Amazon vs. Netflix: An Epic Oscar Battle Begins

It's not just about bragging rights as Casey Affleck's 'Manchester by the Sea' and Ava DuVernay's '13th' create a possible turning point for the deep-pocketed streamers to snag their first Academy Award and (even more) studio talent.

What's an awards season without a heated Oscar rivalry? Slugfests like the 1999 struggle between Harvey Weinstein's Shakespeare in Love forces and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan team (Harvey was triumphant) often make for more drama offscreen than on. This year there's a new high-stakes contest as Jeff Bezos' Amazon and Reed Hastings' Netflix, already Emmy players, square off in the Oscar ring.

Netflix recently has staked out a prominent position in the documentary feature category, securing noms for The Square in 2014, Virunga in 2015 and What Happened, Miss Simone? and Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom this year. It made its biggest play in the best picture race with Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation but came up short with the Academy. Amazon also dipped its toe in last year's race with Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, but it too failed to gain Academy traction.

That's not likely to be the case this year, with both streaming services promoting high-profile contenders. Once again, Netflix is zeroing in on feature docs. Topping its list is 13th, in which Ava DuVernay passionately argues that the mass incarceration of black men is a modern-day form of slavery. The film got a splashy start opening the New York Film Festival, and it has plenty of celebrity admirers. "Very important film," Don Cheadle tweeted; added James Franco, "Essential viewing. Changed my life."

While Amazon isn't ceding the doc space to Netflix — it has such titles as Gleason, a heart-tugging account of former NFL player Steve Gleason's battle with ALS — it's making its major push in the feature film categories, where its marquee title is Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, starring a grief-stricken Casey Affleck. Amazon, partnering with Roadside Attractions, picked up the film for $10 million at Sundance, and though it doesn't hit theaters until Nov. 18, it already has earned four Gotham Award nominations.

The two streaming giants have every reason to mount expensive campaigns, since awards attention arguably means more for them than for any of the studios. Spotlight, last year's best picture winner, collected $16 million of its $45 million domestic gross after attracting noms and ultimately the big prize. But its win didn't help other Open Road releases.

Netflix and Amazon aren't so much looking to increase the value of individual films. They hope to convince top filmmakers and stars they can give them lots of awards-season love in order to attract projects that, in turn, will lure subscribers. Netflix, taking a cue from HBO, explained in its last shareholders report: "Earned media coverage and awards … enhance our brand and ability to attract talent for future projects."

Netflix's inability to ensure a real theatrical run led Nate Parker to take The Birth of a Nation to Fox Searchlight this year. So to raise its films' profiles among Academy voters, Netflix recently inked a deal to screen films at the luxury iPic in Westwood. But Amazon may have an edge; it's been ramping up its film team with such indie veterans as Ted Hope and Bob Berney. And, unlike Netflix, it gives its movies a full theatrical release before they migrate online. Says Amazon Studios film chief Jason Ropell, "We're proud to be in the theatrical space and want to make it clear that we're aggressively behind all of our films and our filmmakers." And, of course, an Oscar or two would seal the deal.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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