Streaming service Netflix has amassed 35 nominations for the 2021 Oscars, the third most for a studio since the history of the awards. Towering over major theatrical studios including Universal, Warner Bros and A24, one question remains at the forefront the industry – what is the future of online distribution and the award season?
Although the streaming service was introduced in 2007, Netflix was founded by Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph as a movie rental service in 1997. For a company that started posting DVDs by mail, Netflix has seen unprecedented growth over the last two decades, becoming one of the world’s leading entertainment platforms and making business models like Blockbuster obsolete.
In 2013, Netflix was the first internet TV network nominated for the Emmy awards, receiving 31 nominations for productions including “Orange Is the New Black” and Netflix original “House of Cards” – the first major TV show to be shown exclusively online. This demonstrated that streaming services like Netflix could compete with the major players of television and film.
Consumers were also taking notice. By the end of 2013, the streaming service had amounted more than 40 million subscribers, a substantial increase from 7.5 million in 2007 when Netflix streaming began. The company was labelled as a major disruptor of the industry, offering a vast range of on-demand shows and film with a monthly subscription (a move echoed by the rise of music streaming service Spotify), and competing companies saw the need to follow suit.
Multinational e-commerce business Amazon launched Prime Video in 2011, gaining ground with shows like “Transparent”. HBO and YouTube TV also jumped onboard in 2015 and 2017 respectively, with Disney+ and Apple TV+ both debuting in 2019. As these companies began to saturate the media landscape, streaming services were increasingly considered as serious contenders for major awards, leading many to fear the cultural changes in the ways we watch and award cinema.
Netflix first started generating interest within the Academy Awards in 2014 when it became the first high-profile streaming service to earn a nomination. By 2018, Netflix received 8 nominations, growing to 24 by 2020. Netflix traditionally release films online and in a few indie theatres with a limited release in order to qualify for major awards, yet theatre owners criticised this tactic as a way of disincentivising audiences to buy cinema tickets. This has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Streaming giants have been described as diminishing the cinematic experience and hastening the demise of movie theatres. Steven Spielberg, one of the most beloved Hollywood directors, was said to be in support of potential rule changes which could disqualify Netflix from the Oscars. In a tweet in March 2019, Netflix responded with a statement on Twitter outlining that streaming platforms increase accessibility for audiences, and give “filmmakers more ways to share art”.
Streaming on a device certainly cannot replicate the immersion of sound and video during the communal experience of the big screen, but at-home, online viewing is providing audiences with more choice and access to film than ever before.
While streaming services will never be able to fully replace the unique experience of cinema exhibition, as Roma director Alfonso Cuarón contested, online platforms provide a choice of mediums in which people can experience cinema:
“There needs to be greater diversity in how we release our films […] We’re thinking in one single paradigm. It’s a moment to start opening up paradigms.”
The pandemic is forcing industries to adapt to the online habits of consumers, and cinema is no exception to these changes. Time will tell how cinema will continue to evolve, but it seems that the most productive outcome is that streaming platforms provide an additional channel to the cinematic experience, rather than existing to replace it.
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