This morning’s Oscar nominations suggest a rethink — or at least a collective hitting of the pause button — on the status of streaming in the awards conversation.
Netflix’s The Power of the Dog led the field with 12 nominations and Apple broke through with six nominations, including one for Best Picture for CODA. Yet major studios, specialty distributors and, yes, theatrical rollouts generally prevailed despite 2021 being marked by Covid, exhibition closures and an explosion of films available at home. Netflix’s total of 27 nominations represented a significant dropoff from its 36 last year. Apple managed six, up from two, while Amazon fell to just four, down from a dozen. Hulu equaled its year-ago tally with one.
Heading into this year, Netflix had been gaining steam in the Oscar race as it stepped up its overall investment in original films. (It also has spent lavishly on campaigns.) In 2019, paced by Roma, it had 15 nominations. In 2020, led by The Irishman and Marriage Story, it recorded 24. Last year, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Mank, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and other releases racked up a combined 36 noms, That haul was more than just a high-water mark in the streaming era — it was also either the second- or third-most by any distributor in Oscar history, depending on how you count it.
Because of the pandemic and also dramatic changes in the industry landscape, pure streaming distributors weren’t the only ones embracing digital distribution in 2021. The Oscar field overall featured a wide array of films going day-and-date on streaming, and even some (like Luca in Best Animated Feature) that skipped theaters altogether. All major studios relied on hybrid models, and Warner Bros even put its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max at the same time it hit theaters, including Dune, which captured 10 nominations. (King Richard, another Warner title, landed six noms, including one for Best Picture.)
The group of 10 nominees for Best Picture in many ways reflects the debate roiling the industry over how movies should best reach audiences given the transformation of the landscape. About half of the field — films like Licorice Pizza, Belfast and Drive My Car — represent traditional methods, albeit with some tweaks. The other half are films that had little to no theatrical presence. Coda debuted on Apple TV+ at the same time it played in a smattering of theatres. Don’t Look Up and The Power of the Dog had Netflix’s usual circumscribed theatrical runs, with no box office numbers reported, despite their abundant star power. While Don’t Look Up opened in more than 750 locations in December, like other releases by the streaming giant it was restrained from being in four or five times as many theaters by Netflix’s ongoing impasse with major exhibitors AMC and Regal.
Other categories delivered a different message. Only one nominee for Best Director, for example, was from a streaming film, Jane Campion for Netflix’s The Power of the Dog. Visual Effects belonged to a quintet of nominees that all spent weeks in theaters before moving to streaming. (Spider-Man: No Way Home is a box office behemoth that still can only be seen on the big screen.)
The marketplace has been so rearranged by the pandemic that no less a theatrical standard-bearer than Pixar has seen its last three releases go directly to Disney+. Some major contenders also had remarkably short windows, if any at all. One Apple title with multiple nominations, The Tragedy of Macbeth, spent just three weeks on the big screen during the holiday period. It was out of the damned spot, for the most part, despite being a co-production with theatrical true believer A24, author of months-long platform releases for Ladybird, Moonlight and other pre-pandemic titles.
Another way to look at the Oscar race, though, is to appreciate that a lot has blossomed for tech companies in just five years’ time. In 2017, Amazon Studios became the first streamer to nab an Oscar nom for Best Picture for Manchester by the Sea. The three statuettes captured by the film were the first wins by a streaming service in narrative categories. Netflix got on the board that year with a win for Best Documentary – Short Subject for The White Helmets.
In blazing that path, the pure streamers have shown traditional companies, which still derive billions from traditional home entertainment and ancillaries, a new playbook for Oscar contenders.
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