Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: I’m going to post my Oscar ballot this week and, not coincidentally, I notice that an abundance of Netflix ads are crammed into the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Which triggered me to ask: Do I want a Netflix project to win an Oscar? My answer: not really. Sure, Netflix has proved it can muscle into any domain it wishes to, but I don’t want it to muscle into the Oscars.
FLEMING: This is a generational argument and you are on the wrong side of it. I bet most of you voters bound to protect the sanctity of the theatrical release are making decisions based on watching screeners on our television sets. Isn’t there a bit of hypocrisy here? While they are still figuring out the feature formula, Netflix is clearly an important part of the movie going future. Look at the deals they’ve made recently, the money they are spending on building a place in the feature landscape. They’ve got Matt Reeves, who finished his run directing two terrific Planet of the Apes films who replaced Ben Affleck at the helm of the next Batman trilogy, in an overall deal to develop films, including some comparable to the genre pics that started his career with Cloverfield; Netflix just made another first-look deal with Ian Bryce, who produces big-scale pictures. More pacts are coming. Scott Stuber, in the mix for several top studio jobs, chose to lead Netflix into A-list films. He is wasting no time. Netflix just wrapped Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited mob reunion movie with De Niro, Pesci and Keitel, with Al Pacino joining them. If The Irishman is another Goodfellas, how can you dismiss that movie when you have that Oscar ballot in front of you, just because Netflix made it? Netflix is making courageous bets and putting a lot of money behind them.
BART: Filling out my Oscar ballot this week, I realized yet again that the movies I most admired (and voted for) were those that I’d seen in theaters. Sure, I’d watched many screeners these past few weeks and, sure, I have seen (and enjoyed) lots of content on Netflix. But when I find myself discussing movies with voters who are glued to their couches at home I sense a different perspective. They didn’t “feel” the riveting audience reaction to Get Out; they didn’t sense the stir from The Shape of Water. Many didn’t “get” Dunkirk at all. So why am I telling you all this? For one thing, I want to keep theaters around. Also the movie going experience. And I don’t want to see Netflix’s streaming universe get rewarded with Oscars based on a symbolic one-week theater opening.
FLEMING: This was the Academy’s position forever when critics pointed out that the makeup of voters was hopelessly white and the perspective was from voters with the median age of what seemed like 127. They were forced to act in an emergency because the world changed and it just became a joke. I wonder if Get Out would have been even acknowledged before the voting body was diversified. The old Oscar voter would have sniffed that it was a genre film, and probably wouldn’t even have watched the screener. You’re doing a version of the same thing right now, toward Netflix.
BART: I think it’s surreal to assume that Academy voters a generation ago would have rejected films like Get Out. The Academy rewarded movies like Midnight Cowboy, Bonnie and Clyde and In the Heat of the Night which were, in their time, daring and controversial. The presumption that Academy members in the ’60s and ’70s were predominantly racist and reactionary is simply ignorant. Should more members have been recruited from minorities? Of course. But let’s not get carried away with the propaganda of the moment. I know you’ll say that my position is hopelessly retro. You will remind me Netflix owns the world – witness its $300 million Ryan Murphy deal. But I’m told that more and more filmmakers are lining up with me – the Chris Nolans and Steven Spielbergs of the world.
FLEMING: Couple things here. No one is implying that the Academy is racist. But it is simple statement of fact that white voters don’t see the world through the exactly the same prism as black voters, whose sensibilities are informed by personal experience and who are more apt to have noticed the indignity of subtle bigotry. It’s rearing up now in discussion of black actresses earning less than white peers — Viola Davis has a point when she notes she has the same training and experience as Meryl Streep or Sigourney Weaver, so why should she be paid a fraction of what they get — or the question of whether black-themed movies get a fair shake over overseas. That is why making the voting body younger and more diverse was important. But how many people of color are positioned to green light films, to hire and set wages, and push for diversity story lines? Byron Allen is the only one, and he’s just getting started. Even if there were more advocates, would it make a difference? Much has been made of the gender pay disparity, but if you look around, you see women like Stacey Snider, Donna Langley, Emma Watts, Kathleen Kennedy and more in position to hire, and yet they haven’t seemed to be able to turn things around much.
As for your point about Spielberg and Nolan: those same guys are among the directors also fighting a losing battle preserving film stock versus digital. It’s a charming uphill Don Quixote battle, like when Quentin Tarantino had Erik Lomas hunting up old projector parts on eBay and in dusty store rooms, for the limited showings of The Hateful Eight in glorious 70mm. In the end, it was more a novelty than anything else, the charm including a broken projector and hour delay at the screening I attended. Like you and the Academy, I hate change, but it is coming.
