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Why Hollywood should be worried about Netflix and its Oscar nod

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent

Hollywood executives would have scoffed a decade ago at the idea of Netflix (NFLX) potentially winning Hollywood’s top honor. But the Los Gatos, California-based streaming giant could change the Oscars forever if “Roma” wins Best Picture on Sunday, sending an irrefutable signal of its clout to Hollywood’s elite. The movie had only a limited theatrical release just three weeks before it was available to stream on Netflix.

Some Hollywood insiders view “Roma” as a threat to the status quo. The film industry has followed a linear model for decades: a release in theaters, followed by at least 90 days before those films can be streamed or released on a medium like DVD and Blu-ray disc. But digital platforms like Netflix are quickly upending that model. And if a streamed film like “Roma” wins Best Picture on Sunday, the line between movies and TV will continue to blur, imperiling movie theaters and box office receipts.

“Some in Hollywood are in complete denial that Netflix and these other services are coming to eat their lunch, but they are,” one longtime Los Angeles film executive tells Yahoo Finance. “But you know what? They should be worried. Because in another 10 years, the film distribution model is probably going to look pretty different than what it looks like today.”

As more Hollywood talent flock to platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon (AMZN), the quality of that original content is only going to improve. And over the next few years, they’ll also have more digital platforms to choose from, including standalone, Netflix-like services from AT&T (T) later this year and Comcast-owned NBC Universal, due out in 2020. That gives Netflix and its rivals even more leverage and say in how and when content is distributed.

Alfonso Cuaron walks onstage to accept the award for best international film for "Roma" at the 34th Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, in Santa Monica, Calif. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

High-brow cinema

If any of Netflix’s original films to date has a shot at winning the award, it’s Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma.” The Mexican filmmaker’s latest film is a deeply personal, 135-minute cinematic homage to the woman who raised him — a live-in maid in Mexico City — shot in black-and-white, with dialogue in Spanish and Mixtec. Although it’s one of the best-reviewed films of 2018, “Roma” is possibly the least commercial out of this year’s Best Picture nominees: it lacks the glossy spectacle of Marvel’s “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “A Star is Born’s” musicality and “The Favourite’s” comic beats.

But with its big overarching themes of class and race, Cuaron’s careful direction and masterful camerawork, “Roma” is the type of high-brow cinema Netflix needs to sway Academy voters and build more prestige in Hollywood.

“Netflix gains in prestige by aligning itself with high art cinema,” explains Dana Polan, a professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “DVD, TV, and streaming are not as culturally ‘prestigious’ as cinema … Prestige is important in a number of ways. It can translate to box office for the professional, urban liberal class. It can appear to prove that Hollywood types are not venal and crass hucksters but have art on their minds, because ultimately, Hollywood likes to believe it is producing ‘Art.’ ‘Roma’ fits the bill.”

Alfonso Cuaron accepts the award for best international film for "Roma" at the 34th Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, in Santa Monica, Calif. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Hollywood’s mixed feelings

While Netflix has seen an influx of talent, including Sandra Bullock, Jake Gyllenhaal, “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes, and “American Crime Story” creator Ryan Murphy for lucrative deals and promises of creative freedom, detractors such as director Steven Spielberg have written off Netflix and its onslaught of new, original streamed films as made-for-TV movies undeserving of an Academy Award nod.

“I don’t believe that films that are given token qualifications, in a couple of theaters for less than a week, should qualify for Academy Award nominations,” Spielberg has said, in an apparent but indirect reference to Netflix. “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. If it’s a good show, you deserve an Emmy. But not an Oscar.”

But “Roma” is just one of many films, including upcoming projects by Martin Scorsese, JC Chandor (“A Most Violent Year”) and John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”), that hint at the streaming giant’s aggressive push into film as a whole — not just the Oscar race.

“The Oscar nomination already gets Netflix on Hollywood’s radar, however the Oscar award itself would be confirmation and further consolidation of its reputation as a player, not just domestically but internationally,” adds Polan. “Netflix, in particular, also wants to confirm that it’s international. Here you have a film by a director who’s proven he can work with English speaking actors with ‘Harry Potter’ but can also make a foreign language film that will be celebrated.”

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR THE TELEVISION ACADEMY - Shonda Rhimes is inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 at the Television Academy's Saban Media Center in North Hollywood, Calif. (Photo by Phil Mccarten/Invision for Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images)

It helps that ‘Roma’ has Netflix as its champion, eager to put massive dollars behind it. Studios traditionally spend millions on marketing campaigns each year to market their films (and film talent) to Academy voters, and this year was no different. Netflix spent as much as $30 million on the Oscars marketing campaign for “Roma,” according to two sources familiar with the matter. That’s nearly twice what it cost to make the film, more than what other studios spent on their Big Picture contenders this season, and it makes “Roma” one of the most expensive Oscar campaigns of all time.

There were also a series of promotional parties for “Roma”: a screening hosted by Charlize Theron and Diego Luna at Los Angeles’s Chateau Marmont hotel in January and a cocktail soiree with Angelina Jolie that same month. Influential film industry veterans were sent a 200-page coffee table book about the film, as well as chocolates with a signed note from “Roma” actress Yalitza Aparicio. Then, of course, there were the TV advertisements and billboards peppering LA.

“I think ‘Roma’ would never have been made or been nominated if any other studio had produced it,” contends Charlene Li, principal analyst at the Altimeter Group and author of “The Engaged Leader.” “But because Netflix put it on the homepage of all of its subscribers, it was watched and loved. The Oscars are about recognizing great work, but it can also be a popularity contest. And the widespread love for Roma only happened because Netflix made it available.”

A worthwhile investment

For a company like Netflix, $30 million is a worthwhile investment if all the positive press from an Oscar nomination (and potential win) translates to millions more Netflix subscribers and boosts the company’s top line, adds Li.

Indeed, when moviemakers have a streamed film that could be Academy Awards material, they could just do what Netflix did with “Roma” by playing their films in a number of small, independent theaters, which, in “Roma’s” case, turned out to be over 200 worldwide. At that point, very little will differentiate so-called “feature films” from made-for-TV movies, not to mention the Oscars from the Emmys.

But Mitchell Block, a filmmaker who served as executive producer of the Academy Award-winning 2001 documentary “Big Mama” and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, says Netflix-financed films like “Roma” are, in fact, a good thing for the industry and independent films, in particular.

“If anything, we’re approaching a golden age of independent film, because we have so much competition competing to acquire rights to film,” explains Block, who adds that the increased competition translates to higher pay for filmmakers and helps them more easily close deals for lower budget films, not unlike Cuaron’s “Roma.”

A potential, new golden era for filmmaking? That’s clearly a bullish take, but for at least some filmmakers, one they’d welcome with open arms.

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