Relief was palpable at the Governors Ball Sunday night. The hostless show was entertaining, and surprise winners like Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”) dive-bombed many an office Oscar pool. Studio films obviated the need for a Best Popular Film category: Fox’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” dominated the night with four Oscars, while Universal’s “Green Book” and Disney’s “Black Panther” each won three. With presenters and performers with high global profiles, ratings were up slightly from last year, to 29.6 million viewers.
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Clearly the most expensive campaign for a foreign-language film in Hollywood history, “Roma” came very close to winning the big prize. The preferential ballot favored a consensus title like “Green Book,” a movie in the tradition of “In the Heat of the Night,” “Crash,” and “Driving Miss Daisy” that makes white people feel good about themselves. As soon as it won Best Original Screenplay, the Best Picture win was possible. It also stood out as the best-liked movie by the largely male, mainstream contingent of the Academy, while “BlacKkKlansman,” “Roma,” and “Black Panther” split their supporters. Universal also timed the distribution of “Green Book” so it reached audiences just as the movie hit big at the Oscars. Academy voters dug in their heels and ignored the “Green Book” mudslinging. They liked what they liked.
When I asked NBC/Universal chairman Jeff Shell if the win for “Green Book” was a win for the Hollywood studios, he said, “Yes. It was never going to be ‘Roma.'”
How close did “Roma” get? To judge by the precursors (Golden Globes, DGA, BAFTA, Critics’ Choice), the film looked like the one to beat, picked by all but nine of the 37 awards experts at Gold Derby (including me). Obviously, a substantial number of the 8,000 Oscar voters accorded the Mexican black-and-white film three historic wins out of 10 nominations, for Director (Alfonso Cuarón’s second after “Gravity,” and the fifth time in six years a Mexican director has won), Cinematography (the first for a director shooting his own film), and Best Foreign Language Film, the first after nine nominations for Mexico. (The filmmaker joins the heady ranks of Billy Wilder, Francis Coppola, Clint Eastwood, and his chum Alejandro G. Iñárritu, each of whom have won four or more Oscars.)
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Multiple forces pulled against “Roma” winning Best Picture. Studio executives griped about Netflix trying to “buy” that Oscar, and they wanted to stave off this existential threat. If they had mounted a campaign as exhaustive as the one run by tireless former Weinstein campaigner Lisa Taback for “Roma,” they might have won more than they did.
Some theatrical distributors deny that Netflix actually mounted a “Roma” theatrical release at all because the streamer refused to share numbers. (Our box-office estimates put “Roma” at about $3.5 million; expect it to announce grosses now that the Oscars are over.) But while Netflix ensured that many voters saw the stunningly mounted film in theaters, it did not play as impressively at home (especially without surround sound).
It was the most divisive Oscar season since “Saving Private Ryan” lost Best Picture to then-upstart Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love” (produced by 2019 Oscar producer Donna Gigliotti). In the final weeks, a narrative emerged that revealed just how threatened the major studios are by streamer Netflix. According to such gung-ho “Green Book” advocates as Academy governor Steven Spielberg, who helped writer-director Peter Farrelly find a home for the Participant Media movie at Universal, a vote for “Green Book” was a vote for cinema itself. The filmmaker has been vocal about defending the theatrical experience and wanting Netflix movies to vie for Emmys, not Oscars.
Jeff Skoll and David Linde’s Participant Media competed with itself, having bankrolled both “Green Book” and “Roma” — and both films were initially produced with theatrical exhibition in mind. Netflix outbid rivals for “Roma,” and promised to deliver a far more expansive campaign than any studio would have for a $15 million foreign-language black-and-white movie, which never would have made those costs back in theatrical release. No studio was willing to step up the way Netflix did. They’re in a different business.
Studios worried that Netflix would win Best Picture and use that leverage to lure the best filmmakers. Ethan Coen told me at UTA’s packed pre-Oscar party that, while they’d rather show their films in theaters, he and Joel were happy to take their idiosyncratic omnibus movie “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” to Netflix, and would do so again. (The movie enjoyed a brief pre-Netflix theatrical outing.) Studios could have picked up Martin Scorsese’s gangster drama “The Irishman” — if they were willing to let his budget balloon well past $140 million. That will be the next Netflix rubicon. Ted Sarandos isn’t finished with the Oscars by any means.
And even the studio heads know they face an uphill battle against not only Silicon Valley player Netflix, but also Apple and Amazon. The upcoming CinemaCon exhibitors’ convention in Las Vegas should prove revealing, as theater owners and studios continue their fraught conversations around theatrical windows. Netflix’s three-week theatrical exclusive for “Roma” will never fly with the big chains, but studios want the current 90-day window to get a lot shorter.
Going forward, expect to hear from the Academy committee that’s working to define what movies are in the digital age, headed by producer Albert Berger. Some would like to see Netflix forced into Emmy contention, or at least to reveal its grosses. That’s not going to happen. How can they push new MPAA member Netflix out? The fox is already in the hen house. Figuring out how to best compete is the only option.
Of course, the Academy has more than Netflix on its mind. At the Governors Ball, a line of well-wishers congratulated Academy CEO Dawn Hudson for a job well done. “It wasn’t a disaster,” said one Academy governor, smiling. Media-savvy Academy governor Laura Dern is a leading candidate to replace unpopular outgoing president John Bailey when he terms out this summer. “We don’t need another old white man,” said the governor.
Outside Soho House’s Netflix party, Dern smilingly shrugged off the demands of an unpaid full-time job. “I need to focus on raising this one,” she said, gesturing to her daughter Jaya. Meanwhile, “Roma” Supporting Actress nominee Marina de Tavira was heading home to Mexico City the next day. While she comes away with a career boost, she was sorry to say goodbye to an unforgettable — and unpredictable — walk down Hollywood’s yellow brick road. However, Participant’s David Linde was in no mood to look back at what it was like to be caught between fiercely battling contenders. “It’s over,” he said.