More films from streaming services are in the awards race this year than ever, prompting some handwringing among awards season voters — most notably AMPAS board governor Steven Spielberg — about whether SVOD films with limited theatrical runs are leading to the demise of theaters and deserving of the same consideration as traditional releases.
Netflix’s “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story,” “Dolemite Is My Name” and “The Two Popes,” which hit select theaters for several weeks before they’re streamed, are garnering serious attention in several Golden Globes categories. Amazon is shortening the windows of two releases (“The Report” and “The Aeronauts”) to just two weeks alongside its hopefuls with conventional windows (“Honey Boy” and “Les Miserables”). And newcomer Apple Plus is throwing its hat in the ring for the first time with “Hala” and “The Elephant Queen,” both of which have limited theatrical runs. On Wednesday, Apple scrapped a planned gala screening of “The Banker,” which was meant to close AFI Fest on Thursday in Hollywood, after reported concerns about a real-life figure portrayed in the film.
With Martin Scorsese’s epic Netflix drama “The Irishman” and Quentin Tarantino’s acclaimed Sony film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” currently in the lead among awards prognosticators, you might think we’re gearing up for a major showdown between studios and streamers this season. But if the Globes voters and other factors are any indication, maybe not so much.
“For us, there’s no difference in a theatrical or ‘streaming’ run, and if you look back historically, we’ve acknowledged films that have been associated with streamers,” says one prominent HFPA member, alluding to this year’s director and foreign-language film Globes winner “Roma” and such past nominated films as “Mudbound,” both from Netflix. “Any movie we consider has to be screened for us theatrically to be eligible — it has to play for one week in Los Angeles at a theater.” Another member says, “In my opinion, if they come out theatrically, it doesn’t matter where they go after that.”
At first glance, one might assume the HFPA would lean in favor of films from theatrical distribs. A large chunk of its about 90 members hail from Europe, where a devotion to supporting theatrical runs led Cannes to block Netflix and other SVOD films without a lengthy theatrical run from competition. But awards consultant Tony Angelotti, who worked on campaigns for top Globe and Oscar winner “Green Book” and other Universal and Disney/Pixar titles, says HFPA members have no anti-streaming bias.
“They don’t necessarily distinguish between formats in the same way that people whose lives are essentially based on theatrical exhibition and distribution in the Academy might. They’re press, and it’s a different mindset, though I could probably name a couple” who still strongly favor traditional releases, he says.
Veteran awards publicist Melody Korenbrot, who handles films from Sony Pictures Classics and other specialty distribs, agrees with his assessment. “I don’t think they care,” she says. “[They say,] ‘If it’s good, we’re voting for it.’”
And right now, Netflix’s “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story” are two of the top-reviewed films of the year. Netflix’s team is led by awards and talent relations exec Lisa Taback, who’s shepherded many Miramax and Weinstein Co. titles to big wins and is considered by some to be the industry’s most formidable awards publicist. While another rep who works with AMPAS and HFPA members says, “They’ll probably be wined and dined with Ted [Sarandos, chief content officer of Netflix]. It’s the old Miramax game,” HFPA-targeted campaigns are common among all studios.
Yet it’s led to comments that indicate the HFPA can’t quite shake a certain reputation among industry cynics. “All [Netflix] has to do to get votes for [“The Irishman”] is dress Marty Scorsese up in an elf costume and put him on members’ laps to take photos,” cracks one studio exec, referencing many of the org’s journalists, who post event selfies with stars online.
But what the Globes nominate has long been reflected by other orgs that have issued awards without their integrity impugned. Leading PR consultants and studio heads say the Globes and top guilds have an influence on Oscar nominations. “The HFPA members take their awards voting seriously, as do AMPAS members, and there are similarities, demographically, between the groups,” Angelotti says. “So it’s no surprise that they have mirrored each other consistently.”
This year, however, the Globes’ role as a predictor of streaming films’ chances at grabbing Oscars is iffy. There won’t be a head-to-head, studio vs. SVOD showdown with the current top two best picture Oscar contenders, since Sony’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” will be entered in the musical/comedy category and “The Irishman” will be up as a drama.
And the bigger question is whether AMPAS’ 842 new, younger voters will care about the difference, even given Spielberg’s February comments that “the greatest contributions we can make as filmmakers is to give audiences the motion picture theatrical experience.”
“Films from streaming services have been contenders in the awards race for several years now, so this year is simply another chapter with even more content,” says Amazon Studios director of awards Debra Birnbaum. “Ultimately, it’s a reflection of the growing opportunity for storytellers to be able to bring their creative vision to life — and to be recognized and honored for their work. Healthy debates about our industry are always good, especially given how quickly everything is changing and evolving.”
Some see it more as a battle of views between veteran AMPAS members and younger ones. “The older [voters] still fight it,” Korenbrot says. “Netflix has some good product, they do — they’re just not playing in [many] theaters [for long], and the Oscars were about films playing in theaters. The Academy is neutral, and it’s going to be up to the old guard to protect what’s going on.”
To its credit, Netflix is now taking steps to bolster its theatrical street cred. Martin Scorsese is a constant defender of the service’s commitment to making quality films: A source indicates that the company may be buying New York City’s last standalone movie house, the Paris Theatre, which recently shuttered before Netflix stepped in to book “Marriage Story” there.
Yet, with only a handful of specialty divisions including Fox Searchlight (behind “Jojo Rabbit”), Focus (“Dark Waters”) and Sony Pictures Classics (“Pain and Glory”); such minimajors as Lionsgate (“Bombshell,” “Knives Out”); and indies A24 (“Uncut Gems”), Roadside Attractions (“Judy”) and Neon (“Parasite”) devoted to quality fare, and major studios releasing far fewer of these titles (aside from the occasional “1917,” “Little Women” or “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), the future of specialty theaters devoting screens to indie films remains more in doubt than ever.
An awards consultant who handles conventionally windowed films notes the unfairness of studios not being able to release films as fast or widely as streamers due to distribution contracts, essentially giving SVOD films a national or worldwide “screener” release and resulting word-of-mouth buzz that most specialty films simply can’t afford to obtain.
“There’s no box office reporting on the runs they do have, and bad box office has destroyed a film’s [awards] chances many times,” they add. “At some point, it’s going to be the TV Movie Academy Awards.”