Academy Prepping Service to Stream Best Picture Oscar Hopefuls for Voters (Exclusive)

Best Picture Oscar Statue - Getty - H 2018
Matt Sayles/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences mulls changing its Oscar season rules to make it harder for streaming services like Netflix to compete, it is developing a streaming service of its own that would enable distributors to stream their own best picture Oscar hopefuls to voters, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

The matter was the hot topic of discussion at an April 11 meeting at Academy headquarters — an annual post-Oscars debriefing on the season that was and discussion about the season to come — that drew several dozen publicists who work on Oscar campaigns each year, including top awards strategists representing all of the major studios and PR companies. Among them: Tony Angellotti (Universal/Pixar); Justin Balsamo (Focus Features); Kira Feola (Disney); Laura Kim, Melody Korenbrot (Sony Classics); Leanne McClaflin (Amazon); Russell Nelson (Paramount); Danni Pearlberg (Sony); Michele Robertson; Jerry Schmitz (DreamWorks); Cynthia Swartz; Lisa Taback (Netflix); Jason Wilk (Bleecker Street); and Lea Yardum.

The meeting, which was advertised as an "Awards Screeners Meeting" and packed the seventh floor boardroom, was presided over by Academy officials representing its member relations and awards departments. "They were very open to hearing everybody's feedback," says one of the strategists who was in the room, "and when you get that many [strategists] in a room, believe me, there’s a lot of it!"

The Academy's representatives sought feedback about the publicists' experience using the screener mailing houses through which the Academy, beginning last season, now requires all member outreach to go — collecting a middle-man fee, of course. But the conversation soon turned to another service that the Academy is planning to unveil which, also at a cost, might make it likelier for Oscar voters to check out a film.

It turns out the Academy is working on expanding the streaming platform that it has offered its members in recent years — which made available, via the Academy's website, animated films for the animation committee prior to the nominations announcement, and documentaries and short films to all members afterwards, all without charging distributors — to include any best picture Oscar contender that a studio wishes to promote at a cost of $10,000 to $15,000 per title.

As is already the case with the animated, doc and short films, these additional titles would be posted by studios to the Academy's site — which allows visuals to be mirrored from a computer screen to a smart-TV — or, eventually, an actual app that could be downloaded to an Apple TV or Roku device. It would then be up to a participating studio to decide when a title begins or ends streaming. (A studio like Warner Bros. might want to try to encourage voters to see a film like Dunkirk on the big screen by holding off posting it on the streaming service until late in the season.)

Some studios already offer Academy members the option of streaming Oscar hopefuls via their own websites that they have paid to set up with vendors, such as Vision and Deluxe. But, it was clear at the Academy meeting, most studios would — in addition to or instead of their own streaming service — opt to participate in an Academy-sanctioned one, which would undoubtedly be promoted to and be used by far more members.

One strategist did protest that the price-point should be closer to $6,000, which she said was what it costs to stream a show through the TV Academy's service. And undoubtedly some questions still need to be answered. Could digital screeners be individually watermarked to deter piracy? Would indies — or studios that want to stream multiple titles on the service — receive a discount? And the list goes on. Still, these are details that the Academy believes it can work out in time to have its service up and running as soon as this fall.

"The Academy encourages the theatrical experience for all films," the organization said in a statement to THR. "We are exploring streaming as another option, along with DVD screeners, for distributors to share their films with Academy members around the world who might not have theatrical access to every film being considered."

"Ultimately, we're moving toward an all-digital-screener world," says a strategist who attended the meeting. "The TV Academy is already there. It's greener. There’s less of a carbon footprint. There's less of a piracy risk. In theory, everybody feels like it's a good idea. In practice, it becomes a little more difficult."