How Netflix went from Cannes reject to dominant player at this year’s Oscars

Geoffrey Macnab looks at how the streaming giant went from hated pariah of the movie industry to risk-taking home of the edgy and offbeat

Sunday 25 April 2021 11:30
<p>The platform is bound to have a few winners at the 2021 Academy Awards – an inconceivable notion just five years ago</p>

The platform is bound to have a few winners at the 2021 Academy Awards – an inconceivable notion just five years ago


hey seemed like interlopers. Their motives were distrusted. The big cinema chains refused to show their films. Their titles were banned from the Cannes Festival. There was obvious snobbery against them. They were regarded as a jumped-up DVD mail-order company which had reinvented itself as an internet streaming service and was now trying to trespass on the hallowed red carpet. Few in the movie business wanted Netflix. When their chief content officer Ted Sarandos spoke in Cannes in 2015, he was heckled and accused of “destroying the ecosystem of film production in Europe”.

Some in Hollywood celebrated Netflix as the “great disruptors” but most others deplored them. Even filmmakers who worked on the streamer’s behalf seemed wary about doing so. Cary Fukunaga, director of Beasts of No Nation (2015), one of the first Netflix Oscar contenders, lamented how difficult it had become to get independent-spirited films into cinemas “unless you’ve got some giant spectacle or word of mouth behind it”. At the Venice film festival premiere for the film, he made it sound as if he had gone over to the enemy (namely Netflix) because that was the only way his film would ever get seen.

Big-name auteurs fretted that viewers would now glance at their movies on their cell phones and laptops, in breaks between checking their social media feeds, rather than watch them properly on the big screen.

The talk six years ago was about the death of cinema, a process Netflix was believed to be hastening. All the big exhibitors boycotted Beasts of No Nation on the grounds that Netflix was refusing to allow the film the traditional “theatrical window”: the three- or four-month period in which movies were supposed to be available exclusively on the big screen.

The independent cinemas that did show Beasts didn’t seem too excited about it. They felt Netflix was simply going through the motions of a very short, token theatrical release in order to qualify for Bafta and Oscar awards.

“They [Netflix] paid us handsomely to rent the cinemas but no one came to the cinemas. I don’t want empty Curzon cinemas. There are no food and beverage sales,” Philip Knatchbull, CEO of UK independent arthouse company Curzon, told trade paper Screen International in 2016.

Sarandos was unapologetic. “The theatrical movie window is the only window that really still exists. Every other form of entertainment is pretty much available to consumers where and when they want it. Perpetuating the movie window - adding new money to perpetuate the old system - I don’t think is really that interesting,” he told trade magazine Deadline in blunt fashion, blithely disregarding the fact that the cinema business whose model Netflix was so busy undermining was still worth billions of dollars every year

‘Mank’ leads this year’s pack with 10 Oscar nominations

This may all seem like ancient history, but it is worth remembering now, during a 2021 movie awards season in which Netflix has become the dominant player. The streaming giant’s tentacles stretch all over the current Oscar nominations. You can find Netflix films in every category from feature documentary (My Octopus Teacher and Crip Camp) to Best Animated Feature (Over the Moon), from Actor in a Leading Role (Chadwick Boseman and Gary Oldman) to Actress in a Leading Role (Viola Davis and Vanessa Kirby). Both Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7 are up for Best Picture. The streamer has 16 Oscar nominated films and 35 nominations, an astonishing haul which puts its traditional studio competitors to shame.

The general fear and loathing which used to characterise the Hollywood attitude toward Netflix appears to have evaporated. Whereas it was still considered controversial when Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a Netflix “original,” won Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film two years ago, nobody in Hollywood will blink an eyelid if David Fincher’s Mank goes one better and wins the Best Picture award on 25 April.

The general fear and loathing which used to characterise the Hollywood attitude toward Netflix appears to have evaporated.

Geoffrey Macnab

If you want to understand why Netflix is now fêted instead of shunned, you need only look at how rapidly Hollywood itself has changed over the last two years. One of the biggest recent shifts in the studio system, Disney’s takeover of rival outfit Fox in early 2019, turned out to be entirely to Netflix’s advantage as far as the streamer’s Hollywood standing was concerned.

