Almost buried by the attention surrounding The Slap at the Oscars was a historic first: a streaming film won best picture, taking Hollywood’s top prize from the legacy studios that have long dominated the town. If Will Smith had not mounted the stage and hit Chris Rock, the best picture win for Apple TV+ crowd-pleaser “CODA” would have been the talk of Tinseltown ever since the Academy Awards.
“There was clearly going to be a streaming service break through that barrier. And I think it’s an important break,” said Kendall Phillips, a Syracuse University professor who specializes in pop culture. “I do think it’s going to open up a much wider body of films to be taken more seriously by Academy voters.” For months before the ceremony at the Dolby Theatre, streaming’s coming of age had appeared likely to be the main storyline from the 2022 Oscars.
The smart money for best picture was initially on arty Western “The Power of the Dog,” Jane Campion’s brooding meditation on toxic masculinity. The film, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a sexually repressed cowboy, was a Netflix title that the streamer—the biggest player on the small screen—had spent heavily to promote as it chased Hollywood’s ultimate stamp of approval. But a late surge from “CODA” as audiences warmed to its charming cast of loveable characters—and its hopeful message of a deaf family overcoming adversity—pushed it into the top slot.
Streaming services first barged their way into Hollywood’s premier awards in 2017, when Amazon’s “Manchester by the Sea” bagged a best picture nomination. It lost out to “Moonlight,” at the ceremony when “La La Land” was briefly and incorrectly announced as the year’s winner. Netflix now has a growing stable of best picture nominations—including “Roma,” “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story,” “Mank,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” and “Don’t Look Up.”
For the past three years, Netflix has snagged the most Oscar nominations of any distributor. This year alone it had 27, though only won one—best director for Campion. Apple TV+, by contrast, received its first-ever Oscar nomination last year, and this year managed three wins from six nods. Trade title Variety reported Apple had lavished more than $10 million on its Oscars campaign—about as much as it cost to make “CODA.” Netflix spent heavily on its bid for Oscar glory—Los Angeles was awash for months with advertisements puffing its prize bull.
For some in the industry, all that money being thrown around was a little difficult to swallow. “Everywhere you drive in LA you are faced with a billboard saying it’s ‘The Best Film of the Year,’” one anonymous director told Indiewire. “If anyone is to blame for pushback it’s Netflix themselves for pushing really hard on the movie.”
There was off-the-record griping from some Academy members who felt they were unable to vote for a streaming movie because of a general distaste for the upstart format. For a start, there’s nostalgia for the medium. Many moviemakers bemoan the solitary experience of watching on a small screen at home, and talk warmly of the joy of being in a dark cinema with scores of other movie lovers.
Kevin Costner emerged at the Oscars to award best director with an elegy to the artform (and some of the most eloquent speechifying of the night). “Once I too was a boy, in that magic castle of story and narrative, my seat there in the flickering dark of imagination… projected phantoms painting portraits of poets past,” he waxed.
But, says Phillips of Syracuse University, audiences ultimately care about the content—and streamers are up to the task. “It’s increasingly difficult to determine where [a film is] coming from, whether it’s a streaming service production, or big studio production. Those lines have probably blurred forever,” he said. Audiences who went to see “CODA” during its limited run in movie theaters didn’t care who made it, he said. “That boundary, where one side is the motion picture theater experience, and the other side is the at-home streaming experience, I think that boundary is probably never going to be reestablished, at least the way it was, for many decades.”
Increasingly, filmmakers themselves are less bothered about the distinction. “Netflix is not what I would have wanted historically, but they’re a little like the Medicis of our time,” Campion told the Los Angeles Times last year, referring to the moneyed patrons that funded many of the best-known pieces of Renaissance art. “The people at the top do love cinema; they want to see good things. When you’ve got a lot of money, beauty counts.” — AFP