Have the Oscars Finally Accepted the Streaming Reality?

The Best Picture-nominated Coda, which streamed on Apple TV+. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Aplle TV+

For the longest time, Academy Awards voters seemed to look at Netflix movies much the way the high-society snobs on HBO’s The Gilded Age regard Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector’s characters on the show: nouveau riche interlopers whose money can buy recognition but never full acceptance. Even though films such as Roma and The Irishman garnered a lot of nominations, as well as a few marquee wins, until recently industry trades were filled with stories speculating about whether anti-streaming bias from the dinosaurs of the business may have cost those movies even more accolades, including Best Picture. But after streaming’s showing in this year’s nominations, those days sure seem to be over.

As my colleague (and Vulture’s resident Oscars guru) Nate Jones noted yesterday when we Slacked about this topic, half of the Best Picture nominees this year had streaming-centric rollouts, with two hailing from Netflix, two debuting on HBO Max the same day as theaters, and one landing first on Apple TV+. This wasn’t the first time streaming movies shone in the nominations: Last year, five of the eight Best Picture film noms were also streaming-centric. But at the time, that outcome was mostly chalked up to the reality that very few movies opened in theaters in 2020 due to the pandemic. By contrast, there was no shortage of exclusively theatrical movies to choose from this season, and yet the Academy still embraced streaming movies with gusto, both in the Best Picture race and in many other acting categories. “Last year the Academy basically declared a truce on the streaming/theatrical war,” Jones told me. “And this year, it seems like streaming may have ‘won the peace.’”

I am the opposite of an expert when it comes to decoding the mysteries of awards voters (including those on the TV side, to be honest). I don’t know if the majority of Academy members ever really had as much of an issue with Netflix and other streaming services as some of its most high-profile members, such as Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg. But I do think the last two years of nominations, even with the asterisk of the pandemic, point to voters giving in to the reality that the types of movies most likely to get Oscars — serious, adult-oriented, and often geared toward somewhat niche audiences  — are now most likely to be financed and distributed by streamers. Ignoring movies because they only screen in cinemas for a few weeks (or not at all) has become almost impossible.

Jones isn’t quite as willing as I am to call the race in favor of streaming, at least not yet. Going forward, assuming older adults (read: Oscar voters) feel more comfortable returning to theaters, “there are two ways it could go,” he says. “One, they could make a stand for the theatrical experience, which might entail doing more to push for recognition for the films that do get people out to theaters, like Spider-Man: No Way Home. Or two, they could accept that streaming is just where their audience lives now and meet them where they are, which is what seemed like happened this year.”

We’ll see how the next few years unfold, but it’s hard to imagine the Academy will embrace populist movies in order to keep on punishing Netflix and other streamers for the perceived sin of “destroying cinema.” Plus, with legacy movie studios like Warner Bros., Universal, and Paramount all now actively getting into the business of making films for their parent companies’ respective streaming services, an increasingly higher percentage of eligible Oscar voters will start seeing their own works stream instead of screen. In order to snub steamers, they’d have to snub themselves, and in an egocentric town like Hollywood, that’s simply never gonna happen.

The Book of Chapek

Encanto found a wide audience when it moved to Disney+. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by Walt Disney Studios

In the wake of Netflix’s devastatingly disappointing fourth-quarter earnings report last month, streaming skeptics rushed to declare vindication for their belief that maybe, actually, the direct-to-consumer business is a bad one. So, um, that notion didn’t age well: Disney yesterday said its subscription business boomed during the final three months of 2021, with Disney+ adding 11.8 million net subscribers to end the year just shy of 130 million global customers. That was well above forecasts, and more importantly, meant D+ was able to grow its base by a healthy 37 percent versus 2020. At least for now, the existential crisis some were predicting for streaming only seems to apply to Netflix (and even those fears have been dramatically overblown.)

To be sure, Disney’s top-line number for D+ wasn’t quite as impressive when you look a bit deeper. For one thing, about one-quarter of the D+ gains came from the roughly 3 million Hulu With Live TV customers who were given “free” access to Disney+ and ESPN+ at the end of last year (as part of an overall price hike for the live TV service). And while Disney+’s revenue per subscriber bounced back a bit from where it had been in the previous reporting period, it still remains well below what Netflix and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max pull in. Overall, however, D+ appears to be humming along quite nicely, registering strong growth and well on its way toward meeting the company’s stated goal of between 230 million and 260 million subscribers by the end of its 2024 fiscal year.

