ZEITGUIDE TO DISRUPTING THE OSCARS
If you hear the Academy Awards have been disrupted, you might envision political protesters outside The Dolby Theatre. Or think that activist acceptance speeches are out of control. Or that a new #Oscarso… hashtag is sweeping Twitter. Or of this year’s envelope mixup that will go down in infamy.
But there’s another sort of disruption underway, embodied by “Manchester by the Sea.” It was the first film distributed by a streaming service to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. That’s right: it’s not enough that streaming services have remade television, largely killed DVDs and overhauled the music industry. Now streaming has arrived on the red carpet.
Amazon bought “Manchester by the Sea” at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival for $10 million, and it was nominated in six major categories, winning for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Amazon also had a win for Best Foreign Language Film, Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman.” Netflix scored a Best Documentary nomination for Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” which it produced.
For independent filmmakers, interest from Amazon or Netflix has been a lifeline as Hollywood studios have focused on big-budget superhero movies to the exclusion of much else. Meantime, each successful deal or project gives Amazon or Netflix a chance to show the film industry’s top talent the upsides of working with them, whether that’s greater creative freedom or looser purse strings.
Each Oscar nod also makes it easier to land a deal like the one Netflix just made to produce and distribute the Martin Scorsese-Robert DeNiro gangster movie “The Irishman.” (The company’s willingness to finance it to the tune of $100 million didn’t hurt its case, either).
Otherwise, Netflix and Amazon have different approaches and goals.
Amazon hasn’t been producing movies (though that seems inevitable) and has been taking a traditional approach to distribution, as seen with the wide, theatrical release given to “Manchester” that earned the film over $60 million at the box office.
Netflix is closer to a studio model in that it has involved itself in the development and production of feature films. But it sees theatrical releases as just a necessity to get reviews, publicity and to be eligible for awards nominations. Ultimately, Netflix views the experience of seeing a movie in theaters as antiquated. “Buying movies and releasing them in theaters? There are plenty of people doing that,” says Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos. “We’re not interested.”
For its part, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not making it easy for Netflix to win Oscars, either. It tightened its eligibility rules last year to demand three screenings per day (at least one must be between 6 and 10 p.m.) for seven consecutive days in a movie theater in Los Angeles.
But big picture, these streaming giants may not care about box office success. For Netflix, the game is all about growing their subscriber base. Amazon’s gambit is to attract Prime subscribers and keep them shopping for media (and everything else) inside the Amazon ecosystem. Meantime, both have far better knowledge of the tastes and viewing habits of their customers—data both can use to gain an edge in identifying the next hit.
Could Amazon and Netflix do to movie theaters what Amazon already did to the big bookstore chains? Before you rule it out, note that Amazon’s 2016 revenue ($136 billion)—was 12 times the size of Hollywood’s total domestic box office ($11.25 billion).