The Academy Prepares for the Netflix-Spielberg Showdown, and a $10,000 Streaming App

The upcoming rules meeting at the Academy should be a doozy.
Steven SpielbergThe Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon, Los Angeles, USA - 05 Feb 2018
Steven Spielberg at the Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon, February 2018
Chelsea Lauren/REX/Shutterstock

On April 23, when the Academy holds the next meeting for its Board of Governors, it will confront the future: What about the streamers?  The Academy tabled the long-debated question at last month’s meeting, but now it’s expected to determine if Oscar rule changes are needed for Netflix, Apple, Disney+, and other streaming sites.

Steven Spielberg, who represents the directors branch, is a firm believer in making a substantial theatrical release an eligibility requirement. Since 2012, the Academy has demanded a one-week qualifying run in a “commercial theater,” which can be day-and-date, to be Oscar eligible; documentaries must be reviewed in New York or L.A. Spielberg may advocate to make day-and-date releases unacceptable — but the numbers may not be on Spielberg’s side.

Atmosphere at Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium at Egyptian Theatre, in Hollywood, CaliforniaGolden Globes Foreign Language Symposium, Hollywood, USA
Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium at Egyptian TheatreTonya Wise/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The 54-member Board of Governors is packed with Netflix-friendly people, from the documentary and craft reps, screenwriter Lawrence Karaszewski, and indie producer Albert Berger to Participant’s David Linde and Christina Kounelias (“Green Book” and “Roma”), director Kimberly Peirce, and ex-Warner Bros. distribution executive Dan Fellman, who consults for Netflix. Even Fox Searchlight’s Nancy Utley, who has competed fiercely with Netflix, is now nestled at Disney with its coming OTT platform.

Others may sympathize with the studios. Although Netflix is a newly minted MPAA member, it’s also a thorn in the side of majors that resent its ability to dodge box-office numbers while spending massive Oscar marketing budgets (see: “Roma”) that don’t have to contend with the same laws of gravity that govern their P&A spends. (Few prints; lots of advertising.)

However, the swing vote may belong to Academy members who feel that changing the rules around qualifying runs would be a rollback with the capacity to seriously damage independent films. After all, Roadside Attractions opened both “Arbitrage” and “Margin Call” day and date, and qualified them for Oscars.

“If they try to do that, it would be punitive,” said one production company marketer. “These rules have existed for a decade. A rule change would be against Netflix, while IFC and Roadside have been releasing movies day-and-date for years. Netflix hasn’t broken any rules. It’s such a resource for world-class filmmakers. You can’t change day and date and go backward. They would look like old farts. When Disney+ comes, will they change the rules again?”

There seems to be unity on one point: No one seems to be paying much attention to the March 21 Justice Department letter warning the Academy that its potential rule changes would limit the eligibility of Netflix and other streaming services for the Oscars, raise antitrust concerns, and violate competition law. The letter quoted Section 1 of the Sherman Act that “prohibits anticompetitive agreements among competitors.”

“That DOJ threat is not enforceable,” wrote one publicist in an email. “Where do you start/stop? Telling AMPAS to allow any and all releases regardless of qualifications to compete?”

The Academy faces another major streaming issue: Many awards marketers would like nothing better than to abandon DVDs, which are prohibitively expensive to distribute and, at this point, a little old fashioned. According to several attendees, the Academy meeting April 11 saw a proposal from Academy managing director Lorenza Muñoz, who raised the possibility of adding Best Picture movies to the Oscar streaming app. It’s currently used by documentary, shorts, and animation voters, but to opt in for best picture could cost the submitting distributor some $10,000.

It’s not a new idea — there’s a Screen Actors Guild app that offers the same option for its membership — but it’s a price point that makes it impractical for many lower-budget entries. Not to mention, it wouldn’t obviate the need for DVDs; many older members may not be adept with technology.

Meanwhile, Netflix is buying Hollywood’s venerable Egyptian Theatre as a place to screen its Emmy series and Oscar movies for guilds and other voting groups. No technical difficulties there.

Another issue that will be raised is how many people should serve on the board. With 17 branches and 54 members, it’s unwieldy. One change would reduce the number of reps per branch from three to two (plus the three diversity members) for a total of 37. Others would like to see a small board of 12 with the others sequestered onto an advisory panel.

What won’t be decided: who takes over for divisive president John Bailey. That comes in July. Many would like Utley to run: she’d win easily, thanks to canny understanding of marketing and distribution. (Many board members are lobbying for a corporate communications officer to speak for the Academy; Christina Kounelias was never replaced.) Of course, Utley also has a full-time job, and a new boss. Casting director David Rubin, who almost beat John Bailey last time, is the likely winner this time around.

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