These tech companies are about to infiltrate this business and do you think they intend to distribute content under this dinosaur of a system, with inefficient P&A spends and empty theater seats, when they can speak directly to their audiences using their digital platforms and put product right in their homes? The ground is shifting under our feet. It seems clear that Rupert Murdoch took the Disney deal over Comcast because he wanted Disney stock and not Comcast stock. But many say the main reason that Disney did this was to fortify its plunge into OTT. Deadline published some of their inaugural slate plans, and they are bold even before Fox content is factored in. Their new service is fortified by library content from Disney — and presumably Fox when the deal gets made — and there are big-scale originals in both film and TV and plans to start fall 2019 in the U.S. and broaden to global shortly after. No R-rated content on this new service, as that will be placed on the Hulu site. So Disney alone will be vested in two streaming sites. And once the coming mating dance of conglomerates is over – Comcast is kicking the tires on MGM, Sony, and Lionsgate I’m told – there could be four major studios left. They will be all in on this streaming game. And a bunch of Academy purists are going to have to be changeable, if the Oscar is going to remain relevant. Kids all over the world are more than happy to consume content on their devices. They are well served by TV, which controls its distribution portals, and has made it possible for consumers to watch what they want, when they want. Because theater chain owners and content generators are on opposite sides, movie consumers can’t have what they want when they want. They’ve left a chasm for streaming services to exploit.
BART: The Academy is studying these issues and its board of governors likely will rule on them next summer. Several intelligent compromises will be weighed dealing with release windows. There will likely be suggestions that if a Netflix film earns (or aspires to) a Best Picture nomination (or even an actor nomination), Netflix must book it in theaters for as long a run as time permits. One problem: Would theaters want to book a feature that already has been streamed for weeks?
FLEMING: Netflix should buy a small chain of theaters just to get you off their back. It will be easier than enduring the difficulty that Netflix experienced in what should have been a triumph at Cannes after Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories premiered on the Croisette, only to see the festival capitulate to an outcry from the French industry. The fest responded by declaring that, from now on, films must be theatrically released in France to be considered. Why doesn’t the French film business get the government to change a preposterous rule that bans for 36 months SVOD release of any film released theatrically in France? The French industry – which also doesn’t permit theatrical releases to advertise on TV — is largely dependent on government subsidies but even that doesn’t satisfactorily explain why it penalizes enterprising movie-makers like Netflix by putting product on a shelf for three years, long enough that nobody will care anymore.
It seems short-sighted: Who but Netflix would have put a fat budget behind an auteur film like Okja, which started out as a fable about a giant pig and then took a turn reminiscent of the pawn shop scene in Pulp Fiction? No one but Netflix would have given that creative control to director Bong Joon-ho or afforded him the resources that Ted Sarandos did. On Netflix’s Mudbound, people in the indie sphere told me that when Sarandos paid about $10 million, nobody else offered more than maybe $2 million. Sarandos loved the film that much. I don’t know if Mudbound has a shot to win any of its four nominations – when I asked Get Out’s Jordan Peele recently if the high volume of black nominees this year means the three-year old #OscarsSoWhite controversy has been satisfactorily addressed, he said that if Mary J. Blige wins the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, he’ll be good for several years. Why shouldn’t that film get a fair shake and be compared based on the merits? Unless you subscribe to the #OscarsSoWhite race argument, voter bias was the only thing that could explain why Idris Elba didn’t even get nominated for Beasts of No Nation when his performance towered over everyone else. The Academy has been painfully slow to change, and I don’t see it happening quickly. But they should leave open the possibility, because every studio will be in the streaming game shortly.
BART: Look, I believe the following: Movie going is a healthy social experience at a moment when the nation is increasingly fragmented. Theatrical releases keep indies alive. Underdog movies get a healthy bump once they win nominations – look at the $85 million pulled in by Hidden Figures last year. Given the enormous heft of Netflix (and the streaming ambitions of Disney-Fox) I see a moment in the future when the Oscars could be dominated by movies that have never made an impact in theaters.
FLEMING: You could have said the same thing about past Best Picture winners The Hurt Locker which at its widest penetration reached 535 screens. Last year’s rightful winner, Moonlight, topped out at 635 screens. I wonder what kind of screen penetration 1988’s underdog winner The Last Emperor would have had if it opened now. My biggest problem with Netflix is, who the hell knows how many people are watching their movies? Theatricals get graded on their grosses and screen counts; it keeps everybody relatively honest. If Netflix wants real cred, it should be more transparent.
