Is This the Year Netflix and Apple Take Over the Oscar Race?

In State of the Studios, Vanity Fair’s Awards Insider goes inside the campaigns of some of Oscars season’s biggest players—from the major studios to the specialty companies and streamers. This entry focuses on the streamers—Netflix, Apple TV+, and Amazon Studios—and how each has navigated this unique season.

This may mark the first year where (at least) half of the Oscars’ best-picture lineup consists of streaming contenders. Netflix has The Power of the Dog and Don’t Look Up all but locked for nominations, as does Apple TV+ with CODA. Throw in further possibilities from both studios (Netflix’s Tick, Tick…Boom! and The Lost Daughter; Apple’s The Tragedy of Macbeth) as well as from Amazon StudiosBeing the Ricardos), and potential history is clearly in sight.

Regardless of exactly how many streaming films make the cut, they’ve undeniably taken up more of this year’s awards conversation than in any prior season. The launching pad of Telluride was dominated by three separate Netflix events for its three films; huge online viewership for titles like Don’t Look Up and Being the Ricardos has set new benchmarks for their respective distributors, all while theatrical specialty releases have struggled significantly.

I’ve spoken with four veteran awards strategists familiar with these streamer campaigns, both within and without these studios, over the last few weeks, and the message they jointly delivered was resoundingly clear: Streaming is where the awards conversation is being centralized.

Netflix, certainly, is top dog—and I’m not just referring to its leading contender, helmed by Jane Campion. But indeed, The Power of the Dog appears in first position for the best-picture race right now. Such a win would be historic for any streamer, Netflix included. Precursors and general industry buzz would tell you that Campion is a favorite in the directing and adapted-screenplay races; Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee are strong acting contenders; and a smattering of below-the-line love is likely, from Ari Wegner‘s cinematography to Jonny Greenwood‘s score. The two-horse race between that Western and Focus’s Belfast, which was first identified in Telluride and has gone undisrupted since—save the rise and slight fall of West Side Story, or building industry affection for Licorice Pizza and CODA—remains intact for now.

Netflix believed in the contender from the very beginning: Over months, it hit Venice, Telluride, Toronto, New York, London, and other smaller events around the world, with the cast and crew in tow. Those familiar with Power‘s trajectory tell me its aggressive festival launch was key to its steady rise; tastemakers and film lovers were its prime audience, and they responded ecstatically. “I think the jumping-off point [for campaigns] is almost less analyzed and less evaluated and less appreciated than where we end up,” suggests one strategist. “You want to stir up the conversation and that’s what you do at festivals.”

The streamer’s more commercial side has elevated Don’t Look Up, Which, despite a poor critical reaction (it’s rated Rotten, near-always a deal breaker for the best-picture lineup), is now an across-the-board player. Less certain, but still bubbling around the lineup, are acting plays The Lost Daughter and Tick, Tick…Boom! The former was surely too art house for guilds like the Producers Guild of America, but dominated the indie awards circuit and earned a key BAFTA screenplay nod, while the latter nabbed PGA before being completely snubbed by BAFTA. Four nominations for one studio in best picture would be excellent—but even three, which we’d bet on right now, is a tremendous feat.

As for long-simmering rumors about anti-Netflix bias in the Academy—resurfaced last year when the streamer underperformed with wins—strategists are mixed on just how real it is, based on what they hear and see. But as Netflix continues to develop worthy contenders, to dominate the ad market in trade magazines and special issues, and to spend freely on global campaign events, any such sentiments will prove futile eventually. In fact, 2022 may emerge as that moment.

Streaming may be packing their slates with an auteur-driven fare, but the Sundance Film Festival remains known for launching lower-budget Oscar candidates, holding on with impressive influence in this brave new world. (Remarkably, fully half of 2021’s best-picture nominees premiered at Sundance.) Last year’s (virtual) Park City breakout CODA was swiftly picked up by Apple in a record-breaking acquisition, for a summer streaming release. As it debuted in the dog days of August, though, the film’s longevity seemed uncertain. “There was definitely a period post-festival where people didn’t think it was really in the cards for CODA to get nominated for best picture,” a strategist familiar with the film’s campaign says. “But Apple really believed in it. They put the money behind it, and they had the talent working to do it.”

Carrying the little-indie-that-could banner, the film’s mostly deaf lead cast was included in a groundbreaking Screen Actors Guild ensemble nomination, and has been the face of a run that includes key nominations with PGA, Writers Guild of America, and the Critics Choice Awards. Troy Kotsur is competitive for the supporting-actor trophy, and if the film wins SAG over starrier casts, it’ll be in the best-picture-win conversation. It’s a huge victory not just for this years-in-development film that settled for a digital festival premiere. This is Apple’s first year going all-out in the Oscar race, and it’s proving itself as a serious player.

It’s perhaps the biggest sign of streaming’s increasing power in the Oscar race that even this nascent Oscar-hunting studio could go so far with a film like CODA, however worthy. (In a joint distribution deal with A24, the streamer has a secondary contender vying for a top slot in The Tragedy of Macbeth, which my colleague Rebecca Ford got into on the specialty side.)

Multiple strategists point to streaming films like The Lost Daughter, CODA, and Being the Ricardos As examples of movies that—for various reasons—have been elevated as serious contenders in large part due to their platform. The accessibility Netflix offers a more demanding piece like The Lost Daughter, or the crowd Amazon can bring in (and the campaign they can mount) for an insular industry tale like Being the Ricardos, generates interest beyond what specialty theatrical can offer in the post-COVID landscape.

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