Not long ago, it would’ve seemed ridiculous for a film from Amazon Studios to even exist, let alone be in serious Oscar contention. “Amazon is where I get my used books and dish detergent,” you might’ve said, had someone made the prediction five years ago. Today, however, an Amazonian Oscar seems not only probable, but inevitable, and possibly arriving as soon as this weekend.
Before Amazon Studios started roping in talent like Kenneth Lonergan, whose weepy working class drama, Manchester by the Sea, is nominated for six Oscars, Netflix got into the original TV programming business. The platform’s success with shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black looks pre-destined now, but it was never certain. Only after those shows started winning Emmys in 2013, and after Transparent started winning them for Amazon in 2015, did the digital threat to upend the TV industry seem credible at all. Some networks tried to copy the bingeable formula, and others established a digital arm. Since then, Netflix and its archrival Amazon have been in an entertainment arms race to do to movies what House of Cards did for TV. If Amazon nabs an Oscar first, it might take a little longer.
Although Netflix had a jump on Amazon in making episodic original content, both started releasing movies around the same time. The former’s Beasts of No Nation and the latter’s Chi-raq came out within weeks of each other in late 2015. The only difference is that Beasts had a simultaneous release online and in select theaters, while Amazon tried a conservative two-month theatrical window before making Chi-raq available on its Prime subscription service. Neither film was nominated for any Oscars, but the way the services distributed their respective films is probably the reason why Amazon is the first of the two to have a Best Picture nominee in its roster. (Netflix has a Best Documentary contender this year with Ava Duvernay’s powerful The 13th.)
Netflix had initially targeted an experimental wide simultaneous release for Beasts, but theater chains were not having it. The studio had been warned before, when it announced intentions to co-finance a Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon sequel in 2014, that they were to either adhere to the 90-day theatrical window or take a long walk off a short pier, cinema-wise. It remained essential to Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, though, that the company’s movies be available online first and foremost. Whereas Amazon apparently wanted to put its imprimatur on great new films and, at a distant second, pad out its Prime offerings with original content. Netflix wanted to disrupt the movie model like it had with television, but the model had already been changing a lot.
Video on demand had been slowly increasing in popularity by the time Steven Spielberg and George Lucas sounded the death knell of the cinematic experience in 2013. In their view, there would come a day when the only films worthy of theatrical releases would be huge tent-pole event movies, while everything else would be siphoned off onto the internet. With the successful VOD release of the arthouse blockbuster Snowpiercer the next summer, it seemed the range had been expanded on what kinds of films could be immediately available for impulsive viewers. Pretty soon, just as movie stars one might have never expected to see on TV began starring in shows, many indie movies that might have been sleeper hits in years past went straight to VOD. (See for instance the entire recent Mark Duplass oeuvre.) It is this model that Netflix seemed set to push forward.
In 2015, Netflix announced its partnership with Adam Sandler for four films, starting with The Ridiculous Six. Most of its other movies were watchable garbage like the horror movie Spectral, and, more ambitiously, the Christopher Guest misfire, Mascots. Amazon, however, spent the past year or so co-distributing more arty fare like The Neon Demon, Gleason, and The Handmaiden. The stage was set for Manchester by the Sea, which premiered in November and has so far grossed $60M worldwide. It is by far the biggest moneymaker the studio has put out so far, and it hasn’t even made the title available on Prime yet.
If Amazon wins an Oscar on Sunday, it will not only have beaten its rival to the punch, it will be striking a blow for mid-list cinema. It will be preserving the experience of going to see a non-franchise film in theaters while still innovating the process. It will also be just in time too. Not only was Netflix aggressively snapping up titles at Sundance this year like a whale eating plankton, as compared with Amazon’s surgical trio of picks, it also just nabbed the holy grail in prestige home viewing—the next Scorsese film. Looks like the disruption of the disruption may itself soon be disrupted.