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Netflix’s Approach for Oscars 2021: Skip the Festival Circuit — Exclusive

As the Golden Globes changes rules to fit this strange awards season, Netflix shifts its approach as everyone waits for the Oscar date.

David Fincher

David Fincher

Eric Charbonneau/Shutterstock

As awards groups adjust to the evolving post-pandemic reality, so will the studios. And the first up is everyone’s favorite Oscar insurgent, Netflix: While it will provide sponsorship for some major festivals in 2020, it’s not planning to send any of their films or talent to attend them.

Among the titles this removes from the circuit are David Fincher’s “Mank,” starring Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried; Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” starring Amy Adams; Charlie Kaufman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” starring Toni Collette and Jesse Plemons; George C. Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” starring Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, and Chadwick Boseman; Radha Blank’s Sundance debut “The 40-Year-Old Version”; and Ramin Bahrani’s “White Tiger.”

In any other year, this might seem unthinkable. The Telluride, Venice, Toronto, and New York film festivals are primary launching pads for Oscar-season movies and are considered as the first and essential stops to not only brand the films as awards worthy but also to allow critics and media to get the word out.  

This year, of course, festivals must wrestle with their own existential questions: Continue or cancel? Stay live or go virtual? (Festivals with year-round audiences like Venice, Toronto, and New York may be in better shape than Telluride, which builds from scratch its four-day festival for thousands of far-flung cinephiles.) And the best-case scenarios call for slimmer lineups, more virtual events, and largely local audiences. With all that in mind, Netflix is choosing to sit this one out.

Of course, the pandemic has also impacted post-production schedules for studios and streamers alike; it’s unclear if perfectionist Fincher could get his Herman J. Mankiewicz biopic done in time for the New York Film Festival. But at this point, while Netflix still plans to debut their films on the service before the end of the year, it’s submitted no films to any festivals. It might provide talent for virtual “conversations” on a film yet to be seen, but some festivals may say “no thanks” to that promo offer. 

Festival directors are very unhappy about this development, and not only for themselves; they worry about the smaller regional festivals in the award-season ecosystem who are in even worse shape. “If we’re big fish and we’re struggling,” said one major festival director, “what does that mean for everyone else?”

Truth is, while festivals historically were crucial to Netflix’s awards strategy, this year the studio has alternatives. Thanks to deals that Netflix made last year (and now seem incredibly prescient) with the Paris Theatre in New York and the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, it can afford to wait and launch their movies to influencers, guild members, and press in a controlled (safe and sanitized) setting, when the time is right. 

Or, maybe it won’t need real-world screenings at all. The Academy and the Golden Globes have already changed their rules for this awards season, allowing streaming titles to qualify (at least temporarily) without a theatrical release.

Is this purely pandemic pragmatism, or does it reveal some larger shift in Netflix’s awards goals? The studio recently saw the exit of publicity veteran Julie Fontaine, and Netflix chief creative officer Ted Sarandos is emerging in a new role as an industry eminence grise. Not only has Netflix business flourished during the lockdown, but last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom selected him to represent the Hollywood studios during a Zoom conference discussing how California gets back to work.  

Meanwhile, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association continues to clarify its Golden Globes eligibility rules. While the Oscars flirt with later dates — possibly as late as April 2021 —  the 90-member group of foreign correspondents is expected to stick with its calendar, which culminates in an early ceremony on January 10, 2021. The Actors, Directors, and Producers Guilds are also adapting their rules to accommodate theater closures, but could push their February award dates back if the Academy shifts its timetable. (A Producers Guild spokeswoman called such speculation “premature.”) 

The Academy’s board of governors will meet June 9 to discuss, among other things, moving the Oscars date, which currently sits on February 28. Even when the Academy first announced their rules changes for the 2020-2021 season, it left wriggle room for a date change. “Each of the governors is farming for opinions,” said one Oscar campaigner. “They aren’t going to make a rushed decision. They are trying to find a date that works for ABC.” (The Academy would not comment.)

“It’s fascinating, it’s fluid, it fits into the flow of the world where there’s uncertainty about so many things,” said one Academy governor.

Academy CEO Dawn Hudson has also streamlined the voting process for replacing Academy governors who are ending their three-year terms. The 17 branches can use a one-time preferential ballot to choose their governor reps.

But if Netflix is having trouble finishing their movies, aren’t the other studios in the same boat? “The Oscars could move in order to accommodate everybody’s issues with simple congestion and backup and pipeline issues,” said a marketing executive for one streamer. As long as the dates of Oscar eligibility remain unclear — would the qualifying year extend through January? — the more the entire industry stays in limbo. 

“You don’t want an Oscars with an asterisk,” said one festival consultant. “That’s useless and irrelevant.”

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