The Wonderful Power of the Oscars

Just when we thought Netflix was going to kill the theatrical tradition, a little gold man turns out to be the hero we needed all along.

Tom Waits Buster Scruggs
Netflix

We love to talk smack about the Oscars. They gave Crash the award for Best Picture, after all. And in this day and age when the definitions of cinema are changing and film fans are watching what they want, how they want, through various platforms and formats, the Academy sometimes seems behind the times with all their rules and their fancy black tie affair. Plus there are so many other awards shows, from those favoring more popular movies to those honoring indies, from those chosen by kids to those chosen by critics, and these other options for the celebration of cinema often make up for this or that “snub” by the Oscars by offering some kind of broader recognition of contenders.

Well, let’s hope the Oscars never change too much. Let’s hope the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences never speaks of that “Popular Film” award idea ever again — for those few months after the thing was announced up until the decision to cancel such a pandering trophy, disdain for the institution of the Oscars was never higher. And let’s pray to the movie gods that the Academy never relaxes their rules to better accommodate streaming service content. We need the Oscars to be exclusive, even if at times they seem old-fashioned, for the sake of cinema.

Sure, it’s unfortunate that Laura Dern can’t finally win an Academy Award for her performance in The Tale (and that the film can’t be honored at the Oscars at all), but HBO’s pickup of the movie at Sundance without aim for an Oscar-qualifying run seemed to be indicative of the future for a lot of movies: not only is theatrical distribution not as important to some as access and exposure, but films like The Tale can at least be honored by the Emmys, Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice and other awards that aren’t so strict about how and where movies are seen, so long as they’re movies. But that was surprisingly an exception, and our worries about other films following suit, especially via Netflix, were in vain.

Netflix recently shocked the industry by giving three of their awards season contenders wider and longer theatrical releases, which are also occurring prior to their debuts on the streaming service — Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Susanne Bier’s Bird Box. This week, the company revealed Andy Serkis’ Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle will also get an exclusive advance theatrical run starting at the end of this month. This was especially welcome after Netflix took over distribution from Warner Bros. earlier in the year and most of us believed the film was losing out on hitting the big screen, like The Cloverfield Paradox (and outside the US, like Annihilation) being “dumped” to Netflix.

While it might seem like Netflix is the one to be congratulated on this move toward a theatrical allowance for its movies, the credit should go completely to the Academy and their Oscars. Netflix would likely never bother with theatrical runs at all if it weren’t for the awards eligibility. That’s obvious in the very limited selection of titles among its barrage of original content to be receiving this special treatment. Interestingly enough, Netflix could stick to what it’s done in the past with the bare minimum of theatrical release for contenders. Oscar rules permit its usual day-and-date strategy of opening movies in theaters simultaneously with streaming availability, and they permit a rather simple one-week one-city run.

The thing is, Netflix has tried that and had little success with Academy recognition. Nothing for Beasts of No Nation three years ago, and while Mudbound made strides this past year with four nominations, Netflix is still gunning for that Best Picture spot. After its conflicts with the heavies at Cannes this year and maybe with its somewhat revolutionary wider (but still day-and-date) theatrical plans earlier this season for 22 July and Private Life, the company is likely understanding that it needs to do more to earn the necessary reputation of prestige to receive the further esteem of the Academy. Or, there’s a more superficial idea behind the plan, but regardless Netflix is looking to try longer and more exclusive theatrical prominence and see if that gets them any further with Oscar consideration.

What that means for the benefit of movie lovers is the continued clout of the big screen. Many of us are afraid of the eventual disappearance or at least the drastic decline of movie theaters, and the success of Netflix has been a big part of that concern. But with Netflix seeing the weight of theatrical exhibition, pressured by the power of the Oscars’ regard for that format and experience, we can rest at least slightly assured that the theatrical experience isn’t dying after all, at least not anytime soon. Maybe the plan won’t work for Netflix and they’ll give up. But if not, we’re already hearing about other Netflix filmmakers wanting “the Roma deal” (aka “the Cuaron treatment”) even if it’s not pertinent for Oscar bait.

Seems like the Academy deserves our gratitude. There’s no denying the Oscars are often out of touch or disappointing, and at the end of the day it’s all just a big load of nonsense set up for Hollywood to praise itself and feel important. But there’s also no denying that we as a culture, especially a movie culture, keep on caring, and that keeps on giving them significance and reason to continue as such a big deal. And that maintains that the Oscars have power, a power that’s sometimes frustrating and misdirected but, as we can see at the moment, a power that sometimes does wonderful things for the sake of everyone who truly loves cinema.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.