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Streaming giants play hero and villain in Oscar season

Jake Coyle
Associated Press

New York – — When Oscar nominations are announced next week, Amazon is virtually assured of notching the first — but probably not the last — best-picture nomination for a streaming service.

Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” which Amazon plunked down $10 million for at the Sundance Film Festival last year, is widely expected to be among the leading contenders at the Academy Awards. It will be a triumphant moment for the nascent Amazon Studios, which acquired its first original film (Spike Lee’s “Chirac”) in 2015 but has, following in Netflix’s footsteps, quickly altered the landscape of Hollywood.

Netflix and Amazon are increasingly influencing the movie awards season, playing the role of both hero and villain in an industry where their entry into the movie business is welcomed and feared in equal measures.

Though viewed as disrupters, both have sought that powerful, old-fashioned Hollywood status — Oscar winner — to bolster their prestige. “We want to win an Oscar,” Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos earlier pronounced. Netflix, a three-time documentary nominee, is still seeking its first win. Propelled by “Manchester,” Amazon is poised to beat its streaming rival to the top Oscar categories.

Starkly different approaches have led them here.

Though Netflix gave its 2015 Oscar horse, Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” a wide theatrical release, it has largely focused on acquiring films to debut on its streaming platform. It prefers a simultaneous streaming and theatrical release, something theaters largely reject. Many filmmakers, too, want their films on the big screen.

Amazon has held off on putting their movies onto its Amazon Prime subscription service until at least a partial traditional theatrical release has been mounted. It partnered with Roadside Attractions for the theatrical roll-out for “Manchester by the Sea,” which has proven lucrative. It’s made $37.2 million domestically in nine weeks, making it one 2016’s biggest indie hits.

Lonergan, the veteran New York playwright whose last film, “Margaret,” became embroiled in lawsuits and acrimony before Fox Searchlight gave it a minuscule release, called his experience with Amazon “the most fancy treatment I’ve ever had.”

“If they want to get into the movie business, great, because the people who are already in the movie business could use some improvement,” said Lonergan.

The bar for eligibility to the Academy Awards isn’t high. Feature films generally need a Los Angeles theatrical run of at least seven consecutive days and cannot be broadcast in a non-theatrical format before showing in theaters, though day-and-date releases have been deemed OK.

But that regulation means some Netflix films weren’t eligible this year because they premiered only on Netflix. Jonathan Demme’s concert film “Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids” went straight to streaming after being picked up around its Toronto Film Festival debut.

Though Netflix, like Amazon, doesn’t make viewing statistics available, its films have likely been seen by far more people, around the world, than they would have been in a limited theatrical release — and their makers pocketed bigger checks. But straight-to-streaming films (like Vikram Gandhi’s young Obama drama “Barry”) can receive muted fanfare upon release and quickly fade into a digital ocean.

For a filmmaker like Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “Philadelphia”), the loss of a theatrical release is painful.

“It seems to me that the streaming movies are skewing people from the movie theaters because the movie theaters are reluctant to show a film if a film is going to be streamed within three months,” said Demme. “I worry sometimes that the streamers would be perfectly happy to see movie theaters close up.”