A bumpy road to the Oscars could end in triumph for Netflix

LOS ANGELES — The most tumultuous Oscar season in memory might pale in comparison to the aftermath.

The best picture race to Sunday’s 91st Academy Awards remains unpredictable, but odds makers peg Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” as the film most likely to triumph at the end of the night. That would hand Netflix, the insurgent steaming service, the most prestigious honour in a movie business it has thoroughly disrupted.

Change is everywhere at this year’s Academy Awards, from the nominees to the show, itself. For the second time in 30 years, there will be no host at Sunday’s show, which begins airing live on ABC at 8 p.m. EST. The lead-up to the Oscars has been dominated by dispute over the academy’s own attempts at innovation to counter last year’s record-low ratings. But after uproar from academy members, those plans — not showing some awards live, introducing a “best popular film” category — were all abandoned.

But even if the Oscars end up proceeding more conventionally, the winners promise to be untraditional. Marvel stands to win its first Oscar for either “Black Panther” (up for six Oscars including best picture) or the animated favourite, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse.” Spike Lee, aiming for his first competitive Oscar, could become the first black filmmaker to win best director.

“Roma,” which comes in with a co-leading 10 nominations, is favoured to win best picture, best director, best cinematography and best foreign language film. If “Roma” won best picture, it would be the first foreign language movie ever to do so.

For Hollywood, the most significant milestone would be Netflix triumphing at the Academy Awards, an achievement the streaming giant has fervently sought. Netflix, which has previously only won one feature-length film Oscar (in 2018 for the documentary “Icarus”), has spent more than $25 million on a lavish campaign to propel “Roma.” It hired veteran Oscar campaign strategist Lisa Taback. It even purchased a Los Angeles billboard company to help promote its many films and series, including “for your consideration” ads along the Sunset Strip for “Roma.”

“I’m very grateful for Netflix,” Cuaron said in an interview ahead of the Oscars. “On paper, this is a film that wouldn’t have this life. It’s a Mexican film in Spanish and Mixtec with no recognizable actors when it was done. Black and white. A drama. What I’m so appreciative is that they saw through all those filters to the core of what the film was about and they saw the potential and they really believed in the film.”

Cuaron noted that “Roma” has played for months in theatres, longer than it might otherwise have done. Major theatre chains, however, have refused to screen Netflix releases since the company won’t adhere to the traditional 90-day theatrical exclusivity window. Netflix altered its own policies for “Roma,” playing it exclusively in theatres in limited release for three weeks before streaming it. The company declined to release box-office results.

“Roma” would be the first best picture winner ever to be primarily streamed, something some in Hollywood vehemently oppose. Steven Spielberg has said Netflix movies are really “TV movies” that should be eligible for Emmys, not Oscars.

After “Roma” won best picture at the British Academy Film Awards, J. Timothy Richards, the founder and chief executive of Vue, one of Europe’s largest theatre chains, criticized the British film academy for “choosing to endorse and promote a ‘made for TV’ film.” France’s Cannes Film Festival, where “Roma” was set to make its world premiere, also refused to enter any film without theatrical distribution into competition, causing Netflix to pull “Roma” from the festival.

“I think this kind of exclusivity for the theatre and theatrical experience is actually disconnecting people from movies, in a way,” Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer said in December. “I have not found it to be very consumer-friendly that consumers who live nowhere near a theatre are waiting … to see a movie so that the theatre can have it exclusively for a period of time — a movie that they paid to produce with their subscription money.”

Winning best picture would prove to the filmmakers Netflix is trying to attract that their releases can garner just as much respect as traditional ones. Netflix, which last year spent $12 billion on original content for its 139 million subscribers, will this year release (among many other films) Martin Scorsese’s much-anticipated “The Irishman.”

Oscar producers, though, are looking to emphasize box-office hits like “Black Panther” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The show will start with a performance by Queen and Adam Lambert.

“(The nominations) kind of go to the heart of what we were trying to do with this show, which was put a spotlight on films with worldwide success that have had a cultural impact,” Oscars co-producer Donna Gigliotti said Thursday, citing best-picture nominees “Black Panther,” ”Bohemian Rhapsody,” ”BlacKkKlansman” and “Green Book.”

More streaming services are coming. Disney, WarnerMedia and Apple are all set to launch their own streaming platforms this year. In some ways, Netflix has already been welcomed into the fold. On the same day of Oscar nominations, Netflix became the first streaming service to join the industry lobbying group the Motion Picture Association of America. The only other members of the MPAA are the six major studios, soon to be five when Disney absorbs 20th Century Fox.

“The platforms are part of our conversation but soon they’re not going to be part of the conversation,” said Cuaron, “because it’s going to be the norm.”

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