Netflix had tried its hand at an Oscar campaign before. The platform's first official original drama, Beasts of No Nation, was given the appropriate theatrical run and promotion in an attempt to land some nominations but it walked away empty handed. Few took the film’s chances seriously, nor did anyone think Netflix what it takes to play by the Academy’s rules. Mudbound shifted those perceptions.
Directed by Dee Rees and starring Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige, Mudbound premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews and set off a bidding war with distributors. It was Netflix that put down the major money and won the day, paying around $12 million for the privilege. There was an expensive awards campaign too, ensuring its presence with Oscar voters was impossible to ignore. Particular attention was given to Mary J. Blige, whose chances at a Best Supporting Actress nomination seemed the strongest of the lot. Eventually, the film garnered four nominations, including one for Rees in Best Adapted Screenplay. While it didn’t break through into Best Picture or Director as some had predicted, this still signaled a major step forward for Netflix. Not only were the films good enough to get awards attention, but voters were more willing than ever to reward it.
Oscar success has not eluded Netflix. A big investment in both feature-length and short documentaries has added more than one Academy Award. Documentaries is an area where the service has broken real ground and helped to fill a gap that major cinema has often been lagging behind in. While 2018 has seen documentaries breaking box office records, the medium is still one seen primarily as television entertainment. So, naturally, Netflix took advantage of that and made its unique binge-watching formula work well for everything from Making a Murderer to The Staircase to this year’s Best Documentary Feature Oscar winner, Icarus.
Icarus is one of many acclaimed feature-length documentaries on Netflix’s roster, but this is the one that arguably had the most impact in the real world. Brian Fogel's documentary began as a gimmicky take on doping in sports - think Super Size Me with steroids - but slowly became an expose of the Russian Olympic Program's state-sponsored doping and its ties all the way to the top of the country's government. It’s the kind of documentary that would garner headlines wherever it premiered but instant accessibility via Netflix meant everyone could see it as soon as possible, thus spreading the message. There’s always been an audience for documentaries, but Netflix made it more open than ever.
Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories
In 2017, to the surprise of many film fans, the Cannes Film Festival announced that two Netflix original films would screen in competition, allowing them to compete for the prestigious Palme D’Or: Bong Joon-ho’s environmentalist drama Okja and Noah Baumbach’s ensemble dramedy The Meyerowitz Stories. Both films were the kind of fare expected on the festival circuit, but it was still a massive breakthrough for the most elite film festival on the planet to yield to the might of Netflix’s model. Even though it only lasted a year, Netflix made its point.
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Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories were both warmly received, and although neither film won any awards, they were clearly the major talking points of the festival. Everyone was asked about Netflix’s presence at Cannes and if it was a good or bad sign for film. French cinema owners revolted, as the country’s law caused confusion over theatrical distribution, and eventually, the festival head, Thierry Fremaux, announced that Netflix films would no longer be eligible to premiere in competition. They are still able to screen in other areas of the festival, but not the top slate. In opposition, Netflix decided not to appear at the 2018 festival, even as rumors swirled that Fremaux was eager to get Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, a Netflix exclusive, into competition.
Regardless of what side you are on in this debate – and it’s hard to describe Netflix as scrappy underdogs facing up against the establishment when it's a multi-billion dollar company – it’s tough to deny that Netflix’s foray into Cannes kick-started a major debate over the future of cinema. The conversation was ferocious and sides were taken sharply. You were either for the evolution of the medium or a staunch traditionalist who opposed the home streaming experience. The future of cinema has been hotly debated since its inception, but in recent years, nobody has gotten that conversation to such hot-button levels and with such passion like Netflix. After years of positioning as a true threat to Hollywood’s status quo, this was the first time that felt true.