Oscars: In the Best Picture Race, Is Netflix Still Its Own Obstacle?

THR - oscar party illustration by Mark Matcho - H 2020
Mark Matcho

It's the best of times and the worst of times at Netflix HQ in Hollywood.

On Jan. 13, Oscar nominations morning, the streamer led all distributors with 24 noms spread across eight films, including Martin Scorsese's $159 million crime epic The Irishman and Noah Baumbach's $18 million divorce dramedy Marriage Story, both of which landed in the best picture category. But that only raises the already sky-high pressure for a top Netflix victory on Oscar night.

A streaming film has yet to win the best picture Oscar — Netflix's Roma, a black-and-white Spanish-language film by Alfonso Cuarón without any star actors, came closest, with 10 nominations and three wins, including best director, in 2019.

Netflix's recognition this season includes six Golden Globe noms for Marriage Story, and honors from groups such as the National Board of Review and New York Film Critics Circle, both of which named The Irishman as 2019's best film. The streamer's documentary division landed four doc features and four doc shorts on the Oscar shortlists.

But out of a leading 17 film nominations at the Golden Globes this year, Netflix went home with just one statuette (for Marriage Story's Laura Dern). Furthermore, The Irishman's Robert De Niro wasn't nominated for Oscar, Globe, SAG or BAFTA acting awards (he received SAG's Life Achievement Award and did land Globe, BAFTA and Oscar noms as a producer), and The Irishman itself went 0-for-5 at the Globes. Baumbach missed Oscar, Globe and DGA noms. And Fernando Meirelles' The Two Popes, perhaps Netflix's most Oscar-friendly film, was largely MIA in the run-up to Oscar nominations.

Does the mere fact of Netflix being a streaming platform, which is now facing competition from the likes of Disney+ and Apple TV+, factor into voters' decisions?

THR asked a dozen members of the Oscars' Academy this month and found that for most, it does not.

"Whatever concerns there are, legitimate or otherwise, have been blown away — for me, at least — by the quality and commitment of this year's crop of Netflix movies," says Jonathan Dana, a member of the executives branch. "I don't know how to look at The Irishman, The Two Popes, Marriage Story and Dolemite, not to mention some of the others, and feel that these movies don't deserve equal attention in the eyes of the Academy."

Adds Robert Fields, a member of the actors branch, "If Ted Sarandos didn't give that money to Marty [Scorsese], that movie wouldn't have been made. He supported a filmmaker. I want to leave Netflix alone and encourage them. And I don't think Academy members are sitting around thinking, 'Oh, I'm going to get them!' That's not how it works."

Some, however, do feel differently.

Netflix is used to having a target on its back, mostly because it refuses to adhere to a 90-day exclusive theatrical window demanded by major theater chains before its films hit streaming. This is why the Cannes Film Festival has blocked Netflix films from screening on the Croisette. Some filmmakers have turned down big paydays from Netflix in order to secure a traditional theatrical release (see Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell).

Steven Spielberg, a member of the Academy's board of governors, briefly led an effort in 2019 to restrict Oscar eligibility for films that eschew traditional releases. The governors, a sizable chunk of whom have done or are now doing business with Netflix (including Laura Dern, Dolemite Is My Name co-writer Larry Karaszewski and The Black Godfather director Reginald Hudlin), ultimately declined to weigh in, but the Directors Guild decided that it will no longer consider day-and-date releases for its awards.

Arthur Cohn, a producers branch member with six Oscar wins, says, "It is nonsense that Netflix can get Academy members to vote for its films. The basic idea of the Academy is to further quality in motion pictures seen in theaters. To go on television after two weeks is absolutely not right. It's unbelievable. And to know that the people who are against it are in the minority is the worst thing."

And then there's Netflix's lavish spending in pursuit of awards, considerably more than any other studio.

Look no further than the streamer's FYC events (swanky screenings, premieres, parties and receptions), billboards (it bought a whole stretch along Sunset Boulevard), installations (like the showcase of props and costumes from its multiple films at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills), swag (coffee-table books, leather-bound scripts, Marriage Story blankets) and travel (its talent is omnipresent, and doesn't fly coach). Add an in-house army of 70 or so publicists, led by veteran strategist Lisa Taback, the entire team specifically devoted to awards.

But, as Stu Zakim, a member of the public relations branch, puts it: "It's the new reality. They're running really smart campaigns and get their talent to hustle. I think they do a great job."

Heading into phase two of the Oscar race, the pressure is on Netflix to turn some of its 24 noms into wins. The best picture Oscar, as determined by a preferential ballot, is a crapshoot. Expect Netflix to aggressively pursue it, but also to work to lock best supporting actress for Dern and awards like best visual effects (for The Irishman) so that it has at least a few new statuettes to celebrate on Feb. 9.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.