With the advent of streaming services, the Academy’s reliance on cinema-screenings for awards qualification faces a crisis of legitimacy. It’s a bizarre kind of crisis: not so much a new problem, as a glaring indicator of an old one. The Oscars have long relied on artificiality to create their mystique; the requirement of these screenings is only a part of this. The shortcomings of the meritocracy denoted in ‘Best [category]’, and the implied elitism of the Academy itself, are highlighted by accessible home-streaming platforms. It’s only in direct contrast to the (literal) staginess of Academy tradition that Netflix’s rise could represent such a challenge.
“The Oscars have long relied on artificiality to create their mystique”
Perhaps the most gaping hole in the Academy’s cinema mystique is that issue of meritocracy. Simply put, the system doesn’t work that way; rarely do films released theatrically outside of the September-to-December window win Best Picture. The last film to do so was The Hurt Locker, released in June 2009, and before that,Crash, released in May 2005. There’s a pretty clear sense of an awards season, then, rather than year-long free-for-all contention. Furthermore, the large costs of awards campaigning, of which these late screenings are a part (averaging $5 million per film), dent any pretence of earned prestige. Streaming seems antithetical to this. Streaming services may still engage in campaigning, but the movies come out for the entire public, shirking the tactical drip-feed release approach that favours a certain period of build-up. The playing-field is more even, the movies not simply fresh in select voters’ minds upon voting-time. The Oscars’ cinema circuit necessarily requires a rigmarole of closed convention, over open criticism.
This split between public and Academy spurs the next issue: awards-qualifying release methods already favour the few, over the movie-going public. The limited-release notion of placing a movie into a few screenings, in a couple of cinemas, has been repeatedly stretched to its logical extreme. The run need only be seven days; certainly not enough time for a film to be received by a wider audience. In this case that’s not even necessary, as producers would only care for reception by, again, voters. Far from encouraging cinema-going, the model encourages limited-viewing elitism. Netflix, alternatively, offers a different approach; where cinema prices seem to rise further and further out of people’s pockets, these films are available to be seen by most everyone with an account, at a fraction of the price of multiple films.
The reverence of the cinema within Academy tradition is itself deeply ironic. Having separated themselves from the plebeian public, Academy members are not expected to even attend cinema screenings of the films they both advocate for nomination and vote for. The core is one of hypocrisy; awards screeners are sent out for members to (optionally) watch, before the final voting process. Rather than drag themselves to the screenings so valorised in tradition, they need only open the movie on their TV or computer – the two mediums seen as so beneath cinema in the rejection of Netflix. Maybe the Academy deserves the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it is a genuine oversight, and one that can be changed in time. But looking to a similarly patricianly voting institution, the Cannes Film Festival, and their booing (admittedly, a Cannes tradition) of Netflix’s Okja, the reticence of the film establishment to question their biases is obvious.
“it is time for the Academy to adapt”
More than anything else, streaming represents a challenge to the elitist tradition of the Academy. Awards qualification should at least attempt to represent the cultural products of the societies in which they are formed, rather than what has been decided from on high. The burgeoning popularity of Netflix (and other similar streaming services) places it in the zeitgeist; yet the popular model which it uses is arbitrarily excluded, by an already-arbitrary organisation. The medium of cinema holds an allure in voters’ minds, but not a practical purpose. Consequently, it is time for the Academy to adapt – to question the worth of ignoring other expressions of a medium that the awards exist to celebrate.