By Daniel Howat
Netflix changed the game when it comes to television. They essentially gave audiences a new way to watch their shows by binge-watching them all at once. Dozens of high-quality new shows land on Netflix every year, and they have solidified themselves as one of the best TV networks around. For some reason, they still can’t figure out how to have a strong film release. So as Oscar season is ramping up, and Netflix gears up to release potential contender “Mudbound,” we need to ask a vital question: Is Netflix ready for a real awards campaign?
Plenty of money has been spent by Netflix purchasing critically acclaimed films, although they haven’t shown any success with awards campaigns in the past. Some filmmakers have chosen to prioritize a theatrical release over Netflix, even if they offer more money. At Sundance 2015, Nate Parker turned down Netflix’s $20 million offer for “The Birth Of A Nation” in favor of Fox Searchlight’s lesser offer (though that film’s failed Oscar campaign is a whole other story). This year, “I, Tonya” came to the Toronto International Film Festival in search of a distributor. The possible Oscar contender was said to have many offers and was expected to be snatched up by Netflix until they announced a $5 million deal with the growing studio Neon. Perhaps filmmakers don’t want to throw away their Oscar chances by signing with Netflix.
Directed by Dee Rees, “Mudbound” was another hit at Sundance, where Netflix purchased it for $12.5 million. It has all the trappings of a potential Oscar contender, but Netflix’s release strategy has many concerned. Even as they tout the movie at film festivals to great reviews and acclaim, most recently at Toronto International Film Festival, the film doesn’t seem to be gathering steam as one might expect with a film from a different studio. “Mudbound,” tells the story of two men in rural Mississippi who have both recently returned home from World War II, and are now struggling to return to normalcy. The film deals with many issues, including racism, and centers around the two men and their families, one of whom is black. Judging from the content and quality alone, this could find success at the Academy Awards if given a good campaign.
Netflix has had success at the Oscars for their documentary features, earning at least one nomination for Best Documentary Feature every year since 2013, and winning last year’s Best Documentary Short Subject for “White Helmets.” No one doubts their qualifications to receive awards attention for documentaries, so why the concern with narrative films? My quick answer is that, for many, no one expects much buzz, box office, or a huge audience to see documentaries. They are simply smaller films that don’t have the expectation to gather as much attention in order to compete for the big awards. Look no further than last year’s Best Documentary Oscar winner “O.J.: Made In America,” which was initially made for ESPN before receiving a small qualifying theatrical run. Netflix simply doesn’t have to clear as high a bar when it comes to documentaries.
But Netflix’s biggest blunder so far has been with their first narrative drama, 2015’s “Beasts Of No Nation.” This has been discussed to death, but the consensus remains that with another studio, “Beasts” would’ve been a certain contender, with a possible win for Idris Elba (who did end up winning a SAG award for his role). That snub, along with a few others that year, gave way to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. It was a game-changing moment, and Netflix won’t redeem themselves until they find success at the Oscars.
It is merely a streaming bias that has people counting out Netflix? What about their biggest competitor, Amazon Studios? Amazon has had no shortage of critically acclaimed films in their short existence. Last year, their first real year as a studio, they released well-received films like “Café Society,” “The Handmaiden,” and “Paterson.” More importantly, they released Oscar-nominated documentary “I Am Not Your Negro,” and won three Oscars for “The Salesman,” and “Manchester By The Sea,” from multiple nominations. The difference between Amazon and Netflix, in addition to an arguably better film slate, is Amazon’s release window, giving their films a dedicated and wide theatrical release prior to debuting the film on their streaming site.
With the expected awards campaign behind “Mudbound,” what does Netflix COO Ted Sarandos want to happen? He remains committed to prioritizing releasing films on Netflix over a wide theatrical release.
“I believe filmmakers want their films to be in the culture. They want them to be seen and talked about and reviewed. Those are the things they want. They articulate that they want their film to be in theaters. It also happens to things on Netflix. I have a 22-year-old and 20-year-old, and if it’s not on Netflix it doesn’t exist for them. It’s in the culture because I can watch.” (Indiewire)
That certainly applies to their TV slate, but that’s just not the case with a single one of their narrative features. Who can call any film that Netflix has released fully “in the culture” simply because it’s on Netflix? We know we have to watch TV at home. We’re used to discovering new shows from people talking about what they watched at home. It’s not that big of a disruption to the model. For them to disrupt the film model, they can’t simply assume a film will capture the culture simply because it’s there. But Sarandos is sincere in his pursuit to be taken seriously.
Just this summer, Netflix announced a few new hires to their film department. Julie Fontaine was hired as the head of motion picture publicity. She previously served at Lionsgate, where she ran awards campaigns (Quite successfully) for “La La Land” and “Hacksaw Ridge.” Oscar strategists Cynthia Swartz and Lisa Taback are also joining her team. There’s no doubt about Netflix’s goals here.
Now, one could make the case that Netflix simply hasn’t had a very good slate of movies yet. Are any of us truly surprised when “Death Note” or “War Machine” fail to capture a large audience? That’s certainly a fair argument. If Netflix had as many incredible films as A24 or Annapurna Pictures or even Amazon Studios, perhaps they would have had more success at the Oscars at this point. Maybe “Beasts of No Nation” was just a fluke.
But what about this year’s Sundance winner “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore”? What about “The Incredible Jessica James”? What about “Okja“? And most recently, what about “First They Killed My Father?” None of these perfectly good and critically acclaimed films were able to grab much of an audience. Of course, conveniently, Netflix doesn’t release their viewership numbers, so we don’t truly know how popular or unpopular these films were, but think about it yourself; how many people do you personally know (Excluding critics or “Film Twitter”) who watched these movies? I know very, very few, even among my film-obsessed friends. One could point the finger at a lack of a theatrical release, but an even bigger problem seems to be a lack of marketing. Compared to theatrical films, Netflix doesn’t seem to try to get their film out there. The earlier quote from Sarandos seems to indicate that Netflix relies heavily on the idea that if it’s on Netflix it’ll be seen. But of course, none of these movies were really expected to get any Oscar nominations.
So that brings us back to the topic at hand: “Mudbound.” The buzz isn’t picking up as one would expect for a film to get Oscar recognition. For many Oscar prognosticators, the film is somewhat of a “bubble nominee.” Gold Derby shows Mudbound sitting at the tenth place for Best Picture, eighth place for Mary J. Blige in Best Supporting Actress, and ninth place for Dee Rees in Best Director. In Adapted Screenplay, though, the film is currently in second place. Can they gather the buzz they need and raise people’s expectations?
To their credit, and perhaps due to their new movie publicity team, “Mudbound” has received a bit more marketing than their previous releases. I, for one, see ads for the film popping up on social media. That’s more than I can say for Netflix’s most recent film, “First They Killed My Father,” which, prior to actually watching the film, I hadn’t even seen a poster or image from the film outside of reviews.
If Netflix’s hard work doesn’t pay off, will that be the final nail in the coffin of their Oscar hopes? I doubt it. They’ll need more failures before accepting defeat and changing their strategy. It’s disappointing to see great movies miss out on a great awards conversation, especially those starring people of color like “Beasts” and “Mudbound.” We’ll see soon whether Netflix can overcome expectations. “Mudbound” releases on November 17, 2017, with a very small theatrical and simultaneous online release.
What do you think? Will “Mudbound” be a contender this year? Why is Netflix struggling when Amazon is thriving? What changes do you want to see? Let us know in the comments below.
You can follow Daniel and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @howatdk