Thursday, July 16, 2015

Can Streaming Services Compete for Best Picture Oscars?

Spike Lee
There is a common notion that Spike Lee and Oscars don't mix. After the notorious snubbing in 1989 of his highly acclaimed Do the Right Thing, he has expressed a bitter relationship with The Academy despite receiving two nominations (one for Best Original Screenplay for said film). However, he is in the news again with his upcoming film Chiraq, which he promises to be "something special." This doesn't just mean literally, as it is a star studded musical starring Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson (Best Supporting Actress - Dreamgirls), but that it is the first film exclusively financed by Amazon Prime. With a planned December release and many speculating an Oscar run, this is a good time to not only ask if Lee is back (not likely) to playing nice, but if streaming services can compete at the Oscars,

The very notion of this may befuddle some. The rule of thumb for Oscar consideration is that the film must play in a theater for a minimum of a week to qualify. This rule remains true. However, that doesn't mean that works produced by online streaming services haven't gotten in on the game. Netflix has had an impressive run in the past few years, earning Best Documentary nominations for The Square (2013) and Virunga (2014). Both were highly acclaimed documentaries that were able to be seen by a mass audience thanks to Netflix. HBO has also made their own run of success, most recently with Best Documentary winner Citizenfour, which aired the subsequent week after the awards ceremony. These are not considered "Traditional" ways to release films for Oscar contention, nor has it been widely accepted. However, it hasn't really taken off in the major fields... yet.

What Chiraq represents is a potential way to translate the success of HBO and Netflix into the fictional narrative categories. While Amazon Prime has slowly been establishing itself as a major player thanks to its Golden Globe-winning series Transparent, it still hasn't proven itself in full length features. As evident with Lee's last film Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, the director is keen to experimenting with distribution models. He is also capable of making a film, no matter what budget, at least look good. One can argue if his films tonally fit within Oscar nominations' demographics, but with this film already being hyped as something special, there's likely going to be a push anyways. 

Same can be said for director Cary Fukunaga with his Netflix film Beasts of No Nation. Having proven himself last year with the impressive HBO series True Detective, his latest film remains highly anticipated. Netflix has proven themselves in documentary and TV series fields, but full length features have yet to be proven. With a plethora of titles on their way, we'll discover if they have any merit. For Fukunaga's film, it is being controversially released in theaters and on Netflix simultaneously. While it has worked for their documentaries, it isn't entirely clear if this will be a revolutionary change for how film is distributed in a world where films like Snowpiercer and Bachelorette do better on video on demand (V.O.D.) than theatrically. It is an even bigger question if films with such low public awareness will even make it to the Oscars at all.

So the question remains: is this a revolutionary moment, or just wishful thinking? More than Lee, Fukunaga hasn't really proven himself at the Oscars. Even with impressive past work, there's not much of a draw to throw him a nomination. There's also too much focus on theatrical releases to immediately break the taboo, even if last year's Best Picture category initially played mostly in limited release. It would take a major film to shift the tide even slightly, and I don't know that Fukunaga is the one to do it. Likewise, Lee was sympathetic to director Ava Duvernay when Selma failed to get more than two Oscar nominations by providing an expletive dismissal of the awards. I don't find either to be the turn we need, even if their films end up being their career high points.

Though it is something to consider. If the Best Documentary field is already starting to feature Netflix-financed films and V.O.D. is becoming more and more of a legitimate resource for entertainment, I do feel that in maybe a decade, we could be seeing a totally different landscape. Maybe the golden rules will stick, but audiences will be exposed to more obscure prestigious films as a result. It isn't entirely clear. However, I don't think that Lee's very special film or its December release date will pose a threat to the more conventional titles. He is too confrontational as a director to have that be the case. I don't think he would mind either way.

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