The Trial of the Netflix 35

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Netflix has an astounding number of nominations for this year’s Academy Awards.

Anna Freeman

Netflix has an astounding number of nominations for this year’s Academy Awards – 35 to be exact. This is not just more than any other studio, but these nominations are also well distributed across every category bar one (International Feature Film). Netflix is the streaming service on everybody’s lips: it has carved out a huge section of the market for itself, and every major studio and TV channel seems to be trying to copy them somehow. Their on-demand, instantaneous content is quickly becoming the predominant way we ingest media – and the analytics used to cultivate this content have been praised for relying on cold numbers as opposed to studio ‘gut feelings’. But, should we be scared by this? Does Netflix’s success (and the success of other competing streaming services, by extension) symbolise a change in the film industry for better or worse?

My first response to this startling figure of 35, and I think to Netflix as a whole, is an undecided one. In some ways I feel the same as I do about any (relatively) sudden tech giant which has revolutionised its respective field, such as Spotify, Amazon and ASOS. Each service is fantastic at what it does, yet these changes can sometimes come with sacrifices to older, established ways and companies. Think of Debenhams, BHS, even all the way back to Blockbuster. Maybe these companies couldn’t adapt to the changing ways we shop and consume, but nevertheless the point still stands that Netflix has filled that void, and then some. This number of 35 does feel momentous and intimidating. The question still remains though, as to whether it is a good or bad thing for this giant to be dominating our most prestigious film awards ceremony. No one can deny that Netflix (and the other, newer, streaming services on the market such as Apple+, Disney+ and Amazon Video) have been perfect for a year in lockdown. Cult shows such as ‘Tiger King’ set social media ablaze with discussion and theories, as Netflix was ready and waiting to fill the time we would have spent engaging with the outside world. From a practical perspective also, Netflix has enabled us to reach Oscar-nominated content in a year when it has been notoriously difficult for those outside the U.S to find. Due to cinemas being shut, films from conventional studios have struggled to reach us, while every Netflix Oscar-nominated film is available to watch for the monthly price of £5.99. Some studios have even passed over their films to streaming services: The Trial of the Chicago 7 was originally to be distributed by Paramount. There are also a great variety of tales being told, from that of ‘The Mother of Blues’ Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, to the (literal) trials and tribulations of anti-Vietnam war protestors in The Trial of the Chicago 7.

These films have been among the most publicised across the platform and the wider world, but they are only the tip of the iceberg of Netflix’s Originals.Heaps of content is swallowed by the algorithm: to my shock I only discovered Netflix’s ‘Maniac’, featuring superstars Jonah Hill, Emma Stone and Justin Theroux, when scrolling towards the bottom of a search for ‘Superbad’. Even high-profile films feel relentlessly pushed aside for new releases, of which there are dozens every few months . As Todd Van Luling from the Huffington Post labels it, Netflix relies upon its users doing ‘marathon binge sessions’, watching all their latest releases instantly, before these are replaced on their home screen (and in the public conscience) by their next binge-worthy film or series.

Netflix have been criticised in recent years for the awkward way they have interacted with traditional cinemas, often refusing to accept traditional screening times. In fact, Netflix have bought entire cinemas in order to screen their Originals for the minimum amount of time needed to be eligible for the Academy Awards. There is also controversy surrounding creative power given to film and television makers for Netflix. While directors like Bong Joon-ho have praised the company for giving him Spielberg-like levels of creative freedom, Michaela Coel has criticised Netflix for being unwilling to give her any percentage of the copyright over her show I May Destroy You. Creative freedom is not the same thing as copyright, but the fact still remains that Netflix is using its relatively unique, and seemingly untouchable, position to dictate its own preferences, different to the accepted norms on both counts.

Indeed, the one thing that seems to be causing Netflix difficulty, and what they have been striving towards for the past few years, is big success at the Oscars. Oscar wins would help solidify Netflix’s reputation as a studio which creates consistently award-worthy films and documentaries, rather than a place for licensed content with an Originals department that churns out as many duds as they do great films. Both their minimal cinema screenings and the huge variety of media they produce make it seem like Netflix is positioning itself to cater for Oscar recognition in as many departments as they can. In some ways, it seems like Netflix wants to ‘have their cake and eat it’, that is to say, make and distribute films exactly as they want to – a thoroughly non-traditional way – whilst being rewarded by a very traditional institution.

But should we be scared of this? Or, at the very least, find it concerning? An important fact to remember is that, although Netflix have been nominated for a huge number of awards, the same was true for last year’s ceremony, when they only received a total of 2 wins despite having a total of 24 nominations. Perhaps the Academy is still not wholly convinced enough to concede Netflix a better nomination to win ratio. Whether this year will be different remains to be seen. Regardless of our opinions on them, Netflix has established itself as a powerhouse of film and series creation, and we should admire them for taking risks and platforming stories this year that otherwise may not have been heard. Ultimately, I don’t think we should be afraid, or think distastefully of Netflix’s high number of nominations. 2020 was the year perfect for the streaming service, and we have a lot to thank them for. No media creation entity is perfect, not by a long shot, and as long as we continue to support cinemas and question issues surrounding creative freedoms, I believe we can enjoy both the new and the traditional together.

List of References

  • ‘35’ -

  • ‘analytics’ -

  • ‘made by Paramount’ -

  • ‘Huffington Post’ -

  • ‘traditional cinemas’ -

  • ‘bought entire cinemas’ -

  • ‘praised’ -

  • ‘criticised’ -

  • ‘2 wins’ -


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