It’s Oscar season and once again, it looks like your best bet to watch an Oscar nominated movie at home is going to be on DVD or Blu-ray.
Streaming movies online has countless advantages over getting a polycarbonate platter in the mail, but selection is often not among them. That’s especially so at Netflix (NFLX), which must wait its turn before subscribers can watch the award season’s top films on its flat-rate plans.
That’s because the movie industry still makes more money through purchases and rentals than streaming films.
But even if you limit yourself to rentals and purchases at Amazon (AMZN) and others, where the selection should be about even between physical and digital, DVDs and Blu-ray discs retain some advantages.
This year’s nominees, sort-of playing on Amazon
Watching many of the Academy Award nominees that debuted only recently still requires going to a theater. Home viewing — well, legal home viewing — is only an option for a handful of contenders in the big five categories of best picture, best director, best actor, best actress and best (original and adapted) screenplay.
For example, among the nine best picture nominees, only the crime drama “Hell or High Water” is available as a digital download (for rent or purchase) or as a disc at Amazon.
Two other dramas, “Hacksaw Ridge” and “Manchester by the Sea,” will land on Amazon as downloadable purchases on Feb. 7 and in disc form on Feb. 21. The sci-fi hit “Arrival” arrives in physical form Feb. 14, but Amazon doesn’t show a digital due date.
I found one best original screenplay possibility, “20th Century Women,” listed only on Amazon as a free Appstore app whose sales pitch included the line “Now you this request cold Android all 4K-Ultra-HD-3DMovies.” It vanished after a query to Amazon PR.
Not so much luck on Netflix
Netflix subscribers will have to wait even longer to watch this year’s Oscar contenders, especially folks without a DVD subscription.
Best actress nominee “Florence Foster Jenkins” (Meryl Streep), best actor nominee “Captain Fantastic” (Viggo Mortensen) and best original screenplay nominee “The Lobster” are only available via DVD through Netflix, but you can digitally rent or purchase them on disc at Amazon.
That pattern prevails for last year’s nominees, as well. Of eight 2016 best-picture contenders, only two are on Netflix’s streaming menu: “Spotlight” (which won my own Oscar for “best depiction of newsroom slovenliness”) and “The Big Short.”
The other six — “Bridge of Spies,” “Brooklyn,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Martian,” “The Revenant” and “Room” — are DVD-only at Netflix. You can buy downloads or discs of all of them at Amazon, and all but “Bridge of Spies” and “Brooklyn” are available as digital rentals there. “Room” is also free to stream for Prime subscribers.
Given the choice between buying a digital file tied to “digital rights management” software and a disc that you can loan or resell, physical media should warrant paying a little more. Especially if the disc itself comes with digital versions to watch on a computer or tablet.
How this works
The explanation for this is not any Hollywood hostility toward Netflix, but the intersection of copyright law and the movie industry’s “release window” strategy of selling movies in one channel at a time to maximize profits.
“The windows were never set up for the benefit of the consumer,” said Michael Goodman, director of research for Strategy Analytics. “In a perfect world, everything would be released day and date” — simultaneous digital and theatrical debuts.
Once physical sales do start, however, Netflix can rent discs without permission, just as used bookstores don’t need a publisher’s say-so to operate.
That’s courtesy of a legal principle called the “first sale doctrine,” holding that a copyright holder’s control over a creative work’s distribution doesn’t extend to a particular purchased physical copy.
That doctrine doesn’t cover digital files “sold” subject to a terms-of-use license. So Netflix must negotiate with studios to stream their films — and studios still make more money from rentals and purchases than streaming via a subscription.
“The consumer price-per-view of a movie streamed 18 months after release is measured in cents, whereas the same film purchased as a recent release, on whatever format, is measured in dollars,” wrote Richard Cooper, an analyst with IHS Markit.
Neither analyst expects this to change, even as studios have begun experimenting with selling digital downloads a few weeks before DVD and Blu-ray sales start.
The result, for streaming viewers, can be a frustrating Venn diagram in which convenient, legal and comprehensive barely overlap.
“It’s kind of balkanized,” Goodman said. “I do this professionally, and I have to see who the studio is and cross-reference to see who they have an distribution agreement with.”
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