Promoting two features and three documentaries, Netflix’s Telluride Film Festival dinner at Rustico spanned two long tables crammed with journalists, staff, and stars like Greta Gerwig, Adam Driver, Adam Sandler, and Laura Dern. This was Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ third year in Telluride, only this time he was accompanied by the largest team of any Hollywood entertainment company.
It was an impressive showing, but the world has shifted dramatically since Netflix spent $50 million promoting last year’s Oscar title, “Roma.” On February 25, the morning after Alfonso Cuaron’s black-and-white drama won three of Netflix’s 15 Oscar nominations (but not Best Picture), Netflix stock opened to $367.01. At this writing, the price hovers around $288.
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That makes the paradigm-busting Netflix look more human, less Pennywise, but the more complicated truth is Netflix can no longer occupy the role of studio bogeyman: Between Disney +, Hulu, Apple+, HBO Max, and Amazon, there’s too much competition. And against that crowd, Netflix looks suspiciously like the good guy. In the ongoing battle to reduce the 90-day theatrical window, Netflix fought for 45 days on Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” It lost the battle, but major exhibitors were willing to consider 75 days. That’s progress.
Meanwhile, Netflix has learned a lot from its analog studio brethren since “Beasts of No Nation” in 2015. Like everyone else, it realized marketing is key and that Oscars lure name filmmakers; they also enhance a movie’s value for subscribers. Last year, Netflix absorbed top Oscar campaigner Lisa Taback’s company, giving her team resources to push relentlessly on selling Netflix titles at the Emmys and Oscars. This year, it returns with two stellar in-house productions in Noah Baumbach’s gripping divorce dramedy “Marriage Story” starring Driver and Scarlett Johansson and “The Two Popes,” from director Fernando Meirelles (“City of God”) and Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”).
“The Two Popes” surprised Telluride attendees with an entertaining sparring match between wily British thespians Anthony Hopkins (conservative Pope Benedict) and Jonathan Pryce (humanistic Pope Francis), while Driver and Johansson are locks for Oscar nominations. Both crowdpleasers will not only play well on the big screen (at festivals and in limited theatrical release) but also on Netflix, where they will be widely viewed by the increasingly global Academy voters.
Other titles will likely gain the most traction in their streaming lives. David Michôd’s Shakespearean “The King” and its red-hot stars Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson nabbed plenty of press attention (but less critical consensus) at Venice ahead of its November 1 limited theatrical release. So did Steven Soderbergh’s satiric “The Laundromat,” starring Oscar perennials Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman, which also plays Toronto. That’s what Netflix wants, finally: to brand and identify these movies so that its viewers will tune in and new ones around the world will subscribe.
Also in Toronto is Eddie Murphy starring in comeback blaxploitation comedy “Dolemite Is My Name” (written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) as well as more profile building for “Marriage Story.” That also plays the New York Film Festival, which opens with “The Irishman” starring feted New Yorkers Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino.
From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. Netflix has evolved, carefully positioning each movie to maximize its potential on the service, with or without Oscars. Those that have awards prospects need screens, of course, and for that Netflix hopes to soon have the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles as a promotional hub for premieres and screenings, and has given early consideration to the just-shuttered Paris theater in New York.
While the studios still make Oscar movies — last year, Universal’s “Green Book” beat out “Roma” for best picture, and best actor went to Rami Malek in Fox’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” — Oscars are no longer core to their business models. For now, they remain essential for Netflix, and no other distributor has its momentum for the 2020 awards. However, the biggest asset Netflix may have this year is time: Netflix is no longer the outlier. As streamers and limited theatrical runs rapidly become the new normal, Oscar voters may also accept the idea that the year’s best film was made to be seen at home.