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Inside Netflix’s all-out blitz to win a Best Picture Oscar for Roma

The streaming giant really, really wants the Academy to like it.

Inside Netflix’s all-out blitz to win a Best Picture Oscar for Roma
Alfonso Curaon, with Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture/Foreign Language and Best Director/Motion Picture for Roma. [Photo: courtesy of Hollywood Foreign Press Association]

It’s no secret that winning awards in Hollywood goes beyond how good a movie or TV show is. There is a sophisticated art to a so-called awards campaign. There’s the schmoozing those who vote on the Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, and all of the other awards shows that fill up the Hollywood calendar every fall and winter. There’s the creation of a tsunami of promotions. There’s the crafting of a compelling narrative around a project–The underdog! The passion project! The movie that almost didn’t get made!–and then peddling that myth to tastemakers, pundits, and anyone else who will listen, all the while pretending that you’re not actually selling anything.

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The master of this art was Harvey Weinstein, particularly in his 1990s Miramax heyday when he shepherded films like Shakespeare in Love, The English Patient, and Chicago to Best Picture glory. Known as a relentless–and ruthless–salesman, Weinstein would run his talent around town in an exhaustive flurry of meet-and-greets, shamelessly trash talk competitors, and practically hunt down Oscar voters in order to button-hole them about his movie or introduce them to a filmmaker or star. “If there was an Academy voter sitting in a Starbucks in Gardena, Harvey would send a director over to talk to them,” quips film critic Pete Hammond, who covers the awards race for Deadline.

Today, of course, Weinstein has been all but obliterated from Hollywood, disgraced by numerous stories of serial sexual assault. Although no single individual, be it a studio chief or an awards consultant, has emerged as Weinstein’s successor on the campaign trail, there is a company that elicits the same kind of sighs, eye-rolls, and begrudging praise that he once did: Netflix.  

Talk to anyone in Hollywood this year about the Oscars season, and Netflix’s name will come up almost immediately. Among the comments and gripes:

  • They spend way more than anyone else.
  • They pursue any and all ways to promote their projects for awards.
  • And most importantly: They, and especially Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, really, really, really want to win. 

“They’re the 800-pound gorilla,” says one publicist, who did not wish to be quoted. “It seems like they have unlimited resources.”

Indeed, since entering the original content game back in 2013 and quickly building up a roster of its own TV shows and now movies, Netflix has been an aggressive awards player, seeing trophies as invaluable marketing vehicles that help drive the company’s one and only business: subscriptions. Since entering into original movies in a significant way last year, awards are now also a way to gain credibility among filmmakers who fear that making a film for Netflix means missing out on audiences who prefer to see films in theaters, not to mention getting lost in the abyss of content on the app. 

Until now, Netflix’s awards muscle was mostly felt during the lead up to the Emmy’s, when Netflix–which is expected to spend $12 billion on content this year and has thrown hundreds of millions of dollars at star showrunners such as Shonda Rhimes–erects its elaborate For Your Consideration event. The annual pop-up, which is open for two months, invites mobs in to view and interact with installations based on shows like Stranger Things, The Crown, and House of Cards, as they sip cocktails, nibble on hors d’oeuvres, and mingle with stars from the shows. (Amazon also creates an immersive experience at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.) Then there are the endless screenings and Q&A sessions for each show, not to mention trade ads and ubiquitous billboards all around town. The company is speculated to have spent more than $15 million on Emmy campaigning last year, but rivals say that figure is on the low side. 

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Arguably, however, the investment paid off: Last year, Netflix tied reigning champ HBO with 23 Emmy wins, more than anyone else. 

Now this Netflix effect is being felt in the Oscar race. Although Netflix has campaigned for films in the past, including Mudbound, which was nominated for four Oscars last year (it walked away empty-handed), the company has never been in the position of having an Oscar frontrunner on its hands, as it does this year with Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s ode to his childhood nanny in Mexico City, which critics have been ooh-ing and ah-ing over ever since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival last August. Nor has the company ever been this mobilized for a real Oscar battle. Last year, it acquired Oscar consultant Lisa Taback’s firm, which was behind the campaigns for Oscar winners Moonlight and Spotlight. Like many top awards whisperers in town, Taback worked with Weinstein back in the day at Miramax.

Making the situation even riper this year is the wide-open Best Picture race, which has no real frontrunner. In the mix are A Star Is Born, Black Panther, BlackKklansman, and Green Book, but each is dealing with its own challenges. A Star Is Born was snubbed at the Globes, and Green Book is in the midst of controversies over racist Tweets from one of the film’s writers and resurfaced stories about director Peter Farrelly’s lewd behavior in the past. A superhero movie like Black Panther has never won for Best Picture. Spike Lee, the director behind BlackKklansman, has never won an Oscar before, fueling the “Is he likable enough?” debate.

