At a Netflix soiree following the 91st Academy Awards, which saw the streaming titan’s best shot at Oscar glory to date — the critically acclaimed “Roma” — fall to Universal’s populist favorite “Green Book,” a prominent filmmaker waved me to a secluded spot for a quick postmortem: “What happened?”
Alfonso Cuarón’s cinematic memoir had been positioned by most pundits as the one to beat, on the strength of Directors Guild and British Academy victories. Historically, that’s been a powerful combination. But to repeat what has become a mantra, the preferential ballot changes things. Its methodology aims for general agreement among the Motion Picture Academy’s 8,000 voters, and if you looked offline this season, you found that voters could pretty much agree on “Green Book.” It — and four-time Oscar winner “Bohemian Rhapsody,” for that matter — may have been divisive on social media, but the internet doesn’t get a vote.
What else happened? Anti-Netflix sentiment certainly poisoned the waters. The industry collectively freaked out at the future perched on its doorstep. Never mind coexistence — the feeling among the company’s strongest detractors was that a vote for “Roma” was a vote against their business. But that world is plainly shrinking. Six major studios have been whittled to five, and the trend line to avoid further contraction doesn’t look favorable.
So the Oscars provided a dramatic battleground for a valiant stand. Major studios, represented by “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “First Man,” “Green Book” and “A Star Is Born,” accounted for 13 of this year’s 21 feature category wins. Sometimes studios will reign with one or two films, but it’s unusual to see this kind of success across such a spread of movies.
Nevertheless, Netflix is just getting warmed up. The company has gone from a swing and a miss with “Beasts of No Nation” to a smattering of nominations for “Mudbound” to, finally, best picture recognition for “Roma,” not to mention three prizes for Cuarón’s film. And they were such landmarks, in a ceremony full of them: the first Oscar for Mexico, the first foreign-language film to win for directing, the first director to win a cinematography award — these are major gets in a year that saw hostility aimed at all corners, not just at Silicon Valley.
The fact is as long as Netflix can attract top-tier talent, it will be a major Oscar player. The teaser trailer for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” that dropped in the middle of the show almost felt like a “coming attractions” moment for next year’s season…but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The point is, this all makes for a completely different trend line.
Regarding those other landmarks, they bear mentioning: costume designer Ruth Carter (“Black Panther”), production designer Hannah Beachler (“Black Panther”), writers Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott (“BlacKkKlansman”), director Peter Ramsey (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”) and supporting actors Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”) and Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) collectively shattered the record for black winners on Oscar night. And 13 wins for women on the evening is a milestone as well. That’s change you can get behind.
With that, another Oscar race enters the history books. In some respects, it felt like a watershed. In others, it seemed representative of an organization’s ongoing evolution. And the 91st Oscars — particularly its denouement — provided a compelling snapshot of that moment. It’ll be fun to pull out the snapshot in a few years to see how it’s aged. For now, the scrapbook is closed.