The disappearance of Fox created a gap in a very exclusive and powerful club. The Motion Picture Association is the trade body representing the interests of the Hollywood majors. Annual subscription fees run to millions of dollars. When Netflix was invited to join the MPA and accepted the invitation, it gave the lie to the idea that the US studios were at war with the streamers. In fact, those majors themselves have launched their own streaming services. They’re all now in the same business. It must have been gratifying to Netflix that the invitation to come inside the MPA tent wasn’t extended to rival streamer, Amazon.

There are obvious reasons why Netflix has achieved such success with awards nominations in recent years. The streaming giant pays over the odds in making or acquiring edgy and offbeat films that the mainstream US studios might balk at backing. It then spends a fortune in awards advertising, holding special screenings and staging online Q&As for voters.

Vanessa Kirby drama ‘Pieces of a Woman’ was released on Netflix earlier this year

You wouldn’t expect the blockbuster-fixated studios to invest in a film as harrowing as Pieces of a Woman, for which Kirby has her Oscar nomination for her performance as a traumatised, grief-stricken mother who has just lost her baby. 

Back in 2017, Netflix had the chutzpah to pay a reported $4.6m for Bryan Fogel’s earnest Russian sports doping documentary Icarus. It seemed like a very risky and reckless bet until (as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’s book No Rules Rules recounts), the International Olympic Committee cited it as the “key piece of evidence for banning” Russia from the Winter Olympics. The film, previously ignored by viewers, became the most talked about documentary of the year and went on to win one of Netflix’s very first Oscars.

Nor is Netflix quite as doctrinaire as it used to be about getting movies on to its platform as quickly as possible. Producers remember that, four or five years ago, whereas its rival Amazon was open to its films being given cinema runs, Netflix seemed allergic even to the faintest smell of popcorn. “They’ve completely turned around,” David Parfitt, the British producer of Oscar contender The Father, says of the streamer’s more tolerant attitude toward theatrical releasing.

In the year of the Covid pandemic, when cinemas have been closed anyway, arguments over whether Netflix is damaging the exhibition infrastructure have lost their edge. In recent months, the streamer has contributed very generously to various Covid recovery and film sector support schemes around the world, burnishing its reputation yet further with an industry which used to regard it with such suspicion.

Despite creeping price increases, most customers also remain well disposed toward the service.

One Netflix film which made it to the Bafta award shortlist was Jeff Orlowski’s doc The Social Dilemma, highlighting the dark side of social media. You might have expected Netflix itself to be in his firing line. This remains a highly secretive organisation which is very selective about how much data it shares regarding viewing figures. The service’s “recommendation” algorithms have a sinister and manipulative aspect, too. Subscribers can’t help getting irritated when their home screen tells them they’re 98 per cent certain to enjoy some movie they end up detesting.

Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ failed to score an Oscar nomination

However, in his criticism of Silicon Valley companies and the online giants, Orlowski conspicuously exempted the streamer. That wasn’t just because Netflix had backed his film.

“I do look at Netflix quite a bit differently from the Facebooks, Google and Twitters of the world. The biggest thing is the business model,” he told me recently. “The problem in my mind is this form of surveillance advertising that exists with Facebook, Google, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube etc. On Netflix, you’re still paying. You’re a subscriber. You’re the customer. Netflix has human curation to assess what is working to share with the public… we see the conspiracy theories and misinformation coming out of YouTube and Facebook and Twitter. We don’t see it coming out of Netflix.”

The Netflix official site has a special page dedicated to the streamer’s 2021 Oscar “collection”. Not every title listed there is a sure-fire winner. Netflix is very unlikely to enjoy an Oscar sweep in all the main categories. It’s conceivable that Mank will lose out to Nomadland for Best Picture and that many of its other films will also be passed over, too. Nonetheless, with over 30 tickets in the raffle, the streamer is bound to have a few winners. The bigger triumph, though, is that Netflix, once a pariah in Hollywood, is now considered a key part of any self-respecting film awards ceremony.

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