Streaming Has Won the Hollywood Debate. Is Best Picture Next?

Three years ago, Hollywood was engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight over the future of cinema — what, exactly, constitutes a film — with the Oscars as the boxing ring.

Netflix and other streaming insurgents insisted that the delivery route was irrelevant, that a film could be primarily viewed on an iPhone and still be a film. Theaters? Ticket sales? It didn’t matter.

The Hollywood establishment, or at least most of it, was incensed: Big screens, they argued, are part of the very definition of cinema. “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” Steven Spielberg told a reporter at a European press junket at the time. “You certainly, if it’s a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar.”

And now?

Unless the predictions are wrong and something unexpected awaits inside those gold leaf-embossed envelopes at the 94th Academy Awards on Sunday, a streaming service film — in a first — will win the Oscar for best picture. “CODA,” a dramedy from Apple TV+ about the only hearing member of a deaf family, is favored to receive the prize, having already won top honors at the predictive Producers Guild Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards and Writers Guild Awards.

A Netflix film, “The Power of the Dog,” could nudge past “CODA” to win the best picture trophy, awards handicappers say. But most are not predicting a win for nominees from traditional studios, including “Belfast” and “West Side Story.” Apple TV+ and Netflix have both campaigned aggressively, with Apple spending an estimated $20 million to $25 million to promote “CODA” and Netflix’s push for “The Power of the Dog” costing even more.

“CODA,” which stars Troy Kostur and Marlee Matlin, has already won top honors from the Screen Actors Guild.Credit…Apple TV+

For an industry in turmoil, with tech giants like Apple and Amazon upending entertainment-industry business practices and threatening Hollywood power hierarchies, the welcoming of a streaming service into the best picture club would amount to a seismic moment. Television and film have been merging for years, but lines of demarcation remain, with the Oscars as one. (Last year’s winner, “Nomadland,” from Searchlight Pictures, a traditional studio, was mostly seen on Hulu, but only because a lot of theaters were closed; it played in roughly 1,200 theaters in the United States and had an exclusive IMAX run.)

Explore the 2022 Academy Awards

The 94th Academy Awards will be held on March 27 in Los Angeles.

  • The Hosts: Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes plan to keep the show moving and make it funny, though they will acknowledge the war in Ukraine.
  • ‘Seen That Before?’: Four of the best picture nominees this year are remakes or reboots of earlier films.
  • Best Actress Race: Who will win? There are cases to be made for and against each contender, and no one has an obvious advantage.
  •  Hollywood Legend: Danny Glover will receive an honorary Oscar for his activism. He spoke to The Times about his life in movies and social justice.
  • Return to the Playground: For his Oscar-nominated short film “When We Were Bullies,” Jay Rosenblatt tracked down his fifth-grade classmates.

Among this year’s best picture nominees, “I think there’s a lot of the academy that might not even know what is a streaming movie and what isn’t a streaming movie,” said the producer Jason Blum, whose Oscar-nominated films have included “Get Out,” “Whiplash” and “BlacKkKlansman.”

The digital forces that have reshaped music and television have been chipping away at cinema for a long time. “If ‘CODA’ and Apple win, which seems pretty likely, it will be in part because of Netflix, which has been banging on the academy door for years, and fighting the good fight — or the bad fight, depending on who you ask — to get streaming movies considered,” Mr. Blum said.

The pandemic accelerated the disruption. Traditional studios like Paramount, Universal, Sony, Warner Bros. and Disney rerouted dozens of theatrical films to streaming services or released them simultaneously in theaters and online. For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, citing the coronavirus threat, allowed films to skip a theatrical release entirely and still be eligible for Oscars. The academy had previously required at least a perfunctory theatrical release of at least a week in Los Angeles.

This is about more than Hollywood egotism. The worry is that, as streaming services proliferate — more than 300 now operate in the United States, according to the consulting firm Parks Associates — theaters could become exclusively the land of superheroes, sequels and remakes. The venerable Warner Bros. has slashed annual theatrical output by almost half and built a direct-to-streaming film assembly line. Last week, Amazon boosted its Prime Video service by acquiring Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the old-line studio behind “Licorice Pizza,” which is nominated for three Academy Awards, including best picture.

In a year when Hollywood largely failed to jump-start theatrical moviegoing, streaming services solidified their hold on viewers. Global ticket sales totaled $21.3 billion in 2021, down from $42.3 billion in 2019, according to the Motion Picture Association. (Theaters were closed for much of 2020.) Some theater companies have gone out of business, others have merged; the world’s biggest theater chain, AMC Entertainment, racked up $6 billion in losses over the past two years and its stock has dropped 66 percent since June. At the same time, the number of subscriptions to online video services around the world grew to 1.3 billion, up from 864 million in 2019, the group said.