To reach that target, Disney CEO Bob Chapek continues to drop hints that Disney+ may one day incorporate Hulu into its content offering, allowing it to reach a broader audience with less family-friendly fare. That’s already how the company does things outside the U.S., where almost everything now on Hulu (and then some) is found on Disney+. Disney has kept the two platforms separate in part because of a preexisting relationship with Comcast, which technically remains a silent partner in Hulu but has agreed to sell its full stake in the service back to Disney by 2024. Once that divestment takes place, it may make more sense for Disney to evolve the current Disney Bundle offering (D+/Hulu/ESPN+) into something more simplified.

While Chapek didn’t say anything specific about a merger of his platforms, he did say D+ would continue to widen its focus toward more general entertainment offerings that fall outside the service’s existing brand-centric verticals such as Star Wars, Marvel, and National Geographic. He noted that a trio of ABC sitcoms currently on Hulu — grown-ishblack-ish, and the rebooted The Wonder Years — have just been added to Disney+, too. (The streamer also is now offering the Hulu-produced, Oscar-nominated documentary feature Summer of Soul and on Tuesday carried a livestream of ABC’s Oscar nominations announcement show– the first live presentation in Disney+ history, by the way.)

During his chat with investors, Chapek also reaffirmed Disney’s willingness to shrink or eliminate the window between when feature films run in theaters and hit its streaming services. Noting that Encanto (and its soundtrack) experienced a massive surge in popularity when the movie debuted on Disney+ barely a month after opening in cinemas, Chapek said the company will continue to use its digital TV assets as the starting point for creating new creative worlds and expanding existing ones. “We do not subscribe to the belief that theatrical is the only way to build a Disney franchise,” he told analysts. I’m sure theater owners were not thrilled to hear the man who oversees Marvel and Star Wars talking like that, but you don’t have to be any sort of expert to grasp that streaming is now the central engine of Disney’s profit machine. And right now, that engine is humming along quite nicely.

Remember Seeso?

This summer will mark five years since NBCUniversal said see ya to Seeso, its short-lived speciality streamer devoted to comedy. If you haven’t already done so, make sure to make some time ASAP to read the excellent oral history of the platform published Wednesday on Vulture. As Will Storey’s reporting makes clear, Seeso was pretty much doomed from the start: NBCU and parent Comcast never really committed the resources needed to make it work — but even if they had, it’s not clear there was a streaming infrastructure or marketplace mature enough to support such a niche product.

Back in 2016 and 2017, cord-cutting was still a relative novelty and consumers were just starting to embrace the idea of subscribing to multiple streaming services and expecting high-quality original content from all of them. It was clear where things were headed then, which is why the NBCU and Comcast folks decided to jump into the game. What didn’t make sense, even at the time, was starting off with a service geared not just toward a niche (comedy) but a niche within a niche (comedy for comedy nerds). It would be as if 40 years ago, Viacom had decided to launch a cable channel for college kids into alternative rock (aka MTVU) before starting MTV — and then expected consumers to pay extra for that one network rather than offering it as part of their existing cable service.

If all NBCU and Comcast had wanted to do was figure out a quick way to dip a toe into streaming, they’d have been better served making Seeso a far less ambitious library play and maybe one fully supported by advertising. A service with the SNL library and some movies and TV shows from the existing Universal catalog would’ve cost far less and given the conglomerate a chance to build a direct-to-consumer base. Then, as cord-cutting took off, perhaps Seeso could have moved into original content. Or, as seems more likely, the Seeso brand and subscriber base simply could have evolved into Peacock once Comcast joined its other legacy media peers in realizing they needed a general-interest super-streamer to compete with Netflix. That’s pretty much what happened with CBS All Access: Launched in 2014, it was never cool or sexy, but it ended up being a very smart placeholder for VicacomCBS’s more full-throated pivot to streaming with Paramount+. Peacock would probably be much further along in its evolution had Comcast chosen a more conventional entry into streaming.

Have the Oscars Finally Accepted the Streaming Reality?