Something else Netflix has to do is overcome the stigma that artists have toward streaming. Netflix pays better than retail for product. But when Ex Machina director Alex Garland saw the foreign on his film Annihilation sold to Netflix and could do nothing about it, how can he regard it as anything other than a way for the studio to get out of the challenge of marketing the film overseas, in a move that stunts his growth curve as a theatrical filmmaker by having the foreign theatrical release stripped from him? How does he know if his film is being viewed by a gargantuan worldwide audience, or simply is a popular option to watch opening weekend, with a quick dismissal after because there was no overseas P&A spend? At least the deal to place Shaft’s foreign rights on Netflix’s global service was made before production started, and it meant more money in the budget for the film since Netflix paid for more than half of it. Annihilation was sold after the fact, and I’m sure that only the financiers are happy with this deal, and not the filmmaker. Given a preference, Garland would take his chances in theaters, despite the presence of Rottentomatoes.com and all the inherent negativity that accompanies most film launches these days. I think the bias of filmmakers is as great as that of the Academy. Netflix has work to do here.
Interesting though; when I asked Deadline’s Pete Hammond to review Bright for opening day, he was reticent for the same reasons you are bringing up. That review generated 336 comments, more I’ll bet than any so-called legitimate theatrical release he has scrutinized. Like most other critics, he beat up Bright like it owed him money. But that readership response is telling us something. And by the way, the folks at Netflix claimed Bright did great, without presenting proof, same as they say only great things about Adam Sandler pics. I am hard pressed to believe those bad reviews on Bright would have facilitated any kind of box office run. Measured against Netflix’s $100 million-plus investment, it might have been judged a failure. On Netflix it spawned a sequel and the streaming service’s first franchise.
BART: I realize the power players at Netflix want Oscar recognition. Their experience with Mudbound shows why. Had this excellent period movie set in the deep South had a substantial theatrical run, it would have found a solid audience and earned its share of awards (ironically it won a nomination for cinematography when, watching it at home, I could not honestly appreciate that work). Netflix likes awards because talent likes awards. Talent also likes money – witness the $300 million Murphy TV deal last week and the major Netflix commitment to Shonda Rhimes a month earlier.
FLEMING: I found myself wondering if it would have gotten a meaningful theatrical release, given Mudbound’s bleak subject matter and deliberate if not slow pacing. Like Beasts of No Nation, it seems like a movie more people might find on Netflix. But maybe the cost of having the movie seen was the cache it would have enjoyed in a prestige theatrical run like the one given to I, Tonya by NEON and 30WEST. Mary J. Blige’s first acting turn is a tour de force; but it has been I, Tonya’s Allison Janney winning the awards in that Best Supporting Actress category. Maybe Mudbound would be a front-runner if, like Call Me By Your Name, it platformed and topped out on 800 screens. This is something Netflix has to figure out if it really wants to play this trophy game. I saw a For Your Consideration commercial on CBS Sunday Morning, for the Russian Olympic sports docu Icarus. The ad was so compelling. This is going to take marketing hustle and P&A if Netflix really wants to win these prizes, or whether they’re content to placate filmmakers with a few Sunset Boulevard billboards and some trade ads. After all, their model is completely predicated on getting content on the streaming service and keeping its global subscribers happy.
BART: Just as the Academy is asking itself to define “what is a movie,” James Poniewozik on Friday asked another relevant question: What is Netflix? On one level, the streaming giant is inventing a parallel television universe. Cable channels, he notes, offer distinct brands. Netflix wants to offer something for everyone, from The Crown to Wormwood. The traditional broadcast model demanded giant quantities of eyeballs. Netflix can do mass or niche. In features, Netflix is forging ahead with satire like War Machine with Brad Pitt, then toss in a Will Smith cop movie (Bright) or a misbegotten Cloverfield sequel. The TV model is to offer people new versions of things they’ve already seen. But as Poniewozik asks, “If Neflix is truly becoming a parallel TV universe I hope its algorithm finds room for the experimental and untried. It’s hard to be groundbreaking when your whole purpose is to take people where they’ve already been.” That precept certainly applies to features as well as TV.
FLEMING: Netflix has found zeitgeist moments on TV with Stranger Things, 13 Reasons Why and David Fincher’s Mindhunter, latter of which was as daring and mesmerizing a series as I’ve seen since True Detective’s first season. Their zeitgeist movie moment is coming. It’s inevitable. Maybe it will be Bubbles, the stop motion animated feature on Michael Jackson’s chimp companion that Netflix won at auction last Cannes, this before its director Taika Waititi became a star filmmaker off Thor: Ragnarok. It will be understandable if the Academy remains standoffish until Netflix really delivers that zeitgeist film, but the Academy should keep an open mind when it happens.
BART: Several years ago Netflix boss Reed Hastings asked me to speak at one of the first Netflix think sessions where his executives admitted they were trying to figure out a massive game plan. I greatly enjoyed their discussions. But I still wonder, have they come up with answers? I hope so. But I don’t want them to be rewarded with Oscars for doing so.
FLEMING: Changing the movie model is hard. But everyone acknowledges this is a broken and arcane system, despite out-sized successes like Black Panther. Netflix, or someone else, will figure it out and the Academy shouldn’t banish them like Cannes did as they figure it out.