As Academy Confronts Netflix Question, Streamer Has Many Friends With a Vote

Ted Sarandos - Getty - H 2019
Ore Huiying/Getty Images for Netflix

When the 54-person board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gathers on Tuesday night for its annual April rules meeting, representatives of each of the organization's 17 branches will be invited to present to the full board requests for changes to the Oscar rules ahead of the 92nd Academy Awards. These sorts of proposals, which are almost always rubber-stamped by the full board, typically address things like the number of statuettes that can be presented for a specific award and whether any categories should be consolidated or eliminated.

But the big question this year is whether the board will try to take on Netflix, the booming streaming service that has employed, at one time or another, a huge portion of the industry — including, The Hollywood Reporter can report, roughly a dozen governors — but that also represents, in the eyes of the major movie theater chains, an existential threat to the theatrical moviegoing experience.

Until 2019, the streamer was, to Hollywood's old guard, an annoyance — its narrative films, such as 2015's Beasts of No Nation and 2017's Mudbound, were never top-tier Oscar contenders, and its Oscar wins were limited to best documentary short for The White Helmets in 2017 and best documentary feature for Icarus in 2018. But this year, for the first time, that changed as Roma garnered a field-co-leading 10 Oscar nominations and went on to win three statuettes, including for best director, which means it probably came very close to winning for best picture, too. (Netflix also won a fourth statuette — Period. End of Sentence for best documentary short.)

Considering that Roma is a black-and-white, non-English-language film starring nobody anyone in Hollywood had previously heard of, its success caused some members of the community to panic: What happens, they asked, when the streamer fields — and again campaigns aggressively on behalf of — a more palatable contender, possibly as soon as later this year with Martin Scorsese's The Irishman and Noah Baumbach's not-yet-titled next project? If even the Academy, the very embodiment of the Hollywood establishment, embraces a film that wasn't given a wide theatrical release, then the future of movie theaters could look very bleak.

Enter Steven Spielberg, the filmmaker whose work has attracted more people to movie theaters than any other ever, and also an Academy governor representing the directors branch. Word began getting around that Spielberg felt strongly that something had to be done about "the Netflix problem" — perhaps extending the minimum length of a theatrical release required for best picture Oscar eligibility from one week in a Los Angeles theater to multiple weeks. And suddenly, against all odds, people began rushing to the defense of Netflix, the most improbable damsel in distress imaginable.

Some pointed out that many artistically worthy films are not promoted enough to last in theaters longer than a week or two unless they garner Oscar attention, for which they would now no longer be eligible. Ava DuVernay, whose 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary feature 13th was distributed by Netflix, and whose Central Park Five limited series When They See Us will be released by the streamer on May 31, tweeted that the service, which is available in some 190 countries, enables movies made by filmmakers of color to reach a much wider audience than any traditional release model would. And others noted that the same was true of non-English-language films like Roma and Angelina Jolie's 2017 Khmer-language First They Killed My Father.

Spielberg, not used to coming under fire, scheduled a West Hollywood detente with Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos just days before appearing in Cupertino, California, as a featured partner at Apple's launch of its own streaming service, Apple TV+, on March 25.

On Tuesday night, Lois Burwell, a governor for the makeup and hairstyling branch, the board's first vice president and a frequent Spielberg collaborator, will, as chair of the board's awards rules committee, preside over the portion of the meeting pertaining to awards — but that does not mean that she personally would have to raise the topic of Netflix for it to be discussed. The question is, with Spielberg now apparently hesitant about leading the charge, whether someone else will want to. (Spielberg may not even be able to participate in Tuesday's board meeting, as he is in preproduction on his remake of West Side Story.) That person's identity will inevitably be leaked, and his or her prospects for future employment at Netflix could evaporate, something that might not bother Spielberg, but would probably deter many others.

Moreover, if a measure declaring war on the fastest-growing content creator in town is indeed raised by someone, it is not at all clear that there is sufficient board support to pass it — particularly after Academy CEO Dawn Hudson received a letter from the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division, dated March 21, essentially warning that the Academy should not implement any rule changes that could be interpreted as ganging up on Netflix. The town is divided about whether the DOJ sent the letter at the urging of Netflix or President Donald Trump's administration or some other party; regardless of the motivations for it, or its actual merits (which are legally questionable), some board members are said to be spooked, while others are said to be angry that Netflix may have been a factor in getting the DOJ involved. 

Board votes are recorded electronically, in a way that does not reveal how each member voted, so that governors — there are three representing each branch — can truly vote as they please, not to maintain appearances. And there is reason to believe that a significant number of governors do not have a major problem with Netflix, as they have already done and/or are currently doing business with the streamer.

