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Critics’ Dialogue: Should the Oscars Recognize Films That Are Streaming Only?

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JoJo Whilden

As Hollywood adjusts to the coronavirus pandemic, a number of film distributors have chosen to scrap their theatrical release plans and launch certain titles on streaming services instead. That raised the question of whether those movies, such as “Trolls World Tour” or “Capone” or “The King of Staten Island,” would be eligible for Academy Awards. They now will be — at least, for this year. Variety chief film critics Owen Gleiberman and Peter Debruge discuss whether relaxing the rules is a good thing.

Owen Gleiberman: Well, Peter, the Oscars have now embraced streaming. Sort of. The question is: For how long? At the end of April, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences approved a temporary hold on the requirement that a movie needs to have a seven-day theatrical run at a commercial theater in Los Angeles County to become an Oscar contender. Films that have been released digitally, and only digitally, can now qualify. However, the new rule doesn’t apply to all films — only to ones that already had a planned theatrical release.

This announcement, which was seconded last week by the Producers and Directors Guilds, hasn’t shaken the earth or raised many eyebrows, because it feels fair and makes obvious sense. We’re in very special circumstances, and this seems a reasonable way of not penalizing all the 2020 movies that would have been playing in theaters had it not been for the pandemic.

Yet there is now talk that the new rule could, theoretically, be made a permanent one. On May 17, the Los Angeles Times ran a much-talked-about editorial making the case for that very change, arguing that the Academy Awards, going forward, should allow films that have been seen only on streaming services to be Oscar nominees. We’re talking about films that never play in theaters. That would be real paradigm shift, almost a revolutionary change. So I’ll ask you quite simply, Peter: Do you agree with it? Do you think that’s how the Oscars should now evolve?

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Peter Debruge: It’s a complicated question, Owen. If I ran the zoo, no, streaming movies would be allowed even in the time of coronavirus because the Academy has rules and the rules clearly stipulate that Oscar contenders must have a theatrical qualifying run. But the Academy has been punching holes in its own regulations for years, and rather than bend them once on behalf of the coronavirus, I’d rather see them carve a new line into their precious (soft)stone tablets that expands Oscar eligibility to include movies that debut on streaming. If Netflix has the money to buy “Roma” and produce “The Irishman” — movies bolder and better than 95% of what the studios produce — then the company shouldn’t be forced to open those films on one Los Angeles screen to qualify.

Why would anyone even resist this obvious change, you wonder? Personally, I believe there’s something sacred in the moviegoing experience that I can’t re-create at home. And relaxing Oscar rules risks chipping away at the institution you and I hold dear: going to see movies in the dark, on the big screen, among crowds, where they hold our undivided attention — as opposed to competing with incoming emails, phone calls and other distractions. But the truth is, the way people consume movies has been changing as long as the movies have been around, and the Academy risks irrelevance when it stands in the way.

OG: Those arguments all sound reasonable in the abstract. Clearly, the world is changing, and the world of movies is changing. Why shouldn’t the Academy change with it? That said, I’m pretty dead-set against this particular evolution — not what the Academy is doing this year, but the idea of making the change permanent. I think it mucks around, in too much of a cavalier WTF-it’s-a-streaming-world-let’s-just-go-with-it way, with the essential definition of what a movie is.

I get it: People now watch movies at home. They do it more than ever. But this always gets said as if it’s some major piece of news. News flash: People have been watching movies at home — eagerly, casually, routinely — since the early ’80s. And so what? I think the Academy needs to preserve the idea that watching a movie in a theater remains the gold standard of the movie experience. I know a lot of people dispute that, but I don’t. I’m still religious about it, and I’m not ashamed to say so.

PD: It’s curious, all this religious verbiage in our description of moviegoing, and yet, I do feel it’s fitting. When it’s just me and the screen in a movie theater, I feel a sense of communion with the characters, which doesn’t happen in my living room. But then again, I didn’t grow up with TV in the house or an iPad in my hands. Cinema may be my cathedral, but it isn’t everyone’s. To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, “Some keep the Sabbath going to church / Others keep it, staying at Home / With a Subwoofer for a Chorister / And a Flatscreen for a Dome.”

The problem with insisting on the theatrical experience is that the best pictures don’t play cinemas for long. They might do a couple weeks in Los Angeles, if they’re lucky, then resurface on HBO or on demand, where the majority of people see them months later. When “Roma” went up on Netflix three weeks into its limited theatrical release, it was suddenly available everywhere in America at once. And just because it was seen on TV screens doesn’t make it a TV movie. Heck, the best film I’ve seen this year is arguably “Bad Education,” a widescreen, big-screen, star-driven drama that HBO acquired at the Toronto Film Festival. And Hugh Jackman oughta get an Oscar for it.

OG: I loved “Bad Education.” It is, quite simply, a sensational movie. And though I would argue that it’s a real anomaly (in terms of a film of that quality being available not in theaters and only on HBO), the truth is that even before the age of “Roma” and “The Irishman,” one could always point to something on television — a self-contained feature-length entertainment — that was worthy of being called an amazing movie. I remember back in 2001 when I saw the two-part ABC TV-movie “Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows,” starring Judy Davis. I told people, “That’s one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen.” Minus the commercials, it was two hours and 50 minutes long, and technically speaking it wasn’t a “movie,” but come on! Even then the distinction was starting to feel awfully semantic.