Then there’s Roma. The film is beloved by critics and has picked up awards at all the major film festivals; it also won for Best Director and Best Foreign Language film at the Globes (it wasn’t eligible for Best Drama). On Sunday, it nabbed the top award at the Critics Choice Awards, which has recently presaged Best Picture Oscar wins for The Shape of Water and Spotlight. Cuarón is a distinguished, respected–and Oscar-winning (Gravity)–director who’s equally beloved. And yet, a foreign language film, not to mention one that’s black and white, has never before won a Best Picture Oscar. (Consider Academy Award-winner The Artist a footnote; because it was a silent picture, the French film wasn’t eligible in the Foreign Language category.) There is also a contingent of the Academy that believes that a vote for Roma is a vote for Netflix. In other words, a vote for a company whose streaming model is destroying the traditional film business.

Given these headwinds, Taback and Co. has been campaigning for the film in a way that’s vigorous even by Netflix’s standards. In the lead-up to the Globes, members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association–the group that votes on the Golden Globes–and awards journalists were showered with gifts, including a box of Oaxacan dark chocolates with a note signed by Yalitza Aparicio, the actress who plays the nanny Cleo in the movie. (The chocolates came with a list of all the categories that Roma was eligible in, including Best Actress.) The company also sent out a glossy Roma coffee-table book, and a Roma poster signed by Cuarón. Recipients were asked if they wanted it framed or rolled. Netflix also set up a Roma immersive experience on a Hollywood production stage; it hosted cocktail parties celebrating the film, including one led by Angelina Jolie; and it bought a slew of print, digital, and television ads, including a full two-minute Roma spot that aired during CBS Sunday Morning. According to one media buyer, the cost of that ad alone is about $170,000. (Netflix took out the same ad slot for Mudbound.) Members of the HFPA and other journalists were also invited–as they are annually–to a Christmas party at Sarandos’s manse. 

“Lisa is leaving no stone unturned,” says one executive at a major studio. “If someone comes to town, she sets up some event” to introduce them to talent. “There are billboards all over the place. Her budget has to be huge.” 

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Netflix declined to comment for this story.

Indeed, more than anything else, Netflix’s seemingly limitless budget is the subject of endless fascination–and kvetching–within the industry. (It’s worth noting that lavish spending was not actually one of Weinstein’s core techniques; Miramax, even when it was owned by Disney, always had a modest budget.) 

“[Netflix] doesn’t spend a little more than everyone,” says one publicist. “They spend millions and millions more.” 

“There’s no question its Roma campaign is the most expensive since The Social Network, which has often been cited in the $25 million area,” one Hollywood marketer tells me via email. That 2010 movie, released by Sony’s Columbia Pictures, won three Academy Awards (adapted screenplay, editing, and original score), but The King’s Speech, a Weinstein Company film, won Best Picture. 

A source close to Netflix says that because Roma‘s release in December converges with the awards race, as opposed to, say, a film like A Star Is Born, which was released in early October, the film’s launch and awards campaigns have been combined.

Yet even people inside Netflix are floored by the company’s sky’s-the-limit-attitude. “They spend so much money,” says one marketer who has worked on campaigns at Netflix. “It’s insane. Someone will say, ‘Oh, I want to do X, I have this great idea. It’s going to cost $600,000.’ And they say, ‘Just send us the invoice.’ You’re supposed to work within a budget, but if you have a great idea, they’ll find a way to do it.” 

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Internally there is also an obsessive fixation on how many awards competitors have won, according to two sources. If HBO or Amazon won, say, 15 Emmys the previous year, then Netflix wants to win 16. “It’s all about data and numbers,” one of the sources says.  

Netflix, of course, isn’t the only one opening up its pocket book. Before the Globes, Universal sent the HFPA and other press a bound copy of the First Man script and a companion coffee-table book. HBO sent chic totes tied to Succession. (There are much looser rules around what gifts the HFPA can receive in comparison to Oscar voters.) Universal also hosted parties to celebrate Green Book, including one at the see-and-be-seen Sunset Tower. Oprah held one for Disney’s Black Panther, and a Black Panther book was polybagged with an issue of the Hollywood Reporter. Warner Bros, which one publicist says “is advertising like crazy,” recently put up an enormous billboard promoting Ally, the fictitious singer played by Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born, in front of the Chateau Marmont–which is where that poster appears in the film. 

But with movies no longer guaranteed much of a post-Oscar box office bump, studios see awards as prestigious validations of their work, but not much else. Thus there is less incentive to get too carried away with lavish parties and over-the-top campaigning. Studios also don’t have the same resources as billion-dollar tech companies like Netflix and Amazon. (Amazon, for the record, is also busy campaigning for its films Cold War and Beautiful Boy, though neither are considered Best Picture contenders.)

“Netflix is getting a bad rap because some people are jealous,” says one publicist. “The studios don’t have as much money as they used to. If they did have money to spend, they would spend it. Netflix has the money. Obviously, Ted really wants a nomination. I don’t blame him. They’re doing everything they can. Harvey did everything he could. And so did studios when they had the money.”

The question is whether the sweat, toil, and money will pay off come February 24. The Oscars, after all, is a much different animal than the Emmys or the Golden Globes, which Netflix dominated last week with five wins. The next few weeks will begin to shed light on things as the Oscar nominations are announced on January 22, and the guilds host their awards ceremonies. 

Until then, expect Netflix to keep up its lavish push for Roma. 

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“They want it,” says Hammond. “Ted has made a big point to send a message to filmmakers that we can win you Oscars. That’s the whole game here. Roma‘s the best shot they’ve ever had.”

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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