New Award Season Rules: Never December, Netflix Crossroads and SAG needs to get real

Annual look at the lessons from the past Oscar season
Leonardo DiCaprio Accepting His Best Actor Oscar

It’s been only 11 days since the 88th Academy Awards, but it seems like it’s already been a lifetime. That might be because the collective industry conscious wants to move on from six months of almost non-stop awards season chatter (and the #OscarsSoWhite controversy) or the increasing distractions of a presidential race that has split the allegiances of a decidedly democratic Hollywood amidst the “this isn’t so cute anymore” age of Donald Trump.  That being said, with a little time to breathe it’s the perfect time to reflect and take our annual look at the lessons another Oscar campaign has taught us.

Netflix is at an Oscar crossroads
It may be more responsible than any other company for America’s growing transition to a cord cutter community. Its financial resources may be endless.  It may even find a way to be a true force in the film world sooner than we think.  Today, however, Netflix is at an awards season and theatrical crossroads.  The streaming service made a big splash acquiring Cary Fukunaga’s “Beast of No Nation” as its first real theatrical and streaming prestige release.  The movie debuted to positive reviews at the Venice Film Festival where it won two honors and garnered even moe attention at Telluride and Toronto. But when it opened in theaters day and date with its availability on the service it bombed big time ($90,777 to date – and that’s not a misprint).  Of course, Netflix touted that the movie was streamed over 3 million times globally during its first three weeks (roughly equivalent to $24 million in box office), but the company had a hard time convincing the Academy that it was a movie.  Sure, the Spirit Awards committees rewarded it, the HFPA nominated star Idris Elba for a Golden Globe, critics groups celebrated it nationwide and, most importantly, the SAG nominating committee (many who make their lifeblood on TV) had no problem considering “Beasts” a theatrical experience.  That wasn’t the case with The Academy where every branch from top to bottom snubbed “Beasts” (which was even more surprising considering its below the line achievements).  The scuttlebutt is that Netflix basically has a perception problem as many in the Academy associate the company’s name with TV content.  That doesn’t hurt in the documentary race where docs screen at festivals first and are often on television before the Oscars because the Documentary branch understands how the doc biz works, but for a “theatrical narrative release”?  It’s a problem.  Netflix’s competitor Amazon is also investing in new films, but their approach might work out slightly better. The company is more than happy to partner on a more traditional release window with a theatrical distributor before it appears on their service (sort of like what HBO Films tried to do decades ago). Their first film, Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq,” managed to make $2.7 million in less than 305 theaters which is a pretty good result considering the film’s rushed marketing campaign.  Amazon plans to continue that game plan – perhaps with a different distribution partner – with a number of prestige pics this year.  What’s next for Netflix?  It already released “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” online and in 10-15 IMAX theaters on Feb. 26 to barely a whimper (its unclear what it grossed, but clearly not enough to tout publicly).  Moreover, at Sundance, the company picked up three narrative films: “Tallulah,” “The Fundamentals of Caring” and “Under the Shadow.” It missed out, however, on the Oscar hyped “Birth of a Nation” even though its bid was reportedly $2.5 million higher than eventual winner Fox Searchlight.  And for Netflix, that should be a huge, huge red flag that if it doesn’t figure out a way to convince filmmakers it’s a real theatrical partner its path to Oscar glory will be relegated to the documentary category.

Wanna win Best Picture? Never December. Ever.
Here’s the thing that filmmakers and studios need to realize.  It’s incredibly hard to win Best Picture in an expanded field when you open your movie in December. As a matter of fact, it’s so hard that the last movie to win with an end of year release date was “Million Dollar Baby” in 2005.  That was eleven years ago.  Granted, a film like “The Revenant” can make a significant impact overall, but not enough to take the top prize.  It lost to a film that because it was released in October had more time to soak in with the Academy.  Frankly, it’s a significant statistical trend that can no longer be ignored.

Changes need to be made to the ballot format
The fact that the Academy doesn’t list the names of many of the nominees on the Oscar ballot is startlingly unfair.  Let’s consider the Best Original song category, shall we?  The idea the songwriters are not listed on the Oscar Ballot is sort of shocking.  It presumes that all the voters can recall the song they want to vote for by the title of the film itself or just the song title and that isn’t always the case.  In regards to this year, you can argue by only listing the film and song title it prevented Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl to Grammys publicity campaign from helping her win an award for a film very few members of the Academy had seen (perhaps a good thing?).  Then again, you can also argue that the primary reason “Writing’s On The Wall” from “SPECTRE” won was because it was the movie the membership saw more than any other (and the cold hard truth that they weren’t giving anything from “Fifty Shades of Grey” an Oscar statue of any kind).  Nevertheless, having Diane Warren’s name on the ballot could have made a huge difference in the outcome, and frankly, considering most of the nominees names are on the ballot in other categories it’s a glaring omission by The Academy that needs to change moving forward.

SAG needs to get real about the SAG Awards and its nominating committees
First, let’s give credit where credit’s due.  The SAG Award winner for Best Ensemble, “Spotlight,” took the Best Picture prize and the organization presented a much more diverse lineup of nominees than The Academy did. That being said, a number of late arrivals were not thrilled with SAG this year.  There were a number of first look screenings before SAG nods were due where only a smattering of SAG nominating committee members showed up (I could see the empty seats myself).  Scuttlebutt was that SAG itself wasn’t happy about this, but insisting on announcing their nominees so early only exacerbates the process.  There are too many films for the committee members to see in a short window (many of them have night gigs) and often many only watch them on screener.* So, if a screener doesn’t show up in time or they don’t’ have time to watch it? Tough luck.  First, if SAG moved it’s deadline back a week or two it would allow for the membership to truly judge the entire year’s performances (and announcing later will also help get their award show out of the Golden Globes shadow).  Second, SAG needs to do a better job of determining who is actually on the nominating committees.  A random selection of paid members who can’t guarantee they’ll actually participate is only going to infuriate studios who spend tens of thousands of dollars on screeners that might only be watched by a nom com member’s roommate.  Simply, “Spotlight’s” success will only slightly snuff out an industry firecracker that’s waiting to explode.

