Graham: Netflix, 'Roma' set to rock the Oscars
The streaming service has crashed the Academy Awards' Best Picture party, and the effects could change the movie business
It’s the end of the Oscars as we know it.
Let’s say “Roma” wins Best Picture on Feb. 24. It’s got a good shot: with “A Star Is Born” considered out of the picture, pundits predict the Best Picture field has become a two-movie race between “Roma” and “BlacKkKlansman,” (The Producers Guild's nod to "Black Panther" gives the Marvel blockbuster a glimmer of hope of sneaking in for a win, but it's unlikely.)
So at a time when the Oscars are so concerned with relevance that the Academy announced (and later rescinded) a new category to reward "popular" film, the Best Picture award is likely to go to a black-and-white foreign language art film that was released via Netflix.
After that, there's no turning back, not for the Oscars and not for the movie business as a whole.
Things have been trending this way for some time. In terms of popularity, Best Picture winners have taken a nosedive over the last decade: Despite opening up the field of nominees from five to a potential 10, a move that was meant to broaden the Oscar show's appeal, the last nine years have produced five of the six least-grossing Best Picture winners of the modern box office era. Only two Best Picture winners this decade, "The King's Speech" and "Argo," crossed the $100 million marker at the North American box office, a feat seven out of 10 winners in the '90s and '00s managed.
The show's ratings, meanwhile, have fallen off a cliff. Last year's ceremony, where "The Shape of Water" earned Best Picture honors, was the lowest-rated in Oscar history, down 39 percent from five years ago.
The thought was that this year a blockbuster would swoop in and save the day. But then "A Star is Born" — which earned more than $200 million from North American crowds — became an awards season bridesmaid, and "Black Panther," 2018's biggest earner, never quite crashed the party. Now, with just three weeks to go, "Roma" has amassed an impressive glow, and increasingly looks like Oscar's golden child.
"Roma" is also predictive of where the movie business is heading.
"Roma" is the first Netflix offering to be nominated for Best Picture, and it comes at a time when Netflix has proven to be a major disrupter to the Hollywood model. "Bird Box" became the streaming service's first bona fide blockbuster film in December, putting up numbers — a reported 40 million accounts viewed the film its first week alone — for which any studio would kill. There's no conceivable way the Sandra Bullock thriller would have caused that much of a stir in theaters, and producers of mid-range fare can begin to eye Netflix as a legitimate option for distribution instead of a traditional theatrical release.
Theaters, more and more, are playgrounds for blockbusters, and everything else falls through the cracks. Your local multiplex will continue to be the best option to catch the latest "Star Wars" or "Avengers" film, event-release tentpoles that benefit from the big screen treatment, and where you don't mind — or you don't mind as much — shelling out $9 for popcorn and $7 for soda just to watch a movie while some teenager in the row ahead of you plays on their phone the whole time.
But can films like "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" or "Sorry to Bother You" — which earned accolades from critics amid paltry grosses of $8 million and $17 million, respectively — say they were better off being released in theaters? Could they have gotten more attention by going the Netflix route?
Maybe not yet, but things are trending that way. Netflix has become a platform for major directors like "Roma's" Alfonso Cuaron, the Coen Brothers (whose "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" is up for three Oscars), Steven Soderbergh (whose basketball drama "High Flying Bird" debuts on the service next week) and Martin Scorsese (whose "The Irishman," starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, is due later this year). Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman" was released in theaters last year, but it's exactly the kind of project that down the line would be a Netflix original.
In the last year alone, Netflix has made major strides, from its "Cloverfield" Super Bowl stunt to the smash success of "Bird Box." If "Roma" wins Best Picture, that's a major crack in the wall. If it can successfully make and manage more mid-range fare — prestige dramas and awards-bait pictures that are currently resigned to short art-house runs — the flood will follow. Don't be surprised if in five years, half of the Best Picture field is made up of streaming titles.
The Oscar telecast, meanwhile, is in such disarray that producers can't even find a host for the show. It's fitting. Things shouldn't be business as usual because the Oscars, just like the business they reflect, are undergoing a major change. The revolution won't be televised. It will be streamed.