Netflix could make Oscars history.
Netflix’s arsenal of content this year could give the streamer the most best picture nominations from any studio in history, a record held by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which scored five nods at the ninth Academy Awards in 1937. It may even net the streaming giant its first best picture win after falling short with the likes of Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma.”
MGM achieved the feat when the Academy was nominating 10 films in the best picture category. “The Great Ziegfeld” was the big winner, taking home three statues. It was joined by other films released in 1936: “Libeled Lady,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “San Francisco” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” At the time, MGM was the undisputed heavyweight in Hollywood as the home to top talents such as Shirley Temple, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and many more. So expansive was the A-list roster that the studio once boasted it “had more stars than the heavens.”
Netflix also boasts one of the deepest arsenals in town. It has been building, buying, and releasing quality content for years. In this extended eligibility season with the COVID-19 pandemic preventing studios from releasing their movies widely in theaters, the streamer has many top contenders for Oscar nominations. With five months still left in the awards season, it’s still early to call if the distributor will be successful in breaking the record. So how does the streaming giant theoretically get there?
It needs to be noted that this is the final year of the “sliding scale” voting for the best picture. Since this rule was adopted in 2011, the lineup has resulted in either eight or nine nominees. With Oscars 2022, the Academy will move back to a “straight 10” selection for their most coveted category, allowing AMPAS voters to select 10 films on their ballots. Under the current system, they vote for five, and a film must receive 5% of the number one votes to be nominated for best picture.
David Fincher’s “Mank” and Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7” are in the safest position to make the cut. Both have received strong reviews from critics and boast many of the elements that typically get recognized by the Academy. About 63% of Academy voters are in the technical branches, and that’s where “Mank” will do well in categories like cinematography and sound. With “Chicago 7,” editing, writing and the actors branches will help propel it over the line.
George C. Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is next on the list and aside from quality and film reviews, math and precedence are in its favor. The late Chadwick Boseman has received the kind of notices actors dream of, with some identifying him as one of the top two contenders in best actor (the other is Anthony Hopkins in “The Father”). Assuming Boseman is “the one” to join Peter Finch (“Network”) as the only previous posthumous best actor winner, the film would almost certainly bring in a best picture nomination. In the last 50 years, there have only been 10 lead actor winners whose films did not receive a best picture nomination. In the last 20, there have been only three: Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart,” Forest Whitaker in “The Last King of Scotland” and Denzel Washington in “Training Day.” With “Ma Rainey” also likely to nab a best actress nomination for Viola Davis, the movie seems likely to join the club of best picture contenders.
After those three, the picture is more blurry.
By nature, musicals are divisive with general audiences and critics, which is why despite “The Prom” embracing inclusiveness, the film will be on the bubble until the major guilds like PGA and SAG name their nominations. There’s also been plenty of snarking on Twitter about star Meryl Streep’s rapping talents.
Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” seems like a strong vehicle to get star Delroy Lindo his first nomination and perhaps snag a supporting actor nomination for Boseman, who co-stars. But time is never an ally when it comes to keeping voters’ attention. “Da 5 Bloods” opened in June, and in the subsequent four months, there have been many newer, shinier objects dominating the headlines, some even courtesy of Netflix.
George Clooney’s “The Midnight Sky” is the biggest film he’s ever constructed in both visual scope and narrative heft. Clooney is an Academy darling, and it would be foolish not to consider it in the mix given Clooney’s eight nominations and double Oscar-topping track record, winning best supporting actor for 2006’s “Syriana” and best picture for co-producing 2012’s “Argo.” He’s also just one of three people who have been nominated in six different categories (with Walt Disney and Alfonso Cuarón). Factoring in likely contention in production design, cinematography, original score and visual effects, “The Midnight Sky” could get a ticket to the big night.
Vanessa Kirby’s brave turn in “Pieces of a Woman” has put her near the forefront of the best actress race, but the impression of it being “very hard to watch” doesn’t make it a principal candidate to be embraced by the Academy at large. In the days of five best picture nominees, director Kornél Mundruczó would mirror a textbook lone director candidate (like Paul Greengrass for “United 93” and Mike Leigh for “Vera Drake”) with all the talk surrounding his virtuoso filmmaking style in a 23-minute one-take sequence that highlights the film’s challenging subject. If the Academy could look beyond those graphic moments, “Pieces of a Woman” could have a fighting chance with an early January drop date.
“The Life Ahead” with Sophia Loren and “The White Tiger” with Priyanka Chopra Jonas likely won’t break into the best picture race. The same goes for Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and Radha Blank’s “The 40-Year-Old Version,” no matter how amazing some think they are (spoiler alert: me). The Academy doesn’t often choose films and performances that are “cerebral” or just downright “cool,” which the latter two features embody. They may be just too niche for AMPAS’ tastes.
One additional record in Netflix’s sight is one held since the 1974 Oscars. There has only been one time in the Academy’s 92-year history of a category being totally dominated by one studio. Paramount Pictures was able to do this in best costume design where winner “The Great Gatsby” triumphed over “Chinatown,” “Daisy Miller,” “The Godfather Part II” and “Murder on the Orient Express.” Highly unlikely but Netflix could come close in categories like best actress and best editing, pending how much Frances McDormand and “Nomadland” sustain interest.
What’s interesting is that even though many major studio releases such as “Black Widow” and “No Time to Die” were pushed into 2021 due to the pandemic, there are actually a record number of Oscar contenders this year. Much of the credit must be given to the steamers, including Amazon Studios, Apple TV Plus, HBO Max and Hulu. Imagine if none of the streamers existed. All those headlines and quips on Twitter stating “there are no movies this year” would, in fact, be close to the truth.
But Netflix doesn’t just want to get nominated. It’s spending big to produce and market its content because it wants the top prize. After coming up just short with 2018’s “Roma” and missing out with 2019’s “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story,” this may be the year it finally shatters the glass ceiling at the Dolby Theatre.
Visit THE AWARDS HUB to see the full list of contenders by category.
2021 Academy Awards Predictions