Oscars Look to Netflix and 2021 to Rescue the Skimpiest Best Picture Race Ever

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“Mank,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Photos: Netflix)

Oscars Look to Netflix and 2021 to Rescue the Skimpiest Best Picture Race Ever

With major studios pushing their films into next year, the Oscars will likely need the slate of films that the streaming giant is offering

A couple of years after some people inside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences argued to exclude Netflix films from contention for the Oscars, the streaming service may end up being the savior of the 2020 competition.

That’s because with the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down movie theaters and halting production, the Best Picture race has been a thin one for months. And it’s getting thinner by the day, as one presumed contender after another is pushed out of the 2020 release calendar and into sometime next year.

Two weeks ago, it was Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” which had to be considered an Oscar heavyweight. Last week it was the James Bond movie “No Time to Die,” a commercial contender that certainly would have competed in the effects, sound and music categories. This week, we saw a move for Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” less of a sure thing but likely a formidable epic from the director of the Best Picture nominee “Arrival.”

One hope for a more robust slate of Oscar contenders is that studios release enough big films in January or February of 2021, getting them in during an eligibility period that has been extended to allow any film released prior to Feb. 28 to qualify.

But a likelier outcome is that Netflix will supply the heavy hitters this Oscar season. Not only did the streaming giant assemble an impressive list of potential contenders before the pandemic, it can do something film studios can’t — it can release movies with limited theatrical bookings without cutting into its prime source of income, which is streaming subscriptions.

Netflix’s contenders include Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to largely rave reviews in late September; David Fincher’s “Mank,” starring Gary Oldman as “Citizen Kane” writer Herman Mankiewicz; George C. Wolfe’s August Wilson adaptation “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” with Viola Davis and the final onscreen performance by Chadwick Boseman; Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” an Appalachia-set drama starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams; George Clooney’s sci-fi drama “The Midnight Sky”; “The White Tiger,” from “Chop Shop” and “99 Homes” director Ramin Bahrani; and several others that may nor may not be released in time.

That’s not to say that all or even most of them will be genuine Best Picture candidates: After all, the Oscar watchers’ rule of thumb is that at least 50% of the unseen movies that seem to be strong contenders in October fall by the wayside by the time people actually start voting.

But in a year that runs the risk of making people wondering why the Oscars are even taking place, even a couple of those titles could provide a needed shot of legitimacy to the race, proof that there are enough strong contenders to justify a show.

The Academy’s Board of Governors, which would only consider canceling the Oscars and losing the bulk of the Academy’s yearly operating income if there was no other choice, may also have helped open the race a little this week. At a meeting on Tuesday, the board voted to make it easier for films to premiere on streaming services and still qualify for Oscars, and it recognized drive-in theaters as commercial theaters for the purposes of Oscar qualifying.

In adding to its COVID-era eligibility rules, the board also took a step designed to steer films into the Academy Screening Room, a secure members-only online portal on which voters can watch prospective Best Picture candidates. (Some other categories have their own dedicated screening rooms.) Films that scrapped planned theatrical openings in favor of VOD premieres can still qualify for Oscars, the new rule says, if they are put into the Academy Screening Room within 60 days of their debuts.

And the screening room could use an influx of movies. As of the beginning of this week, 49 films were available for viewing, but only a handful of them are likely to truly contend for the top prize. Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” is perhaps the likeliest nominee, though the room also contains a number of long shots that might pick up votes if members see them.

Can we suggest, for example, that Academy voters take a look at Rod Lurie’s wrenching but life-affirming war film “The Outpost,” or Eliza Hittman’s intimate and heartbreakingly timely drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always”?

Other films currently in the screening room (see the full list at the end of this story) include the new Netflix drama “The Boys in the Band”; Charlie Kaufman’s dense, playful “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”; the Ben Affleck vehicle “The Way Back”; Armando Iannucci’s “The Personal History of David Copperfield”; Kitty Green’s “The Assistant,” with its echoes of the Harvey Weinstein scandal; Jon Stewart’s political comedy “Irresistible”; a number of other comedies, including “Eurovision Song Contest,” “Palm Springs,” “The King of Staten Island” and “The Trip to Greece”; the Australian drama “The True History of the Kelly Gang”; the Sundance hits “Babyteeth” and “Shirley”; the animated films “Scoob,” “Trolls World Tour” and “The Willoughbys”; and the documentaries “Crip Camp,” “On the Record,” “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” “Athlete A” and “Rebuilding Paradise.” (Dozens of other documentaries are in a separate screening room for the Documentary Branch, but not in the Best Picture room.)

Other notable films have qualified but have yet to show up in the Academy Screening Room, among them Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” and Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow.” But even with those in the running, we’re looking at an intriguing, unconventional but very skimpy best Picture race; the Academy desperately needs more films, and bigger films, in the running. That’s where Netflix comes in — given the events of recent weeks, you have to wonder how long Universal will hang onto its December release date for Paul Greengrass’ “News of the World,” or Disney/Pixar for Pete Docter’s “Soul.”

Yes, Searchlight will still open “Nomadland” in December, and the simultaneous Venice, Toronto and Telluride-sponsored, drive-in L.A. premieres of that Chloé Zhao film showed it to be a genuine contender. Yes, Amazon will qualify Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” and its AFI Fest opener “I’m Your Woman,” as will A24 with Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks” and its Sundance prize-winner “Minari,” and Sony Pictures Classics with “The Father.” Others, including United Artists’ Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect,” Paramount’s “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” and maybe Shaka King’s “Judas and the Black Messiah,” could come out in 2021 before the Oscars extended eligibility period ends.

And maybe things will get better during the winter, more theaters will reopen and studios will slide a few big movies into January and February — maybe 2020 will be saved by the first two months of 2021. Or maybe the pandemic situation will remain bad, theaters will remain closed, studios will push their big movies into the spring and summer of 2021 and beyond, and this year’s Best Picture race will be the skimpiest ever.

At the moment, that last option seems to be the likeliest, which is why the Academy should be very grateful to Netflix.

Here are the films currently available for viewing in the Academy Screening Room:

“All In: The Fight for Democracy” (documentary)
“All Together Now”
“The Artist’s Wife”
“The Assistant”
“Athlete A” (documentary)
“The Boys in the Band”
“Crip Camp” (documentary)
“Da 5 Bloods”
“The Devil All the Time”
“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”
“The Half of It”
“The High Note”
“How to Build a Girl”
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things”
“The King of Staten Island,”
“Lost Girls”
“Military Wives”
“Miss Juneteenth”
“Mr. Jones”
“Never Really Sometimes Always”
“The Old Guard”
“On the Record” (documentary)
“Ordinary Love”
“The Other Lamb”
“The Outpost”
“Palm Springs”
“The Personal History of David Copperfield”
“The Photograph”
“Rebuilding Paradise” (documentary)
“Saint Frances”
“Scoob” (animated)
“The Trip to Greece”
“Trolls World Tour” (animated)
“The True History of the Kelly Gang”
“Waiting for the Barbarians”
“The Way Back”
“The Willoughbys” (animated)
“Working Man”
“The Wretched”

Steve Pond