Should Netflix Films Be Eligible for the Oscars? – Special Features #21

I have reviewed many Netflix films, and I really enjoy doing that. These are films that are, in most cases, released at the same time for everyone everywhere. That is genuinely a good consumer-friendly distributing system. Sure, some of these films are godawful, but sometimes among the ‘Netflix films of the week’ something truly special appears on the streaming service.

In 2017, films like Okja, The Meyerowitz Stories, and the Oscar nominated film Mudbound were released via Netflix. But the film industry has a tendency to hit back at the Netflix model, and it has gotten so bad that one of the most beloved directors out there has said something that I found to be fairly hypocritical — an old-fashioned suggestion that Netflix films should only be eligible for the Emmys because, in his view, they are merely television films. Let’s discuss.

The 90th Academy Awards were huge for Netflix. Their films (Heroin(e), Icarus, Mudbound, On Body and Soul, and Strong Island) received a total of eight nominations, and they won their second Oscar (winning Best Documentary Feature for Icarus). And, for the first time, it seemed like the Academy actually started to take Netflix’s non-documentary feature films seriously as Dee Rees’ Mudbound earned a total of four nominations (and probably deserved even more). Sure, Mudbound did not win anything, but it did make history for Netflix, for women, and for women of color.

Meanwhile, beloved filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s latest historical political thriller The Post earned two nominations (Best Picture and Best Actress). The Post was not the talk of the town. Right now, however, Spielberg’s newest blockbuster is. Ready Player One just opened last week and during the promotional tour Spielberg had a few choice words for Netflix films and the streaming service’s distributing model.

In an interview with ITV News, Spielberg was asked whether Netflix was a challenge to cinema, and the beloved director believed as much: “It is a challenge to cinema the same way that television of the early 1950s pulled people away from movie theaters […] So Hollywood is used to that. We are accustomed to being highly competitive with television. The difference today is that a lot of studios would rather make branded tentpole, you know, guaranteed box office hits from their inventory […] than take chances on smaller films. And those smaller films […] are now going to Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix.”

Spielberg went on to praise television of the day. It is the best that it has ever been. “But it poses a clear and present danger to filmgoers,” he then warns. Then, however, Spielberg presented his concerns and his opinions about the eligibility of Netflix films. “But, in fact, once you commit to a television format, you are a TV-movie. You certainly — if it is a good show — deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar,” Spielberg stated, and he went on to say that they should not be nominated for Oscars even if they meet the release requirement. “I don’t believe that films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination,” Spielberg specified.

To be eligible for nomination a film must have opened in the County of Los Angeles and remain open for, at least, seven consecutive days. For streaming films or the like, I believe that the Academy even has a rule stating that the film will only remain eligible if it is released out of theaters on the same day that it opens in theaters, at the earliest.

This leaves a lot of wiggle room for both studios and Netflix films. You can game the system like Netflix perhaps does according to some people, and then release it globally on the same day that it opens in very few US-based theaters. Or a proper studio release can open in a few theaters at the end of the year to qualify for eligibility, before opening in the new year to the public. In my opinion, both of these distributing tactics game the system.

A film is a film is a film. If you want to challenge the idea that something in select theaters for a week should be eligible for Oscars, then you probably shouldn’t be the director of a film that didn’t have its wide release until after the year had ended, which is the case with Spielberg’s The Post.

To me, there really isn’t that big of a difference between The Post and Mudbound. The latter film had a one-week limited theatrical release in November to be considered for Oscars, whereas the former film had a, what, ten day limited theatrical release in late December? What’s the difference, really?

Sure, The Post actually was released theatrically nationwide in the United States, but Mudbound was released globally, I believe, via Netflix. Oh and The Post? Well, it only just opened in my country. Both films had limited theatrical releases to be eligible for the last Oscar ceremony and neither film had a wide theatrical release in 2017. They both played the Oscar season release-game.

That is my opinion. That is where I stand, and I don’t see why The Post should be ignored in this discussion. That film’s distributor, essentially, did the same thing that Netflix did with Mudbound. And therefore, to be perfectly honest with you, Spielberg’s comments feel archaic and slightly hypocritical, to me.

Cannes vs. Netflix

It is yet another example of old-fashioned film industry stars standing in the way of the way things work now. Spielberg, to his credit, at least makes an effort to come across as respectful of the medium that he associates Netflix films with. The same cannot be said for the Cannes Film Festival. Netflix, which sometimes releases films that studios simply would never make (like Okja), has been banned from competing for the Palme d’Or. Netflix films, and other streaming films like it, can be shown at the festival, but they will not be able to compete for any awards.

The prestigious film festival, which has supposedly also banned selfies from being taken on the red carpet, tried to blame the streaming service for the new rule, “the festival asked Netflix in vain to accept that [these films] could reach the audience of French movie theatres and not only its subscribers. Hence the festival regrets that no agreement has been reached.”

Now, before you start to say that Netflix should absolutely make their films available both in theaters and for its subscribers in France, you should know that France specifically doesn’t allow for that. Reportedly, a French rule says that a Netflix film can only be released on the streaming platform three years after it has been released in theaters. Although recently, it sounded like France might actually change that release window, but not in the way that Netflix would like them to. Any wait will likely be too much for Netflix.

But, in general, three years is just too much, and it sounds more like an industry fighting back against Netflix than a normal distributing rule. For obvious reasons, Netflix cannot release their films in French theaters, if that means their French subscribers won’t get to see them until a full three years after French cinemagoers get to see it.

Whether we like it or not, like Spielberg actually admits, the small films that studios would greenlit back in the day are now falling by the wayside due to blockbuster-focused American studios. Streaming services like Netflix are a godsend for films that would normally not be picked up by major studios. Spielberg’s dismissive comments about the eligibility of Netflix films and the outrageous demands from the Cannes Film Festival and France only widen the gap between young audiences and the old-fashioned minds still present in the film industry.

To me, all of this is especially interesting considering one of American film’s greatest champions, Martin Scorsese, had to go to Netflix to get The Irishman made, while Netflix is doing all they can to win over cinephiles by also distributing and helping to complete the unreleased Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind.

Update: Netflix & Cannes

Following Cannes new rules, Netflix decided not to screen any of their films out of competition. In an interview with Variety, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said that “there’s a risk in us going in this way and having our films and filmmakers treated disrespectfully at the festival. They’ve set the tone. I don’t think it would be good for us to be there.”

Sarandos won’t attend the festival, and neither will any Netflix film. However, Netflix may still end up acquiring some films shown at the festival. The festival cannot prevent that. Sarandos went on to say that “[Netflix is] choosing to be about the future of cinema. If Cannes is choosing to be stuck in the history of cinema, that’s fine.”

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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