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Roma wasn't built in a day; how Netflix conquered the Oscars

05 March 2019

In 2017, at the Cannes Film Festival, the film 'Okja' was debuted. It was produced by Brad Pitt's production company 'Plan B' and starred Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal. It also featured a giant CGI pig, whose capture and treatment raised issues on animal welfare, and whose - spoiler alert – rescue, made the hairs on the back of one's neck stand up.

This film was nominated for the Palme d'Or yet was booed before the film had even begun. Why did this film, seemingly created for the Cannes cinema crowd, receive such a response? The Netflix logo had appeared. Once the jeering had finished, the film was enjoyed and received a four minute standing ovation. However, the brilliant reviews were not enough for Okja to be considered for a single Oscar nomination. Fast forward a couple of years, and Roma, a Netflix film, has won 3 Oscars. So, why was Okja booed and how did Netflix adapt to ensure success?

The Prestige (of the film industry)


Stephen Spielberg said of the Netflix controversy that "once you commit to a television format, you're a TV movie." This was true of Okja, which was released on Netflix on the same day that it was released (briefly) in cinemas. This strategy, known as the "day-and-date" release, where films are distributed in the cinema and online on the same day, represents a threat to the film industry as it draws customers away from the cinema and towards the television screens. As a result, production companies and film exhibitors believe that streaming services such as Netflix should be considered as television companies and therefore their films should not qualify for film festivals.


Okja's reception at the Cannes film festival was the catalyst for Fremaux, the artistic director, changing the eligibility rules for the Palme d'Or award, essentially banning all Netflix films. This was an inevitable outcome - the cinema industry was protecting itself from the online disruptor. As far as the film industry was concerned, Netflix had to support the film industry by releasing the films in cinemas before releasing them on their own platform. Netflix would have to play by their rules in order to be able to compete for the industry awards.  


Law Abiding Citizen


In response to this, Netflix did indeed play by the rules and released Roma in cinemas, before it was released on the streaming service, in Los Angeles – albeit only for three weeks and to only 100 cinemas globally. This is because the criteria for eligibility according to Rule Two of the Oscars Bylaws is that films must be shown in a Los Angeles County cinema, with paid admission, for a qualifying run of at least seven consecutive days. Some commentators view this as a clear strategic move by Netflix, on the basis that their approach to the theatrical release of their films appears to be simply part of their marketing expenses.  Given that their Oscars campaign reached $25 million, the small theatrical release would form a barely significant part of that expense. As Richard Broughton (an analyst at Ampere) views it, Netflix are abiding with the "letter of the law if not perhaps the spirit."


Whether the Oscars wish to revisit their regulations to obligate Netflix and other streaming services to reflect current film industry norms, such as releasing a film for longer and in more cinemas, remains to be seen.


Perfect Strangers


It will be interesting to see how Netflix continues to adjust, as they certainly will not want a repeat of the Cannes Film Festival next year. Netflix need to be competing in film festivals, both to attract directors and actors who want their art to be critically acclaimed and rewarded, but more importantly, to be seen by consumers as producing the best work.

It is of no surprise that Netflix has taken more of an interest in competing in the Oscars since Amazon won two Oscars for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay with 'Manchester by the Sea'. Netflix will, of course, be delighted that Roma won 3 Oscars. The Oscars (and the film industry), as outlined in our first article of the series, need to modernise. Audience levels have dipped recently, with Trump famously tweeting that the 2018 Oscars were the "lowest rated in HISTORY." The introduction of widely watched films on Netflix may increase the viewership of these numbers. However, given that the UK box office is on track for its best year since 1971, and that Netflix has still not revealed viewership numbers, perhaps Netflix and other platforms are not as much of a threat as the film industry fears, and the film industry is just adapting rather than on the brink of downfall.