Take, for instance, the three reps of the executives branch. Jim Gianopulos, the Paramount chief, runs a studio that now makes movies for the streamer under a deal announced last November. Daniel R. Fellman, recently described in The New York Times as "Hollywood’s foremost film distribution expert," was a paid consultant on the Roma campaign. And David Linde, through his company Participant Media, financed Roma and then partnered with Netflix on guiding it through the awards season, and the two companies reteamed at Sundance in January on American Factory, a documentary that could be a top contender this season.

Participant's president of worldwide marketing is Christina Kounelias, the Academy's former chief marketing officer, who currently represents the recently renamed marketing and public relations branch on the board.

Michael Tronick, a governor representing the film editors branch, cut Netflix's 2017 smash-hit film Bright, and now works as a contractor in Netflix's postproduction facility on the Sunset Bronson Studios lot. Directors branch governor Susanne Bier helmed the streamer's 2018 breakout Birdbox. And Reginald Hudlin, one of three governors-at-large appointed to the board to advocate for inclusion, directed The Black Godfather, a documentary feature about Sarandos' father-in-law, music legend Clarence Avant, that will hit the service on June 7.

Production designer Wynn Thomas recently worked on Alex Strangelove, a Netflix dramedy due out June 8, and often works with Spike Lee, who is now in business with the company, too. Larry Karaszewski, a governor for the writers branch, has two scripts (both co-written by his longtime partner Scott Alexander) that are being made into movies there: Craig Brewer's Dolemite Is My Name, starring Eddie Murphy, which is set to begin production June 12; and Shoe Dog, an adaptation of Nike founder Phil Knight's autobiography. And producers branch governor Jennifer Todd is an executive producer on the upcoming Netflix comedy anthology series Green Beret's Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse.

Based on their constituents' feelings about Netflix, and in all likelihood their own, all three governors representing the documentary branch seem like reliable allies of the service, which has played an instrumental role in ushering in a new golden age for docs: Roger Ross Williams, who executive produced the service's 2018 documentary feature The Rachel Divide, as well as Kate Amend and Rory Kennedy.

Even some governors known to be traditionalists — such as outgoing Academy president John Bailey, who represents the cinematographers branch, and who serves on the board alongside his wife, Carol Littleton, a governor representing the film editors branch — may be hesitant about pushing away Netflix. Bailey was known to be a big fan of not only Roma, with its distinct and ultimately Oscar-winning cinematography, but also of The Other Side of the Wind, Orson Welles' long-unfinished final film that Netflix paid to complete.

Others still may have been somewhat placated by the recent news that Netflix is buying Hollywood's historic Egyptian Theatre to serve as a local theatrical hub, and by Netflix's efforts to support the Academy, particularly its still-under-construction Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which is due to open later this year. Netflix made a major contribution to the Academy's museum campaign in 2017, in recognition of which a second-floor space at the museum will be named the Netflix Gallery Terrace, and Sarandos was instrumental in convincing billionaires Haim Saban and Cheryl Saban to pledge the campaign's largest gift yet, $50 million.

Many Netflix employees are active Academy members. Sarandos, a member of the executives branch who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the board in 2017, has worked with the Academy's "future of film" committee, and vp original film Tendo Nagenda and vp indie film and documentary features Lisa Nishimura serve on the Academy's A2020 diversity committee. All are potential candidates for the board when the next election cycle comes around in the summer.

None of this is to suggest that there aren't also governors who have reasons to oppose Netflix — there are. Fox Searchlight co-chief Nancy Utley, who represents the marketing and public relations branch and also serves as a board vice president, now works for Disney, which revealed details of its own forthcoming streaming service, Disney+, on April 11. Michael Giacchino of the music branch frequently works for Disney's Pixar. And actors branch rep Whoopi Goldberg has been known to take issue with Netflix's gathering of information about the viewing habits of its subscribers.

Some governors may also be influenced by the views of high-profile members of the larger film community, such as producer Howard W. "Hawk" Koch, a former Academy board member and president who currently serves on the board of directors for AMC Theatres, one of the major theater chains, which is obviously resistant to Netflix; and the Cannes Film Festival, the next edition of which will kick off May 14, and which is, for the second year in a row, barring Netflix films from its competition because they will not receive a theatrical release in France.

Mark your calendars: The way people consume quality movies, what we consider to be "an Oscar movie" and how Hollywood itself will look in the years to come hinges in part on the direction the board of governors decides to take on Tuesday night.