So do we want to start blowing what’s left of the distinction to smithereens? My biggest concern is that once you open the streaming floodgates, you’re going to turn the Oscars into something wildly overstuffed and unwieldy and sort of hazily defined. Right now, about 1,000 movies open theatrically in one year. If the new rule becomes permanent, the number of things that qualify for the Oscars may multiply by a factor of two or three. Is that really something we need?

Yes, if we stick to the way it is now, a movie as terrific as “Bad Education” will be forced to compete for Emmys, and not Oscars. But maybe that’s a small price to pay. Turning the awards race into a free-for-all of everything that streams is something it’s hard to argue against in any technical sense. But my gut says that it will make the movie awards season more diffuse, more exhausting, and less special. All the things that are already happening to it! I’m not sure that’s really what people want.

PD: People want the Oscars to reflect their own enthusiasm for the movies that excite them each year. Yes, I prefer the theatrical experience, but I’m fortunate enough to live in a big city, Los Angeles, where nearly everything opens. For many, it’s become obsolete: too expensive, too inconvenient, too limited in its selection. Coronavirus won’t kill it, despite the fact it’s forcing many distributors to adapt to a digital model. The demand may shrink, but there will always be an audience that wants to see movies on the big screen, even long after the next technology has taken streaming’s place, be it virtual reality or piping a movie directly into your brain. And the Academy should evolve accordingly, rather than sticking to a strictly theatrical paradigm — especially when most Oscar voters seem to prefer the convenience of streaming!

It’s great that the Academy has held the line on theatrical runs until now, effectively forcing Netflix to open its prestige films in cinemas — where purists like us want to see them. But guess who’s standing in the way of that model? The exhibitors. They’re the ones who turned down “Roma,” out of principle, effectively forcing the company to buy theaters where they can Oscar-qualify future contenders.

These days, to remain profitable, studios have largely abandoned making “Oscar worthy” movies in favor of franchises and tentpoles. In the ’90s, independent and foreign directors stepped up to fill the resulting void, much as major talents such as Martin Scorsese, Nicolas Winding Refn, and, yes, “Parasite’s” Bong Joon Ho (with “Okja”) have been taking projects to Netflix and Amazon, which back more artistic and original work. During the era of “Pulp Fiction” and “Fargo,” such limited-release gems weren’t considered any less ambitious or “awards worthy” simply because they played on fewer screens, and I’d argue the same is true today, when the year’s best pictures potentially stand a better chance of reaching receptive audiences via streaming than they ever would in theaters.

OG: With that argument, Peter, you’re kind of having your theatrical cake and eating it too. The whole excitement about “Parasite” last year is that people did go to see it in theaters. It made $53 million at the domestic box office, and that’s a major part of why it grabbed headlines. Do you seriously think that “Parasite” would have been the phenomenon it was had it been streaming only?

But, of course, this all really taps into a larger question, namely: What’s the future of cinema? Are movie theaters destined to go the way of the horse-and-buggy? Some think so. But I don’t. I think that’s putting the buggy before the horse. What you’re seeing now is that there’s a lot of hostility to theaters, and observers act out their hate by saying, “Oh, look, theaters are dying!” It’s true that the theatrical model has never faced a threat like the coronavirus. But if you believe, as I do, that theaters will come back, then this is not the moment to be talking about how to take them down a peg by turning the Academy Awards into a bigger pond with a lot more small fish swimming around. That may sound like good artistic democracy, but I’m sorry, it’s not good showbiz.

PD: While we disagree on what the Academy should do, it sounds like we agree on the bigger picture. Theaters are the ideal way to experience movies, but not the only way, and as someone with a fondness for smaller fish, I’m not worried about voters being overwhelmed. The Oscars are already wildly overstuffed and unwieldy and sort of hazily defined, to use your expression. Apart from “Bird Box” and “Bright,” I don’t think any streaming-only releases have made much of a cultural impact, but if “Tiger King” and “Wild Wild Country” could (the latter made your 2018 top 10 list), they will, too.

As for “Parasite,” that was a largely theatrical phenomenon, I agree. But my point was that Netflix backed Bong’s previous film, “Okja,” which goes to show they’re ahead of the curve. And the streamers — not just Netflix but Amazon, Apple, Hulu, and HBO — have the deep pockets to snap up some of the best movies on the festival circuit, and I’d hate for these films, which were made for the big screen, to be ineligible for Oscars just because the distributors have a different model.

OG: Good point. Then again, one way or another something’s going to get tamped down here: the pool of competing titles, or the motion-picture experience. So maybe this becomes the new measure of how important the Oscars are. In the war between studios and exhibitors over streaming, the Oscars could be a meditating force. But if they agree to include movies that are streaming only, the Oscars will lose that leverage. One more reason why I hope they don’t go that way.