Once the dust settled on Tuesday morning and the 2019 Oscar nominations were announced, there was one major studio that was a clear winner of the day. Netflix had managed to walk away with a whopping total of 15 nominations. Three of them were given to Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The impressive feat though, was the ten nods for Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. The black-and-white Spanish-language masterpiece acquired more nominations than expected, covering both acting and technical categories. Most importantly, Roma is Netflix’s first Best Picture nominee. Having Netflix be a part of the Best Picture race should not come as a surprise, though. These nominations are the culmination of years of planning finally coming to fruition.
The “Netflix Master Plan” can be traced back to around 2013. House of Cards and Orange is the New Black were brand new shows attracting serious acclaim and simultaneously redefining the term “binge”. The streaming service found itself immediately establishing a serious foothold in the television industry by producing quality content, free of network regulations and annoying ad breaks.
It wasn’t much later that Netflix snagged their first Academy Award nomination, with Jehane Noujaim’s documentary The Square, in 2014. Since then they’ve practically set up a permanent presence in the Best Documentary Feature category. This is the first year since then that Netflix hasn’t had a feature-length documentary earn a nomination. The key was that the genre, like television, fits the streaming format. For casual audiences, it’s more common to curiously discover a documentary “for free”, than seek one out in a theater. Netflix provides the guilt-free accessibility necessary to help documentaries thrive.
The only serious resistance Netflix has encountered since its 2013 push for original content has been for feature films. The old guards of Hollywood have been clashing with Netflix on features since the beginning, claiming that the theatrical experience is at risk. Steven Spielberg equates Netflix originals to TV movies, therefore unqualified for Oscars. Christopher Nolan believes that Netflix should behave more like Amazon Studios, by giving films normal theatrical releases before exclusively streaming on Amazon Prime. There was even a 2017 controversy involving Netflix original films screening at Cannes Film Festival.
Ted Sarandos, the current chief content officer at Netflix, found a temporary solution in the theater debate, last award season, with Dee Rees’ Mudbound. He avoided the traditional 90-day theatrical release window and released the film in limited theaters for only a few weeks. It was the bare minimum, but it was enough for Mudbound to secure four Oscar nominations in 2018. Among them was Rachel Morrison, who broke new ground in the field of cinematography, as the first female director of photography ever to be nominated. The tactic felt like a concession made for award consideration. There was no intention of giving cinephiles a unique, magical theater experience.
This past year, however, Netflix collaborators have become more vocal in how they want their films to be seen. Alfonso Cuarón emphasized that the complete experience of Roma comes from seeing it in a movie theater. Netflix agreed, giving the film a more expansive limited release. Martin Scorsese is another prominent filmmaker working with Netflix who acknowledges the changing times. However, he also prefers his audience to watch The Irishman in a traditional theater. Internal pressure put on Netflix from its collaborators could be the most organic way for the service to become more lenient in its views on theatrical releases. Compromising with filmmakers, for a pure experience, is more genuine than the bare minimum. If Netflix wants to work with more top-tier directors, they might have to concede even further. Another path would be for Netflix to buy their own theaters, which was rumored in 2018.
At its core, the debate boils down to accessibility versus experience. The cost of movie tickets aren’t getting cheaper. Casual moviegoers cannot consistently spend $10-15 to see every possible awards contender. At the same time, it’s somewhat beautiful to know that a film as personal and evocative as Roma can be easily seen by millions of people.
Is it preferable to watch Roma on a cracked iPhone screen? Of course not. As someone who watched Roma in a theater before streaming it on a laptop, I can attest that it is worth putting on a pair of pants and buying a ticket. Yalitza Aparicio delivers one of the most expressive and dynamic performances in years. There are two visceral, breathtaking sequences that just don’t play as well on a laptop. Alfonso Cuarón, as writer, director, and cinematographer here (nominated for all three duties), has solidified himself as one of the most talented storytellers in recent history. The theater is the best setting for full immersion, not to mention appreciating his work.
For Netflix to continually make a showing at the Oscars, several things needed to go right. It’s naive to think that business and politics don’t play a part in taking home an Oscar. Reports have shown that Netflix is paying millions of dollars in its award season marketing campaign. However, Netflix has made the important first step in acquiring a movie that is purely undeniable.
With ten nominations, Roma has become a serious contender in the Best Picture race. Its strongest competition is Green Book, the perfect avatar for old Hollywood. Should Roma overcome odds and win in that category, it could be a sign of where the movie landscape is heading in the future. Netflix knows that nominations are nothing more than acknowledgement. Victories mean ultimate acceptance and validation from the entire industry.
A number of major golden statues would catapult Netflix a few steps farther into their strategy to dominate the media landscape. More prominence naturally equals more subscribers. Wins provide leverage in the ongoing debate with movie theaters, proof that Netflix does not need AMC to win Best Picture. The most astonishing piece might be that no one outside of Netflix knows how many people actually watched Roma. The streaming service only reveals numbers in tweets, providing no other way for people to fact-check.
Netflix’s influence over the past few years has already changed the movie industry forever. Without sounding too snobby, whatever the outcome, it is essential to keep the theatrical experience alive. No TV or laptop can match a shared experience, devoid of distraction, watching something on the largest screen possible.
This piece is not meant to vilify Netflix, portraying them as evil masterminds. It’s merely looking at the information available and focusing on one aspect of continually shifting waves. Alfonso Cuarón has a mindset that a rising tide lifts all boats. Shortly after winning a Golden Globe earlier this month, he was asked about the competition between streaming platforms and traditional studios. He says, “they both together elevate cinema, and more importantly, they can create diversity in cinema.”
There are always snubs and controversies revolving around the Oscars. This year there won’t even be a host. Roma has emerged as not only a masterful film full of likeable people to root for, the behind-the-scenes implications of its success provide monumental stakes for the future of the movie industry.