Netflix changed the calculus of the Oscars last month by nabbing a precedent-setting, “historic” eight Academy Award nominations: four of them for the Deep South race-relations drama Mudbound and four more across the documentary and foreign film categories. Finally, industry observers were quick to proclaim, the deep-pocketed content company had triumphed over deep suspicion — antipathy, really — surrounding its disruption of movie business as usual, and been invited to Hollywood’s cool-kids table.
But in the final lead-up to Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, a groundswell of Oscars voters contacted by Vulture say they have come to view the films’ Netflix affiliation as a kind of toxic liability. Some decry the streaming service’s inexperience with running an awards campaign, pointing to missed opportunities that could have yielded more honors — particularly for Mudbound — in marquee categories. And at a more macro level, Netflix’s nominations haul has led to a wider conversation among AMPAS members that could lead to sweeping changes in Oscars qualification rules that may be implemented as soon as next year.
At the heart of this is an existential question: If Netflix films are getting the nod, what actually constitutes a movie these days — and what is just TV? “There has been a formal process initiated by the Academy this year to look into this very topic; also there has been lots of discussion among members at parties and screenings,” says one Oscars voter, who is also a veteran awards campaign strategist. “We are the Motion Picture Academy. We’re not the Television Academy. We’re not the Entertainment Academy! So who do we vote for? What do we stand for? Why are we here?”
Earlier this week, this Netflix effect spilled over into public view with the news (broken by The Hollywood Reporter) that a new rule under consideration at the highest echelons of the Academy would force awards submitters to “pick their pathway” between the Emmys and the Oscars. A nomination for one award would effectively disqualify filmmakers and producers from submitting entries for the other — a kind of Sophie’s Choice between being honored as a movie or as TV but not both (as Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th and the Liz Garbus music doc What Happened, Miss Simone? did in recent years), lest the Academy take the unprecedented step of stripping the film of its Oscar nomination. The “double-dipping” restriction could reportedly take effect as soon as next awards season.
But to hear it from some Oscar voters, the more substantial problem may be Netflix’s red-and-white letterbox branding, which has come to conjure, in some viewers, troubling associations with the company’s tactical — some would say “token” — theatrical releases. Netflix typically puts its original films in theaters for just a few days to qualify for awards, or to meet the contractual demands of a filmmaker. And over the last few years, the streaming service has butted heads with theater owners for releasing movies online and at the multiplex simultaneously, thereby eroding ticket sales and undercutting the theatrical moviegoing experience, exhibitors say. “Netflix has a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films,” Christopher Nolan told IndieWire in July. “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.”
The knock-on effect? Although Mudbound collected nominations for best adapted screenplay, best original song, best cinematographer (Rachel Morrison, the first woman ever to be honored in the category), and a best supporting actress nod for Mary J. Blige, director Dee Rees was excluded from her category and Mudbound did not go on to rank among the best picture nominees. “I feel like if that film didn’t have a big Netflix logo, it could have been on this list,” says a member of the Academy’s documentary branch. “I’ll tell you, there is something about when you see a big Netflix logo in front of [a film]. It doesn’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy.”
According to another Academy member from the PR branch, Mudbound’s shutout in the best director and best picture categories underscores certain rookie mistakes in Netflix’s awards campaign. Specifically, in an era when dialogue surrounding the #MeToo movement has swept the culture, just two years removed from the controversies surrounding #OscarsSoWhite, the streaming service could have more strongly emphasized the film’s behind-the-camera team — a group of women that includes editor Mako Kamitsuna, composer Tamar-kali and sound engineer Pud Cusack. “They didn’t, in my opinion, capitalize on the department heads Dee Rees put together,” this member says. “This is a group of females! This is the year of the woman! You would not find a more perfect year for that story to be told. It was done a little bit, but not as much you could have done. I would have done a special photo shoot and [electronic press kit] spots. Not only is she a female director but a female director of color. Even though you want the film to be judged on its own merit, it does matter — especially in a year like this.”
For his part, Deadline columnist/Academy member Peter Bart has said he plans to vote against Netflix’s nominees in part to deny the digital giant — which spent $6.3 billion on acquiring and creating content last year — the kind of Hollywood bragging rights it has so hotly pursued. “Do I want a Netflix project to win an Oscar? My answer: not really. Sure, Netflix has proved it can muscle into any domain it wishes to, but I don’t want it to muscle into the Oscars,” Bart wrote in an online point-counterpoint argument with film writer Mike Fleming. “I want to keep theaters around. Also the moviegoing experience. And I don’t want to see Netflix’s streaming universe get rewarded with Oscars based on a symbolic one-week theater opening.”
Toward that end, the Academy is said to be exploring changes to its Oscars-qualifying theatrical release requirements. “The standards set by the Academy are pretty low,” says our first Oscar voter. “It has to be in one theater in L.A. or New York for a week. Anything can qualify, practically. They could require that the theatrical release be much more substantial. Many markets, many theaters, more money invested.”
While this member says he encountered no shortage of Netflix-bashing throughout awards season this year, he adds that most of AMPAS’s rank and file seem resigned to the fact the streaming service has established itself as a serious Oscars contender and will likely continue to be for years to come. “A lot of people are concerned about it. But most people throw up their hands and say, ‘This is the world we live in,’” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s like swimming away from a tidal wave; you can’t do it no matter how strong you are.”