For the past several years, pundits who forecast the Oscar race have scanned their crystal balls and attempted to divine the number of Netflix exclusives likely to collect Best Picture nods. So far, three movies have succeeded: “Roma” in 2019, then “Marriage Story” and “The Irishman” in 2020. None won, but their inclusion signaled that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had overcome the reluctance it once showed in granting streaming titles the same dignity afforded to theatrical releases. In fact, when the most recent round of nominations was announced in January, Netflix earned more than any old-school studio.
The trend continues. Immediately after “Mank,” a dense biopic about “Citizen Kane” scribe Herman Mankiewicz, screened for press virtually on Thursday, The New York Times pondered whether it’s destined to be “Netflix’s first Best Picture winner.” Deadline said, “We can thank ‘Mank’ for just igniting this year’s weird Oscar race.”
It was always inevitable that Netflix’s awards tally would tick upward. The same goes for Hulu, Amazon and their myriad competitors. With Hollywood’s traditional studios prioritizing big-budget franchises that don’t appeal to prestige sensibilities, streaming platforms are becoming go-to vessels for the original, star-driven films that attract Oscar esteem.
Still, I don’t think many anticipated the swift ascent these companies will see as the current derby unfolds. When the nominations are announced on March 15, there’s a decent chance that more than half of the available slots will belong to streaming services.
At first glance, maybe we can attribute that shift to the ongoing pandemic, which has delayed many movies until at least 2021 in hopes that multiplexes can function without COVID-19 restrictions. Academy Award bylaws normally require a one-week commercial theatrical run for a film to qualify, meaning Netflix had to secure exhibition from independent venues. But because of the pandemic, the academy has temporarily deemed streaming exclusives eligible without a big-screen bow. (As of now, that stipulation is set to expire when theaters across the country reopen.)
While it’s true there have been fewer theatrical releases during this highly abnormal season, streaming outlets were already bankrolling plenty of top-tier contenders before any bylaws got amended. Despite what the coronavirus has wrought, Netflix and its ilk were almost guaranteed to make off with more nominations than ever before. Even newcomers like Apple TV+ and Disney+ have ponies in the race.
Netflix boasts five indisputable Best Picture candidates, each with a starry cast and a celebrated director: David Fincher’s aforementioned “Mank,” Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” George C. Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy.”
The streaming service could collect additional accolades for the relationship weeper “Pieces of a Woman” (featuring Vanessa Kirby, Shia LaBeouf and Ellen Burstyn), the immigrant drama “The Life Ahead” (Sophia Loren), the sugary Broadway adaptation “The Prom” (Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman) and the arty psychodrama “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette and a script by “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” champ Charlie Kaufman). Sight unseen, it’s unclear whether “The Midnight Sky” — an apocalyptic sci-fi thriller directed by and starring George Clooney — is a viable Oscar player or more of a “Bird Box”-style crowd-pleaser.
Netflix first proved its Oscar bona fides in the documentary field, garnering its inaugural nomination for 2013’s “The Square,” a chronicle of Egypt’s sociopolitical uprising. (This year, “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution,” “Dick Johnson Is Dead” and “Athlete A” are poised to keep Netflix’s documentary momentum alive.) Throughout the early 2010s, common wisdom within the industry suggested that academy voters were unwilling to glorify Netflix — an ever-growing threat to the theatrical marketplace — in the prestigious acting, directing, and screenplay categories, and especially not Best Picture.
With time, what seemed like a long road to parity became more like a short turnpike. Netflix found creative ways to give its movies brief theatrical stints, and its rivals followed suit. Netflix hired experienced awards-season publicists to steer multimillion-dollar campaigns. Hulu did the same. In 2018, the World War II-era racial drama “Mudbound” cracked Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay, confirming that a new era had begun. The following year, the sensitive black-and-white memoir “Roma” made the Best Picture roster despite a contentious rollout; its beloved maestro, Alfonso Cuarón, won Best Director. More recently, Netflix notched the ultimate distribution workaround by purchasing famed theaters in New York City and Los Angeles.
Come March, Netflix may monopolize the Best Picture shortlist, which contains between five and 10 nominees.
At least one other slot will almost surely belong to Regina King’s well-received directorial debut “One Night in Miami,” which Amazon Studios acquired back in July. Bursting with historical import, “Miami” depicts the friendship among Malcolm X (portrayed by Kingsley Ben-Adir), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) as the quartet convene on an evening in 1964.
Additional Amazon contenders include “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” the Rachel Brosnahan crime caper “I’m Your Woman,” the political documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy” and the poignant prison-system documentary “Time.” Riz Ahmed could land a Best Actor nod for his committed performance as a sober drummer losing his hearing in “Sound of Metal,” which Amazon acquired at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Hulu, meanwhile, has the popular “Groundhog Day” riff “Palm Springs,” which might hit a home run at the Golden Globes and in the Oscars’ comedy-friendly screenplay province. “I Am Greta,” a forthcoming profile of the young climate-change activist Greta Thunberg, seems like an obvious challenger in the stacked Best Documentary Feature contest.
Chatter about the streaming ascendance has, in previous years, focused on Hulu, Amazon and Netflix, but we now have more sources to take into account. Disney+, which is less than a year old, announced in October that Pixar’s “Soul” will forgo domestic theaters and premiere digitally on Christmas Day. That’s a big deal, given Pixar’s impressive track record at the box office. “Soul” would mark the animation subsidiary’s third Best Picture nomination (the others are “Up” and “Toy Story 3”) and lend Disney+ significant awards-season credentials right out the gate.
Apple TV+, which also launched last year, has “On the Rocks,” one of the first films in its partnership with trendy indie studio A24. The melancholic father-daughter comedy could earn nods for Bill Murray and writer/director Sofia Coppola, whose 2003 gem “Lost in Translation” won her Best Original Screenplay. That same corporate partnership also resulted in the masterful documentary “Boys State,” acquired for a hefty sum at Sundance in January.
Even HBO Max, launched in May, could crack the nominations thanks to “On the Record,” a controversial exposé about hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons’ alleged sexual misconduct that other companies opted not to purchase after its Sundance premiere.
All told, streaming services’ inroads in the Oscar ecosystem set a precedent that’s likely to linger after theaters resume business as usual. Returning to our non-coronavirus normal isn’t imminent, and this is one of many “new normals” that will inform the future awaiting us on the other side.
An industry accustomed to debating the health of the theatrical business model will now face a season dominated by the disruptors it once protested. There are, of course, traditional pacesetters in the conversation, too, namely Searchlight Pictures’ “Nomadland,” Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Father” and “French Exit,” A24’s “Minari,” Focus Features’ “Promising Young Woman” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” and Warner Bros.’ “Tenet.” But going forward, the academy will have a harder time limiting the streaming proliferation as more and more consumers associate these newer platforms with distinguished entertainment. What was once a question mark is now a reality.