Oscar Contenders Worry Screening by Streaming Does Their Films an Injustice

The Streaming Oscars Are Here, But What’s Been Lost? Illustration by Jasper Rietman
Illustration by Jasper Rietman

With theaters shuttered, voters have started watching this year's awards contenders online, but filmmakers worry at-home distractions and laptop viewing could diminish the impact of movies — and influence voting choices.

Back in the now-halcyon days of October 2019, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unveiled a revamped streaming service so that its members — an increasingly far-flung group, as more and more international filmmakers have been recruited to join — would have easy access to Oscar contenders without having to search out official screenings or even venture into actual movie theaters. The so-called Academy Screening Room, available to members via the Academy's own website as well as an app for fourth-generation Apple TV devices, was up and running.

Of course the Academy still paid lip service to the importance of seeing movies on the big screen, saying, "We encourage you to view as many films as possible during their theatrical release," as well as at official screenings hosted in Los Angeles, New York, the Bay Area and London. But in opting for a vigorous streaming alternative, the Academy recognized the fact that ever since the mid-'80s, when VHS screeners were introduced — later followed by DVDs and Blu-rays — lots of voters have been opting to catch up with movies in the comfort of their homes.

But streaming, which was considered a convenience last awards season, has now become a necessity as COVID-19 stay-at-home orders have shuttered movie theaters in key Academy enclaves like Southern California, New York City and London. And as more and more distributors cut back on the expense of sending out thousands of DVDs — making a film available at the Academy Screening Room costs just $12,500 per title — streaming has effectively become the biggest game in town.

Not everyone is eagerly embracing this season's Streaming Oscars, though.

Complaining on Facebook, writer-director Paul Schrader wrote, "Dear Academy: Send me DVDs and I will watch them. Send me links [to online screeners] and they disappear into the vast catalogue of streaming links that may or may not be seen."

Renée Missel, a member of the producers branch, says that while she liked her stack of screeners in the past — it made it easy to keep track of what needed to be seen — she's been using the Academy app, noting that "it's a shift, but I'm forcing myself not to use screeners because this will be their last year."

For some of the Academy's branches — particularly the more technically oriented ones devoted to cinematography and sound — streaming raises other questions. How many voters' home systems, no matter how high-end, are calibrated to match the best movie theater standards?

Having already made peace with the fact that lots of voters have relied on DVDs, some are taking the streaming in stride. Says Stephen Lighthill, president of the American Society of Cinematographers, "We assume people are professional and can make an evaluation." Of course, he cautions, that presumes a voter has "a reasonable home system." If voters are also watching movies on laptops — or, yikes, cellphones — that's another issue altogether.

Adds another member of the cinematographers branch, "It's always better to see something big, as it was intended." Plus, in movie theaters, viewers can easily keep their attention on the image in front of them. At home, there are inevitably distractions that pull focus from the screen.

Several sound branch members queried were more concerned about how their particular category could be fairly judged. Says one: "People aren't going to be able to hear it in the environment that it was intended for. Most people don't have playback systems for sound that do justice to the work that has been created. What makes film unique from streaming mediums is the audio playback in theaters — whether its Atmos, 7.1 or 5.1 — the sonic experience is very different than what most people will experience at home." As for portable options such as iPads, "at best you will hear it through headphones or speaker [on the device]. Either way, that's not the artistic intent."

And, finally, there's a consideration that's even harder to quantify: Most of this season's crop of Oscar hopefuls are modestly budgeted and sized productions because most of the studios postponed their biggest 2020 movies to 2021 release dates. They will be competing for attention in today's new streaming environment, where viewers have been conditioned to happily binge on lavishly mounted, multi­part series like The Crown. They risk paling in comparison.

Conscientious Academy voters may well check out episodically structured movies like Armando Iannucci's 119-minute The Personal History of David Copperfield or Paul Greengrass' 118-minute News of the World, but after those two hours are up, are they going to feel cheated when there isn't an up-next episode to immediately click on? Unable to move on to a new chapter, are they going to lament, à la Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is?"

A haunting film like Chloé Zhao's Nomadland may still cast a lingering spell. But it also asks that its audience spend time pondering what they've just seen. And the overstuffed streaming world doesn't encourage such reflective downtime. Instead, there's always something new popping up onscreen, begging for attention. Films, when reduced to mere time-filling "content," lose some of their force.

Theoretically, a strong movie should be able to retain its impact even when seen in the living room rather than the Academy's well-appointed Samuel Goldwyn Theater. But even so, something will still be missing — the buzz of a satisfied audience happily filing out into the lobby, the excited chatter that takes place on the sidewalk afterward as engaged moviegoers trade opinions, the more leisurely conversations that take place over a post-screening coffee or drinks. That's one way a movie establishes awards cred — but it won't be part of the equation this year.

Sure, you can always text a friend: "You surviving? What are you watching? What did you think?" But as we all adjust to the Streaming Oscars, the afterglow of a really good movie could be sadly short-lived.