What Happens When Netflix Wins An Oscar?

By  · Published on September 8th, 2015

Netflix is having a knockout Labor Day weekend. First, Beasts of No Nation premiered at the Venice Film Festival and critics declared their love with phrases like “towering performances” and “the awards season really has begun.” Second, Beasts of No Nation dropped a brutal second trailer on YouTube, which happens to include one of these:

There’s no surer visual code for “one Oscar, please” than a neat line of film festival honors, each sandwiched between two of those leafy laurel things. Except maybe an official Oscar campaign. Which Netflix is also putting forward for Beasts of No Nation.

There’s no point in guessing if Netflix can translate a weekend of awards hype into a statuette next year. We’re five months away from the actual awarding of statues, we haven’t scrutinized nearly enough of Beasts of No Nation’s competition, and unless you’re one of a rare handful of festival-goers, you haven’t actually sat down and watched the movie yet. Which is kind of a requirement. It’ll be streamable on October 16; watch it then.

But there’s a What If? that I think is worth diving into. If Netflix wins an Oscar… what happens next?

(Oh, and the obvious disclaimer: Netflix has been nominated for Oscars before. One Best Documentary Feature for Virunga last year and the same for The Square in the year before. No offense to the wonderful people at Nonfics, but a win in the Big Five is much more of a headline-grabber).

A Massive Bump in Subscribers?

Hard numbers- stuff you can actually measure- is next to impossible to account for. Mostly because Netflix hides all its ratings data in a secret vault to maintain that air of mystery. But this much we know: Netflix currently boasts 65 million subscribers. And Netflix claims this summer’s glut of new users (another 3.3 million) joined primarily to see this summer’s original shows. Daredevil, Sense8 and another round of Orange is the New Black.

Imagine the raw, subscriber-driving potential of shiny Oscars pasted across the Netflix homepage. Because if Beasts of No Nation takes home gold in a major category, I’ll bet anyone any amount of money that we see a Netflix adorned with Oscar graphics and Oscar categories and Beasts of No Nation at the front of everyone’s recommended movies from now until at least mid-March. The prestige bump would be unimaginable. Just like Netflix’s boatload of Emmy nominations cemented the service as a legitimate TV provider, this would quell that funny nervous feeling around Netflix’s upcoming films (Adam Sandler or otherwise). That means ample subscribers- and a subscription is the only thing Netflix can sell you, so their only way to tick upward is to invite more people in.

It’s the direction Netflix is heading; after all, that’s why the company was willing to shred their deal with Epix (a cable service that holds the streaming rights for mega-blockbusters like Transformers and The Hunger Games) and why they’re spending seven figure sums on original programming.

Not all 65 million Netflix users watch every show, and the number that sits down to watch Beasts of No Nation won’t be remotely close to 65 mil. By comparison, 6.4% of Netflix subscribers watched House of Cards in the month of March- the highest number for any original series that month. If Beasts of No Nation can pull with Kevin Spacey strength, that’s 4.16M viewers. Compare that to the amount of tickets sold similar Oscar winners- other violent R-rated war dramas without a massively bankable star. Let’s say… The Pianist, The Last King of Scotland and The Hurt Locker (to solve: just divide the total gross by the average ticket price for that year).

The Pianist: 20.7 million

Last King of Scotland: 7.3 million

The Hurt Locker: 6.6 million

The movies are still outmuscling Netflix so far (although I’d be curious to see how the stats change if you could see how many people, total, have seen House of Cards). But Netflix is getting there.

An End to The Great Theater vs. Streaming War?

In the short term? No chance. The National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), plus AMC, Regal, Cinemark and Carmike- the country’s four leading film exhibitors- all boycotted Beasts, citing that Netflix broke the usual tradition of waiting 90 days between a film’s release in theaters and on home entertainment platforms. Or, in saltier terms, because Netflix “wants to kill the cinema.”

At a bare minimum, it’ll still screen in 19 Landmark Theaters in October. That’s all Netflix needs, because the Oscar rulebook states that qualifying movies open in LA County for at least a week and that any “nontheatrical” platforms are kosher so long as the LA release is first (or at the same time). Landmark has three theaters in LA County, so no worries there.

Curmudgeonly theater-owners can spurn Beasts for the same reasons that Netflix can drop $12M (double the film’s budget) to snap it up without incident. It’s a niche film that wide audiences most assuredly won’t go crazy over. That’s exactly what Netflix is looking for right now- theatrical underdogs. “We’re trying to make the films that are not getting made,” as Netflix content head Ted Sarandos puts it.

Look at Netflix’s film slate, and that’s what you’ll see. Four Adam Sandler films (and Sandler delivers financial embarrassment about as often as he connects with that $100M sweet spot). A sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and another Pee-Wee Herman adventure. Four Duplass Brothers indies, a Christopher Guest comedy and a war satire starring Brad Pitt. George Clooney does the war satire thing all the time (The Monuments Men, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Three Kings). They tend to break even- just about double the budget, no scary highs or lows.

Nothing up there would generate Jurassic World cash mountains; maybe a modest buck, but most likely they’d be modest bucks that NATO theaters can survive without.

Unless Netflix goes all in on the next Jurassic World, which isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds on paper. The streaming service spent $40M on the next Crouching Tiger and $100M locking in the first two seasons of House of Cards. A $150M blockbuster? “It wouldn’t be that big a leap,” offers Sarandos. That cash mountain might tempt theater owners, and Netflix would require someone else’s gargantuan screens and sound systems for 3D space sharks or whatever it is they’re producing. Both sides might have to declare a cease-fire.

Will Other Streaming Services Follow Suit?

They already are! Amazon’s already put together Spike Lee’s latest joint, Chi-Raq (Chicago + Iraq), announced just seven months after Netflix joined the movie game. And Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which is finally getting made, for real, under the Amazon banner. Also Elvis & Nixon, starring Michael Shannon as the King and Kevin Spacey as the Jowls (Spacey has no problem playing both services against each other, Yojimbo-style). They’re planning a staggering 12 films a year, but more modestly priced between $5M and $25M. Netflix, by comparison, spends twice as much per film with only 11 slated over the next two years. Hulu and Yahoo are sluggish on the movie uptake (and Yahoo’s a fledgling service as it is with just five shows), but rest assured that if everyone followed Netflix obediently into the TV realm, they’ll do the same with feature films.

Except that Amazon, unlike Netflix, is not out to ruffle feathers; they’re releasing Chi-Raq in theaters first, waiting the expected several months and then making it available to stream. That’ll win them favor with theater owners, for sure. But will it really feel like an Amazon exclusive if it’s exclusive somewhere else for the first three months?

Here’s the hilarious catch: Amazon Studios is so enamored with Chi-Raq that they’re prepping an awards campaign, just like Beasts of No Nation. I guess the real question is, “What Happens When Every Streaming Service Has Their Own Oscar?”

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