With the rise of digital streaming platforms comes an interesting question: should they be eligible for awards? Quite a few SVODs (streaming video on-demand) have original and well-received content, like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. But it’s difficult to define what genres these programs, specifically movies, fall into. On one hand, films produced exclusively for these services have the same level of polish and quality behind them as full theatrical releases. On the other, SVODs act more like TV channels than movie studios.
In an interview with ITV news, director Steven Spielberg argued that movies on Netflix should be eligible for an Emmy but not an Oscar. Even if said films are shown in theaters for a week or two for judges’ consideration, he believes they are still not qualified to run. “Fewer and fewer filmmakers are going to struggle to raise money, or to compete at Sundance and possibly get one of the special labels to release their films theatrically. And more of them are going to let the SVOD businesses finance their films, maybe with the promise of a slight, one-week theatrical window to qualify for awards. But, in fact, once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie.”
That’s not to say that awards for SVODs don’t have their defenders. One unnamed member of the Academy told Variety that “Netflix isn’t destroying the business. Anyone who is going to let you make your movie the way you want to is [sic] good for movies… Thank God for Netflix.”
Dee Rees, director of Pariah, shares the sentiment. Despite her film being adored at Sundance in 2011 and being picked up by Focus Features, its theatrical gross never reached $1 million. Instead, she attributes Pariah’s success to Netflix, which picked up the film after the limited theatrical run. “Netflix is how people saw my film and why it stayed relevant for so long,” she told Variety. It’s this success that lead her to continue partnering with Netflix for her next movie, Mudbound. Rees admits the film is lengthy and off-putting to most major studios for the heavy subject matter. But Netflix, ever brave, picked it up regardless. “I think Netflix trusts its audience in a different way. They don’t assume they need to be spoon fed things. They aren’t afraid of it.”
The argument, to some extent, does seem to be a generational issue. Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. discussed Netflix and the Oscars in their weekly column for Deadline. Bart, an industry veteran, is opposed to the idea: “Do I want a Netflix project to win an Oscar? My answer: not really.” Fleming Jr., however, says that Netflix is vital to the future of movies and discrediting it is an act of hypocrisy. With so many talented filmmakers and brilliant films on the service, failure to consider them for an award is a disservice and disgrace.
Another factor of the argument, which both Bart and Fleming bring up, is the effect the theater itself has on the movie-watching experience. Movies do have a different atmosphere on the big screen and are more captivating, but they are designed to look best in these situations. But as SVODs rise, it’s entirely possible that filmmakers will adjust to making films pop on laptop and television screens. Movie theaters will always be around, but the two platforms need to coexist, Fleming argues. Bart figures the social aspect of going to the movies is part of the staying power and impact they have.
No matter what side of the argument, SVODs are already raking in the awards. The Handmaid’s Tale has snagged both an Emmy and a Golden Globe, while Amazon Studios helped Casey Affleck secure the Best Actor Oscar for his work in Manchester By the Sea (which also won Best Original Screenplay). It’s a debate on winning with no clear victor, and it’s bound to continue as long as there are stories to be told.