*True story, I had a conversation with an Uber driver last week who was on this year’s nominating committee.  He bluntly admitted he still hadn’t seen “The Revenant” because the screener came so late.

It’s time to return to 10 Best Picture nominees
One of the more disheartening moments of the past few weeks was to look back at my 2015 list of “new rules.” The article starts off with a warning about the lack of diversity last year after “12 Years A Slave’s” triumph in 2014 and that the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag “will be back again if the public wills it.”  And, as we all now know, it was back in full force with a greater social impact than anyone could have ever anticipated.  I argued that expand the top seven categories with the same nomination rules as Best Picture could assist in this endeavor, but the easiest change the Academy could make that should allow for more diversity is to return to 10 nominees.  It’s hard to imagine “Straight Outta Compton” not being nominated if there were 10 set nominees (there were only eight this year).  The argument for 10 nominees was always to recognize more critically acclaimed commercial films (something the Academy’s improving art house tastes had drifted away from after the turn of the century).  By returning to the guaranteed 10 you’re also opening the door to films with more diverse characters and ethnicities (“Beasts of No Nation,” “Creed,” “Straight Outta,” etc.).  The time has come Academy.

The shorts need to be awarded in a separate ceremony
There were many complaints about the length of this year’s show and there were a number of reasons why (the diversity discussion certainly contributed to some longer speeches and might have made the whole show feel longer than it was).  It’s been suggested many times that the Academy should remove the short film presentations from the live show it self.  They could be presented before the show (perhaps during the pre-show) or on the same night as the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards (although that would present some logistical problems with voting).  Previously, I always argued they were an integral part of the show because they demonstrated to young filmmakers or aspirational filmmakers that you too can create great cinematic work outside of a feature film structure.  Chatting with my good friend Kyle Buchanan of Vulture after the broadcast made me seriously reconsider. As he argues, with the advent of so much short form original content in the world thanks to YouTube, etc. it may no longer be necessary to give shorts a platform during the show itself. Moreover, if you’re going to give the lifetime achievement honors out months earlier what’s the argument to keep the shorts in the show as well?  It simply makes too much sense not to do it.

Bring the Oscar Concert back
Like many organizations, the Academy experiments with all sorts of different events throughout the year and the weeks leading up to the big show.  Two years ago they held what was billed as the Oscar Concert. It featured live renditions of each of the year’s nominated scores and Best Original song nominees. Held at Royce Hall on the UCLA Campus it was a memorable night with impressive performances that really put the spotlight on the Academy’s sometimes-underappreciated music branch.  But for some reason it didn’t return in either 2015 or 2016.  Considering it was pretty well attended this was something of a surprise. Did it simply cost too much? Were logistics an issue?  Whatever the case we’d argue that The Academy should seriously figure out a way to bring it back in some form.

You can still pull one over in the acting categories
Alicia Vikander a Supporting Actress nominee for “The Danish Girl”?  Rooney Mara also a supporting performance for “Carol”?  The fact both Focus Features and The Weinstein Company were able to convince the actor’s branch that these lead performances were supporting was quite remarkable.  Vikander was assisted by the fact she had a strongly regarded supporting turn in “Ex Machina” and many believe that helped her secure the nod for the not-so adored “Danish Girl.”  TWC, on the other hand, expertly played the game that because the title character of the “Carol” was played by Cate Blanchett than Mara had to be supporting.  It still is a dangerous strategy, but the fact each studio pulled it off will be ammunition for other consultants and contenders in the future.

Academy Lunches are the new Q&A
Post-screening talent Q&A’s have always been a mainstay for contenders to reach both guild and Academy members. And, for below-the-line and the acting categories, you can argue they matter a big deal.  2015 and 2016 saw a dramatic increase in a practice that had traditionally played out more with the Academy’s New York branch: the Oscar lunch.  Cocktail parties supporting numerous nominees have been a West Coast mainstay but the mid-week lunches with actual Academy members socializing with potential nominees hasn’t been this prevalent in quite a long time. Considering the consultant who oversaw the campaigns for the Best Picture and Best Original Song winners made it a mainstay of her strategy you can expect even more of them from competing consultants and studios next season.

Winning isn’t everything
Two of this year’s biggest awards season champs actually didn’t take home an Oscar this year.  Relatively new independent distributors Broadgreen and Bleecker Street made inroads in the awards season game and, in many ways, helped further legitimize themselves with filmmakers and producers looking to either co-finance or find homes for their prestige picks.  Broadgreen didn’t make the Oscars party itself, but earned SAG, Gotham and Spirit Awards nominations for both “99 Homes” and “I Smile Back” (not an easy task).  Bleecker Street, on the other hand, found love across the board including earning a Best Actor nod for “Trumbo’s” Bryan Cranston which was something many didn’t think would happen after the film’s soft debut in theaters last fall (granted, Bleecker’s terrible key art and trade ads need massive improvement next time around).  Considering it’s unclear whether longtime players such as Focus Features will still be in the game next year the success Broadgreen and Bleecker enjoyed is simply good news for anyone who is a fan of quality film.

Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts with me on twitter at @TheGregoryE.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.

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