No one living on planet Earth in 2018 could reasonably question Netflix's primacy in the world of prestige TV. But recently, the streaming behemoth has increasingly sought to expand its purview into the world of feature films. And this past week, that mission has faced some serious setbacks.
On Friday, the artistic director for the Cannes Film Festival announced that Netflix movies would no longer be allowed to compete for the Palme D'Or, making 2017 the first and only year that Netflix was included in the prestigious lineup. Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories were both allowed to screen at the festival last year, though the decision was controversial, and sparked threats of boycotts and protests from French film unions, and filmmakers. The reason given for the change in the rules had to do with Netflix's refusal to release its movies in conventional theatrical wide-release, instead opting to have them available to stream with some token theater showings.
That news was followed by Steven Spielberg's statement on Monday that he doesn't think Netflix movies should qualify for the Academy Awards. "Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie," the director told ITV News, adding, "I don’t believe that films that are given token qualifications, in a couple of theaters for less than a week, should qualify for the Academy Award nomination."
This year's ceremony marked the first time that a streaming movie was recognized by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in a major category, with Dee Rees' Mudbound earning nods for Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Achievements in Cinematography and Best Original Song.
On the surface, Spielberg's statement appears outdated, a relic of a time when the only option most viewers had to see a film was to go to a theater, or wait for it to show up at Blockbuster. But while I disagree with the idea that a film has to be seen on the big screen to qualify as the real thing, his words to bring up some interesting issues for the future of cinema. Even though Mudbound did break four records with its Oscar nominations, it failed to win in any of the categories, and was snubbed in others.
Rees' film was a gorgeously shot, gripping look at race relations in the South in the aftermath of World War II, deftly directed to reflect issues that we still very much grapple with today. Its premiere at Sundance in January 2017 was critically acclaimed, and Netflix's $12.5 million purchase was the biggest sale made at the festival that year. Given the hype, and the fact that the movie itself was so deserving, it should have been nominated for Best Director, as well as Best Picture.
But the film was overlooked, partly because it only screened in 17 theaters nationally, along with its streaming release in November, usually prime awards release season. Similarly, Baumbach's Meyerowitz Stories — which, with big names like Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, and Emma Thompson, should have been an easy pick for at least one of the acting categories — was only released in 10 markets. Neither film got the kind of massive marketing push usually expected from major awards contenders (even Get Out, this year's awards underdog, played the game in that respect).
It's certainly possible that as Netflix becomes a more prominent player in film distribution, that the rules of engagement will change when it comes to what gets considered at the Oscars. Certainly, the Academy itself, once a bastion of old white male traditionalism, is changing to include more diverse and younger perspectives. 2017 marked the biggest class ever admitted, with a significant percentages of women and people of color in the mix. As time goes on, those voters will be more likely to check out films that would never have occurred to their predecessors. Get Out's four nominations (including Jordan Peele for Best Director) suggests that this shift is already taking place. But until then, Netflix needs to do a better job of promoting those projects that it purchases.
Movies that stream on our televisions and computers still carry that stigma of the "TV movie" that Spielberg so derisively mentioned. The words bring to mind Lifetime movies with no name actors, bad writing, and low budgets. You can pause them to make a sandwich, or watch them in the background at work. But many of the films Netflix is now distributing and funding are backed with star power, and filmmaking credibility. These are films that were made to be seen, and they deserve better.
The news that Netflix is planning to release at least 80 original films in 2018 (with a total budget ranging from $7 to $8 billion, up from $6 billion last year) just makes this all the more relevant. In February, the company bought the worldwide rights to Martin Scorsese's $100 million gangster film The Irishman, announcing a 2019 release. It'll be interesting to see how Netflix handles that project, which by all rights should be a major movie event, both at the box office, and come awards season. I mean, Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel and Al Pacino? Not even Spielberg can argue with that one.
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