Should Streaming Movies be Oscar Eligible?

When I saw Steven Spielberg was a streaming topic on Twitter, I worried. I’m at that age, after all, when my idols are aging and dying off. But as it turns out, the chatter is just about how Spielberg plans to push an anti-Netflix agenda at the next Academy board meeting.

The question on the table: What should be the basic minimum requirements for a film to be eligible for an Oscar?

To be fair, the rules were originally made when the world of film could not conceive of streaming, and when the distribution channel was one clear tunnel of release in cinemas, then release on video (once video was a thing), then show some edited version on television (until movie channels came along and did not require ADR to mask the curse words). Now movies can be released in cinemas and on streaming simultaneously.

So maybe the deeper question is: What makes a movie a movie?

That may sound weird, but bear with me. We’ve long had a division between film and television. Movies that show on television are called television movies, just to differentiate. And television movies can win Emmys but not Oscars.

So is a movie a movie because it shows in a cinema? What if it only shows once? What if it shows in a cinema and on television at the same time? These are the questions the Academy needs to address.

And a large portion of the argument comes down to politics. Campaign finance to be precise. In this instance, it’s the fact that Netflix has a ton of money to throw into campaigning for films like Roma. Netflix can buy a few cinema screens outside of the usual distribution channels and therefore meet a bare minimum requirement that allows its films to qualify for an Oscar. So… should there be a cap on what can be spent on campaigning?

Another bone of contention is that Roma only spent three weeks in cinemas before moving to Netflix streaming. Should the Academy demand a longer period between theatrical and streaming?

It’s all a matter of opinion and perspective. I haven’t seen Roma, though I’m sure, based on all the enthusiastic feedback, that it is a lovely film. However, I’m inclined to agree that there should be more definitive guidelines regarding what is Oscar eligible. I don’t think of Netflix as a film studio. I don’t think of Amazon as one either. Or Hulu. And maybe I’m old-fashioned in that. I honestly don’t know.

On the other hand, it’s refreshing that Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are bringing out content very different from all the superheroes the studios keep churning out. They’re making quality products. But… Are they movies? Or television movies?

Used to be, movies were either made to be shown in cinemas or made to be shown on television. The processes themselves were different. The quality of the film, the aspect ratios—different. Now people have televisions that are almost as large as movie screens. Now the quality of what’s being made for television is as good or better than what’s being made for cinemas. Everything is blurred.

There’s a certain amount of snobbery involved, too, of course. We can accept that FOX studios decided to have a television channel. We have a harder time thinking of Netflix, or Amazon, or Hulu—all of which started out showing second-hand content on television—as a legitimate film studio. I mean, if HBO produced a movie and sent it to cinemas for a couple weeks then aired it on their own channel… Would it be up for Oscars or Emmys? Both?

It’s a knotty problem and one I don’t have an answer to. While I’m inclined to agree with Steven Spielberg, the bottom line is the Academy has to lay out some very clear criteria. A lot of it will look and feel arbitrary because it pretty much is. But without lines and guardrails on these roads, the situation is headed for a crash.

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M

Writer/Screenwriter

2 thoughts on “Should Streaming Movies be Oscar Eligible?”

  1. What a great topic! On the one hand, I’m all about movies only being eligible for the Oscars if they are shown in theatres. Like you said, I remember when movies for the theatre and movies for television were made differently and I would want the hardest workers, the ones who put more time and effort into the movie, to get the most credit. BUT there is something to be said for small business directors putting together movies on a dime. I feel like if you can make a budget movie that is good enough to compete with cinema movies then that deserves a chance at the Oscars.

    Anyway, what do you think? Do you agree with what Spielberg is doing?

    1. I feel like there has to be some middle ground. If Netflix et al would delay putting movies on their streaming services for the 90-day window so that the films can show for longer in the cinemas… That to me would be enough. And I don’t see the harm in waiting 90 days. But Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the like say that, since their paying customers are paying for streaming, they deserve to see the movies at release. And I can see that point, too. I just… I don’t feel like they should be able to have it both ways.

      Solid indies usually have a shot at distribution, even if limited, by submitting to festivals. I think this is less about them and more about behemoths like Netflix muscling in.

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