On the eve of the 2024 Oscar nominations, Netflix film chief Scott Stuber announced he was leaving the position to start his own film company. His exit couldn’t have come at a better time.
When Stuber started at Netflix in 2017, the streamer’s executives would have been absolutely thrilled to nab the 11 nominations its original films earned this year. Prior to that point, the only nods the company had ever garnered came from its documentary offerings. Even with prestige films from directors like Bong Joon-ho and Noah Baumbach in tow, the streamer was hardly taken seriously in the awards space.
In the years since, buoyed by competition from Amazon and Apple, Netflix helped establish streaming movies (with cursory theatrical releases) as viable—even formidable—Oscar contenders.
Over the past two awards cycles, however, that initial stigma around streaming has made a blockbuster comeback.
The issue of whether a streamer could even release an awards darling was quickly resolved the same year that Stuber came on board, when the Amazon-distributed Manchester by the Sea won for Best Actor (Casey Affleck), and the studio’s Moonlight took home the top prize. The latter was a stunning victory, even without the infamous La La Land mix-up, but, tellingly, both films enjoyed traditional theatrical releases. Netflix wanted to upend that model entirely and show its top prospects in the shortest, tiniest theatrical window possible to qualify for awards.
Over the following few years, Netflix realized its ambitions in every way short of a Best Picture win. Films like 2018’s Roma won major awards and earned impressive nomination counts. All the while, though, the backlash to the Netflix model remained. No less an authority than Steven Spielberg was adamant on streaming releases not deserving awards contention. To some degree, audiences and awards voters agreed.
Even 2019’s The Irishman, a Martin Scorsese film uniting Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and a then-seldom-seen Joe Pesci, seemed to have an aura of straight-to-video cheapness when viewed, broadly, in the comfort of one’s home. Though it garnered 10 Oscar nominations, that film’s status as a cinematic achievement still seemed diminished—well before it lost in every category.
The medium through which it was most seen almost certainly had an impact. For many viewers, the ease of access makes a home screening of even the most rabidly anticipated film feel less like an event. If this movie were truly a big deal, the stubborn logic of precedent suggests, we’d have to make plans and leave our houses to see it.
The year after The Irishman premiered, 2020, movie fans could hardly leave their house to see anything. The early-COVID lockdown era led to a 2021 Oscar season teeming with Netflix, Apple, and Amazon offerings that had never, or very rarely, seen the inside of a theater. Films like Amazon’s Sound of Metal ended up with major awards (a Best Actor Oscar for Riz Ahmed) that might have gone elsewhere in a typical year.
Even as people soon flocked back to theaters in 2021, streaming services collectively had their biggest awards moment ever the following year. The Best Picture category in 2022 saw Apple’s Coda, released on Apple TV+ the same date as in theaters, competing with Netflix’s The Power of The Dog and Don’t Look Up—with Coda pulling off a shocking victory. It was the clearest measurement yet of streaming’s rise in awards legitimacy, a moment that cemented the streaming model’s status as rival to theatrical.
That moment now appears to be a fluke.
Streamers struggled at the 2023 Oscars, netting half the nominations it had in the previous year. In 2024, awards voters similarly seem to be pulling away from streaming releases—with Bradley Cooper’s Maestro the only one in the Best Picture race, where it’s a dark-horse contender at absolute best. Netflix’s total film output for 2023 combined netted one more Oscar nomination than The Irishman alone received in 2020. Adding insult to injury for the streaming model, Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which Apple put into wide release last fall, is nominated for 10 awards and has a fair shot at Best Picture.
Regardless of the quality of streamers’ output, part of the difference between the Coda year and now is that lockdown has profoundly reignited viewers’ fondness for the theatrical experience. People were thrilled with Top Gun: Maverick in 2022, both the movie itself and its box office phenomenon, and that excitement only increased with “Barbenheimer” last year. The FOMO-inspiring eventness of Barbie and Oppenheimer is something studios will be attempting to replicate for years. That perception also probably played a role in the number of Oscar nominations those films earned (8 and 13, respectively).
Evan Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, which debuted to mixed reviews last fall, fetched two more Oscar nominations than Netflix’s critically adored May December. The latter might have fared better if, like Apple did with Napoleon, Netflix released it in theaters, were people motivated by more than high homepage-placement would have had to go to see it. A better comparison than Napoleon, though, might be Universal’s The Holdovers, which had a similar scale and pedigree to May December, but whose theatrical run created incredible word-of-mouth buzz—and now five Oscar nominations.
Although streamers have proven they can release films of substance and win awards, those films always feel more substantial when released in theaters. As Netflix redefines its film strategy to depend less on volume going forward, it should consider finally doing what Apple and Amazon have done—and what audiences clearly love to do–and go to the theater.