One film that struggled at the box office was Mr. Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” which received an exclusive run in theaters (per his wishes) of about three months. It collected about $75 million worldwide (against a production budget of $100 million and global marketing costs of roughly $50 million). “West Side Story” is now available on not one but two streaming services, Disney+ and HBO Max, where it has almost assuredly been viewed more widely than in theaters. But the film was never able to recover — among Oscar voters — from being branded a box office misfire. It received seven nominations, and is poised to win in one category, for Ariana DeBose as best supporting actress.

Mr. Spielberg’s also-ran presence in the current Oscar race makes the ascendance of streaming contenders all the more striking: a lion in the fight to keep the Academy Awards focused on theatrical films is pushed aside.

However unlikely, it is possible that “West Side Story” could come from behind and win the best picture trophy. So could Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” for that matter. Such an outcome would be a bit like 2019, when academy voters, turned off by an over-the-top campaign by Netflix to push “Roma” to best picture glory, instead gave the prize to “Green Book,” a traditional film from Universal Pictures.

“The Power of the Dog,” from Netflix, is seen as another strong contender for best picture.Credit…Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

In 2019, the Oscars-centered clash between Old Hollywood and New was so heated, particularly on Twitter, that the Justice Department sent an unusual letter to the academy warning that changes to its eligibility rules could raise antitrust concerns. At the time, there was a push inside the 10,000-member academy to come up with a reasonable way to ensure that only films with robust theatrical releases were eligible for Oscars.

Flickers of resistance remain.

“There are many great companies that are streamers that like to loosely throw around the word ‘cinema’ without supporting it as cinema,” said Tom Quinn, chief executive of Neon, the indie studio behind “Parasite,” which won the 2021 Oscar for best picture, and “The Worst Person in the World,” a screenplay and international film nominee this year. He was referring to the tendency by the majority of the streaming companies to limit a film’s theatrical release, opting instead to release it on their apps.

Our Reviews of the 10 Best-Picture Oscar Nominees

Card 1 of 10

“Belfast.” In this charming memoir, the director Kenneth Branagh recalls, through a rose-tinted lens and black-and-white photography, his working-class childhood in a turbulent Northern Ireland.

“CODA.” A shy 17-year-old is the lone hearing member of her rambunctious family. As she confronts a newly awakened desire to sing, her efforts to share her musical talent with her deaf relatives are remarkably affecting.

“Don’t Look Up.” Two astronomers discover a comet headed straight for Earth. When they pass along the bad news, the president of the United States has other things on her mind to pay attention to than the impending catastrophe.

“Drive My Car.” A theater director grapples with the death of his wife, as he mounts a production of “Uncle Vanya.” A chauffeur assigned by the theater company ferries him to and from work while holding back vast emotional reserves of her own.

“Dune.” In this adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction opus, the young scion of a noble family departs for a desert planet home to monstrous sandworms, enigmatic Bedouin-like inhabitants and an addictive, highly valuable resource called spice.

“King Richard.” This two-for-one superhero origin story follows young Venus and Serena Williams in their ascent in women’s tennis, as they fulfill an ambition that their father had conceived before the two were born.

“Licorice Pizza.” In Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age romance, a child performer who has hit maximum adolescent awkwardness is aging out of his professional niche. His encounter with 20-something Alana, whom he instantly falls for, gets the story’s juices going.

“Nightmare Alley.” A grifter with empty pockets and a mysterious past joins the sleazoid world of 1930s back-road carnivals. He soon begins cycling through women, including a clairvoyant whose husband once had a successful mentalist act.

“The Power of the Dog.” Phil Burbank has been playing cowboy his entire adult life, raising cattle on his family’s Montana ranch for decades. When his brother George marries a widow with a teenage son, a lifelong family dynamic is disrupted.

“West Side Story.” Steven Spielberg’s remake of one of Broadway’s most celebrated musicals — a modern take on “Romeo and Juliet” — centers on the forbidden love between Tony and Maria, who are involved with two rival street gangs in Manhattan’s West Side in the 1950s.

For Mr. Quinn and others, it is partly an existential conversation. Letting audiences control the presentation of a movie is antithetical to everything movies are supposed to be, he said.

“The reality is seeing some of these movies at home on a portal — when you are in complete control, and you can turn them off, and walk away, and you can alter the way the film is edited by virtue of how you see it — it’s no longer cinema,” Mr. Quinn said. “At some point, the ubiquitous nature of streaming content being available at all times everywhere, at your convenience, with no commitment, it really does alter the relationship between the audience and the filmmaker’s vision.”

Even so, most filmmakers have waved a white flag. Martin Scorsese is making his next film for Apple TV+ and worked with Netflix on his previous one.

Because they don’t have to worry about ticket sales — subscriptions are what counts — streamers are often willing to spend more for projects than traditional studios. Increasingly, streaming services are where the eyeballs are, particularly young ones, which translates to “relevancy” in Hollywood’s mind.

The only thing streaming companies have left to do is deliver the ultimate Oscar glory.

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