A recent report of a gathering of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the governing body of the Academy Awards, portrays an organization that is wrestling with the changing face of the film industry.
The focus of the meeting was, according to reports, to discuss Netflix’s continued disruption of that industry and whether or not to award official recognition to the movies it either acquires or produces. There’s a concern that by allowing movies that receive grudging, minimal theatrical releases but which are distributed primarily on the streaming platform, the awards would be “cheapened.” Any movie not made for showing in theaters is, the thinking seems to go, not a “real” movie.
Boy, where to start with this one. There are so many issues to choose from.
The biggest one to my mind is that AMPAS seems determined to define a movie based solely on distribution. That right there is an outdated mode of thinking. A new music release is no less an album because it was distributed on compact disc instead of wax LP. Nor does that definition change for streaming or downloadable distribution. The same should apply to films.
Honestly, we should have had this conversation decades ago. While I can understand that the melodrama of the traditional network “made for TV movie” from the 1970s or before isn’t something the Academy would want to consider including in industry awards, what about the original movies produced by HBO or other cable networks over the years? Is Okja any less a film than And the Band Played On? And is either substantively different from The Florida Project?
Not in form or format. They are all somewhere between one and four hours long, telling a story in a single, unbroken way. If you want to define a movie in that way, I don’t think anyone would argue with that. It would disqualify media produced to be consumed episodically in the manner of most TV shows, where the story is chunked up over multiple installments, each distributed at a different time and wholly distinct from what’s come before and what’s coming later.
In reality, there’s been a blurring of the lines by both TV and movie creators. Shows made for Netflix or FX are often conceived as 12-hour long movies and can be binged in roughly that manner. The expansion of “shared universe” film franchises has turned movie-going into a more expensive version of tuning in for new episodes each week, each installment only fully understood if you’ve seen the previous seven. TV is becoming more singular while film is becoming more serialized.
The debate – centered around Netflix because Amazon, even as it enters self-distribution, still emphasizes theatrical runs months before its original films hit its streaming service – seems more intent on propping up both the theatrical distribution industry and the role of studios as gatekeepers of “real” movies. It’s only legitimate if it comes from one of those media conglomerates.
Should AMPAS decide that Netflix’s original movies don’t qualify for awards consideration, it will only delay the inevitable. Streaming service subscriptions are now more common than cable subscriptions. Theatrical attendance is dropping precipitously. And the talent attracted to the freedom afforded by Amazon and Netflix is becoming bigger and bigger, no longer made up mostly of first-time or indie filmmakers. I’d love to see an AMPAS official tell Martin Scorsese that the only reason his upcoming film The Irishman doesn’t qualify for an Oscar is that it was produced by Netflix.
Relying solely or primarily on distribution platform to determine quality is ludicrous, meant only to punish innovation and prop up legacy players. We’re going to have this conversation, and all signs point to a day when home streaming or on-demand viewing is the new normal for a critical mass of the audience. Embracing that is the only way forward, otherwise these awards will appear increasingly out-of-touch culturally out-of-touch irrelevant to the general audience. The industry insiders may still care, but that diminished impact on the public will make them worth less and less as a commercial selling point.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.