The Oscars shift from big screen to TV stream

Apple TV+’s best picture win for CODA crowned a night of important firsts at the Oscars, but what a streaming win means for the future of cinema is still to be seen

Dr Kirsten Stevens, University of Melbourne

Dr Kirsten Stevens

Published 1 April 2022

Audience attention may have been pulled by ‘the slap that stopped Hollywood’, but it actually overshadowed a number of significant firsts at the 2022 Oscars.

Ariana DeBose became the first openly queer woman of colour to win an Oscar, while Troy Kotsur became the first deaf man to win an acting gong for his work in the 2021 film CODA. Jane Campion’s win was the first time the best directing prize was awarded two years in a row to a woman (and only the third time a woman has won the award in Oscars’ history).

WATCH: The trailer for Apple TV+’s Oscar-winning film, CODA. Video: YouTube

These wins mark important steps towards diversity at the Oscars.

But among these developments, Apple TV+ becoming the first streaming service to nab the Academy’s top award stands out as a pivotal moment and feeds questions about what streaming means for the future of cinema.

A long time coming

A streaming service winning the Oscar for best picture is not unexpected.

The prospect of a streamer sweeping the Academy Awards has become increasingly likely over the five years since Amazon Prime Video garnered seven nominations and three wins in 2017 across its films Manchester by the Sea and The Salesman.

Since then, Netflix has led the streamers’ push to take out the top gong, reportedly spending $US30 million on Roma’s (2018) Oscars’ bid and building a team of more than 40 strategists and consultants to spearhead an awards campaign operation aimed at the Oscars and Emmys, as well as other US and international accolades.

Awards like the Oscars hold significance for streamers.

Oscars’ buzz drives awareness of the streaming service and boosts viewership and subscriptions. But the real value for streamers lies in the validation that an Oscar win bestows on their platforms.

Ariana DeBose became the first openly queer woman of colour to win an Oscar as Anita in Westside Story. Picture: Getty Images

One explanation for Netflix’s expansive awards strategy lies in the credibility an Oscar win gives the platform, with the coveted best picture award enabling the streamer to claim a place among the entertainment establishment of Hollywood.

In winning the top award, Apple gains leverage in negotiating with talent and production partners for future projects, with Apple Original Films now seen as a place for serious filmmaking.

The future of cinema?

While streamers seek validation, their increasing influence and visibility at the Oscars are seen by some as signalling the ongoing decline of cinema.

In 2018, following Roma’s wins for best director and best foreign language film, Steven Spielberg reportedly approached the Academy to change Oscar eligibility to block films not getting a full theatrical run.

At stake from the loss of theatrical windows, it seems, is the very future of cinema, with the question of where cinematic art resides becoming the focus of heated debate.

The public stoush between Netflix and Cannes, where requirements for theatrical windows in France first saw Netflix banned from competing and then voluntarily withdrawing all films from the festival, marks one breakthrough site for this debate.

Another comes in the form of comments from Dune (2021) director, Denis Villeneuve, insisting on the need to watch his film in theatres.

WATCH: The trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 film Dune. Video: YouTube

Yet against these arguments is the recognition that the cinema business is changing, and with this both public and commercial expectations of where films are watched.

Pushing back against criticisms from Cannes, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos has argued that the platform is interested in defending the art of cinema, not the art of distribution.

Likewise, Toronto International Film Festival artistic director Cameron Bailey has defended the screening of films from streamers at that event, noting the changing landscape means not judging a film by where audiences watch them.

Beyond the big screen

The lack of theatrical releases for Oscar films became a moot point in 2021, with COVID-forced cinema closures leading the Academy to waive theatrical release eligibility requirements.

These exemptions were extended for 2022.

While the focus has been on the role of streamers in disrupting theatrical windows, the biggest changes in this space have come at the hands of established studios.

Decisions by Disney and Warner Brothers to reduce or even scrap exclusive theatrical windows for their films throughout 2021 pose a bigger threat than streamers do to established releasing models.

WATCH: The trailer for The Power of the Dog, for which Jane Campion won best director. Video: YouTube

In contrast, Netflix has in recent years embraced a short theatrical window for several of its films, while in the wake of its Oscar win, Apple has announced it will be re-releasing CODA in cinemas.

There appears to be life in the cinema theatre yet.

What’s next? apple vs. netflix

In the wake of CODA’s win, the most pressing question for the industry is not what this means for the future of cinema – but what it means that Apple, not Netflix, took out the prize.

In contrast to Netflix’s concerted cash-backed campaign for recognition, Apple TV+ won best picture after three years of operation and with a film it bought for $US25 million at the Sundance Film Festival. As another first, CODA also marks the first Sundance awarded film to win a best picture Oscar.

What this all means for the future of Oscar-style film commissions and acquisitions at Netflix and other streamers, as well as the future of their awards strategies, are live questions.

But they’re ones we might not know the answer to until the 2023 Oscars.

Banner: Getty Images

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