streaming wars

The Oscars’ Long Road to Embracing Streaming

Photo: Myung Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

CODA’s Best Picture win at the Oscars marked a significant milestone for the little screen. Apple TV+’s victory was the first time a film that debuted on a streaming network won the coveted Best Picture award, despite multimillion-dollar awards campaigns from streaming behemoths like Netflix and Amazon. The 2022 Oscars finally embraced the inevitable, but streamers’ struggle to be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the Academy stretches back to 2016, when Netflix contender Beasts of No Nation appeared to have a real shot at snagging a nomination but was snubbed. Over the years, other buzzy streaming films, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (also from Netflix), racked up nominations across the board, including one for Best Picture, but missed out on the top prize. CODA’s win represents a symbolic shift in the Academy’s attitude. Below, we break down the timeline of the Oscars’ strained relationship with streaming.

Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation receives zero nominations despite critical praise and a celebrated festival run (the movie won the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the Venice International Film Festival). Many point to the snub — especially of Idris Elba’s tear-jerking performance as a warrior demagogue — as an example of the Academy’s exclusion of minority artists and films.

This time, the streamers nab at least a few nominations: Amazon leads with seven, while Netflix reels in two. The ceremony brings them the first-ever Oscars in any category for streaming platforms. Amazon claims a Best Original Screenplay award for Manchester by the Sea and Best Actor for Casey Affleck, along with Best Foreign Language Film for The Salesman. Netflix, meanwhile, wins Best Documentary Short for The White Helmets.

After the previous year’s victories, Steven Spielberg declares war. The director announces that Netflix movies don’t deserve Oscars. “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” Spielberg tells ITV News. “You certainly, if it’s a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar.” (Spielberg would later walk back his anti-Netflix rallying cry when he assured the New York Times that he wants “people to find their entertainment in any form or fashion that suits them,” while still championing the survival of movie theaters.)

Even so, Netflix’s Mudbound impresses the Academy, meriting consideration in categories including Best Original Song, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. Four more Netflix films make the cut for nominations too: Heroin(e) is considered for Best Short Documentary, On Body and Soul for Best Foreign Language Film, and Icarus and Strong Island both compete for Best Documentary Feature. Oscar voters, meanwhile, continue to ponder what really constitutes a movie. The Academy considers a new rule that will bar contestants from “double dipping” by submitting to both the Emmys and the Oscars. As one Oscar voter and veteran awards campaign strategist puts it, “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?”

Netflix allegedly spends far more than Roma’s $15 million production budget (between $40 million and $60 million, by some strategists’ estimations) to campaign for a Best Picture win for Cuarón’s black-and-white drama about an indigenous housekeeper. Still, Green Book — a film that teeters the line between digestibility and regressive politics — prevails over Roma.

Spielberg reportedly plans to propose a rule change at the Academy’s Board of Governors meeting that would bar streaming networks from competing for an Oscar. After catching wind of his plans, the Department of Justice puts its foot down. “In the event that the Academy — an association that includes multiple competitors in its membership — establishes certain eligibility requirements for the Oscars that eliminate competition without pro-competitive justification, such conduct may raise antitrust concerns,” writes Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division Makan Delrahim. In the end, the Academy does not approve the streaming-related rule change, clearing the path for streamers to continue campaigning for their statuettes.

This time, Netflix sets its sights on the Best Animated Feature Film category with two contenders: the Kurt Russell–starring Santa Claus origin story, Klaus, and an ode to a severed hand traversing the streets of Paris called I Lost My Body. Both lose out to Toy Story 4. Netflix’s other nominees don’t fare much better. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman competes along with Marriage Story for Best Picture, but strikes out with ten nominations and zero wins. (Marriage Story’s Laura Dern, at least, does take home the Best Supporting Actress statuette.)

In a Los Angeles Times piece titled “What Will It Take for Netflix to Win a Best Picture Oscar?,” Hollywood executives estimate that Netflix dropped around $70 million to promote this season’s Best Picture contenders, with only two trophies to show for it out of a total of 24 nominations. Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos tries to put a sunny spin on it for the paper: “It’s exciting that we end up with being the most nominated studio at the Oscars this year with our films. But the most exciting thing is those films are all incredibly popular with our members as well.”

The tide begins to turn. Streamers gain a clear advantage in a year when studios and theaters suffer from the impact of COVID-19. Netflix leads the competition with a whopping 35 nominations, while Amazon trails with 12. On the big night, Netflix walks away with seven trophies, practically doubling its preexisting tally. Best Picture, once again, eludes the streamer (it goes to Nomadland). But the fact that Netflix and Amazon each swung more nods than some traditional studios (Warner Bros., for instance, managed only eight) marks a noticeable change in attitude toward streaming.

Apple TV+’s CODA and Netflix’s The Power of the Dog go head-to-head for Best Picture; POTD leads with total 12 nominations, while CODA nabs 3. Even before the night gets started — and long before Will Smith slaps Chris Rock live on TV — predictions point to the streamers likely winning big. And indeed, the trophies come through on Oscar night: CODA’s Troy Kotsur presents an emotional sign-language acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor, and Power of the Dog auteur Jane Campion sticks to the script and accepts Best Director. And in the final moments of a tumultuous night, CODA defies the statistical odds and wins the top prize: Best Picture.

The streaming wars between major players Amazon, Netflix, Apple, and Disney will only amp up in the next few years as they aim for awards-season prestige (and a boost for their short-term stock). It seems that streaming does have a future at the Oscars — and perhaps an illustrious one at that.

The Oscars’ Long Road to Embracing Streaming