Best Picture nominees the “Dark Knight Rule.” Thankfully, this rule isn’t considered likely to ever even come to a vote and is mostly the irate workings of those clinging to the status quo, but it speaks to the amount of pushback Sarandos is still receiving.

Sarandos is quick to point out: fewer traditional studios are making (or acquiring) movies like Mudbound, Okja, Beasts of No Nation, First They Killed My Father and The Meyerowitz Stories. The name of the game isn’t to win awards but to have your movie seen by people. If Netflix bought The Florida Project, for example, maybe it still gets snubbed the way it did at the Oscars this year, but at least it gets seen by more than just 600,000 people.

Now, as the rest of the industry prepares to leverage this year’s Oscar nominations into bigger box office we can all watch Mudbound right now from wherever we are at any time. If Sarandos has his way, we’ll be in the same position next year and a Netflix movie will finally get a Best Picture nomination. Say, isn’t Martin Scorsese’s next movie, The Irishman, coming out on Netflix? Well, not until 2019, but, yeah.

Source: Vanity Fair


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