Academy members worry that Netflix is cheapening the Oscars.
“I personally don’t perceive the Palme d’Or [should be] given to a film that is then not seen on the big screen.”
— Pedro Almodóvar
Netflix has been streaming movies into our homes for nearly a decade, which is an eternity in internet years. But when it comes to competing with cinematic institutions, Netflix is still the new kid on the block. Perhaps a better analogy is the new inmate in the prison yard, surrounded by rivals looking for any hint of weakness. It feels like Netflix is butting heads with a different competitor every few months: Netflix versus theater chains, Netflix versus Cannes, Netflix versus TV networks, and now it’s Netflix versus the Oscars.
This past Thursday, approximately 300 of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members met for what is only the second members-only meeting in the Academy’s 90-year history. According to Deadline, one of the main reasons for the gathering was to discuss eligibility guidelines for Netflix’s narrative features. Netflix puts their prestige pictures in theaters for one week, which is the bare minimum required for awards eligibility. The Academy members are concerned with Netflix’s apathy toward embracing traditional theatrical release models.
There are two things that stand out in the Deadline article; both are statements by Academy members. The first is a quote from an Academy governor which says, “We’ve got to define what is a movie.” The second quote, attributed to a “prominent Oscar member,” says that Netflix could represent, “A cheapening of the Oscar.” Critical voices ranging from Cannes juries to Reddit take issue with Netflix’s methods, and I can’t help but wonder if everyone is just splitting hairs.
Netflix is a distribution platform first and a content creator second. Netflix acquires a significant amount of its content by outbidding rival distributors and last January at Sundance, Netflix went on a shopping spree. The streaming giant picked up the ready-made films, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, The Discovery, and The Incredible Jessica James. All three films were available to stream on the platform within six months. So I have to ask: Is the experience of watching any of these three movies “cheapened” because Netflix opted to skip nationwide theatrical releases?
In 2015, Netflix shelled out $50 million to finance their 2017 Cannes entry, Okja. Okja received a frosty reception at Cannes even though it went on to be adored by critics and streamers (Okja holds an 85% fresh Rotten Tomatoes score based on 172 reviews). Is Okja in some way cheapened because it was financed by Netflix rather than Fox, Universal, or Paramount?
Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Matrix offer the quintessential blockbuster movie experience. They’re the type of universally loved classics that come along once or twice in a generation. They’re best experienced in dark theaters, on large screens, with the volume cranked up to 100. But of all the people who have ever watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, what percentage of them actually watched it in a theater? Most of today’s teenagers weren’t even alive in 1999 when The Matrix arrived in theaters. And how many people missed out on watching Star Wars in a theater but discovered the film on VHS and DVD?
The average film’s theatrical window is less than 90 days and then the title spends the rest of existence on home media, streaming services, and Turner Classics. Every now and then, if we’re lucky, a local theater may run a John Carpenter marathon on a Friday night, but those experiences are the exceptions. The majority of movie watching takes place on the couch or in bed, in spaghetti-stained sweatpants. And in those moments, no one cares about the length of Manchester by the Sea’s theatrical window. The only question that matters is, “Where’s my box of tissues?”