Some people are questioning whether the streaming platform should be allowed to compete at the Academy Awards. But this completely misses the point.
Netflix had a great night at the 2019 Oscars.
Roma, the streaming platform’s splashy entrant at this year’s Academy Awards, picked up three major awards (Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Foreign Language Movie). Filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón’s black and white ode to his childhood in Mexico City and how he fell in love with cinema, was probably the runner-up for Best Picture, the biggest prize of the night. Netflix also won an Oscar for Period: End of Sentence, the uplifting short documentary about period poverty in India. Elsewhere, Roma picked up BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards galore.
Everyone at Netflix was happy with those results, as they should be. The streaming platform has faced an uphill battle over the past few years to get its movies even considered for awards, so to pick up four in a single year is a huge achievement.
But not everyone is happy with Netflix. Next month, Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Spielberg will make a direct appeal to the Academy Awards asking them to rescind Netflix’s invitation to compete. According to a spokesperson for Spielberg’s production company Amblin Entertainment, which produced the Best Picture winner Green Book, “Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation.” In short, Spielberg wants Netflix films in competition at the Emmys and the Emmys alone.
It’s all a bit inside baseball, we know. Why should you care whether or not a Netflix movie, or, for that matter, an Amazon or Hulu film, can win an Oscar?
Because the debate around allowing streaming platforms to compete is also a debate around who gets to make cinema and who gets to watch it. And that is something that really matters, especially to women.
Ava DuVernay summed it up best in her Twitter response to the news that Spielberg was going to petition the Academy to stop Netflix from competing for Oscars. The director, who has worked both inside and out of the traditional studio system, has now found a comfortable home at Netflix, who financed her Oscar-nominated documentary 13th and is behind her new four-part miniseries When They See Us based on the Central Park Five rape case.
For DuVernay, Netflix is the platform that prioritises the voices of marginalised filmmakers. It’s here that stories for people of colour are told for global audiences and, crucially, made by women, by people of colour, and by voices traditionally excluded from the film industry.
“One of the things I value about Netflix is that it distributes black work far and wide,” DuVernay explained. “190 countries will get When They See Us. Here’s a promo for South Africa. I’ve had just one film distributed wide internationally. Not Selma. Not A Wrinkle in Time. It was 13th. By Netflix. That matters.”
It does matter. It matters enormously that Netflix sends its original projects to every single account holder in every corner of the globe. It matters enormously that the streaming platform’s movies and television shows, many of them featuring diverse casts and crews, are being shown to all and sundry.
It matters that a movie like Roma, told through the eyes of an indigenous Mexican woman entirely in her language, is sent to everyone with a Netflix account to enjoy. It matters that movies and television shows from filmmakers ranging from Cuarón and DuVernay to Shonda Rhimes and the Obamas are coming soon to Netflix.
Netflix themselves have waded into the debate, backing up DuVernay’s comments. “We love cinema,” they said on Twitter. “Here are some things we also love. Access for people who can’t always afford, or live in towns without, theatres. Letting everyone, everywhere enjoy releases at the same time. Giving filmmakers more ways to share art.”
There’s no way around it: this debate about letting Netflix win Oscars is elitist. It suggests that the only way that ‘true’ cinema should be experienced is in a theatre, disregarding how expensive going to the movies is. For many people, this just isn’t an option.
Netflix is trying to dismantle some of the more persistent prejudices in the film industry, both by handing over the production reigns to new voices and by ensuring that their product is given to everyone, at the same time, regardless of their location. That is a very powerful thing.
Netflix released Roma in cinemas and on their streaming platform late last year to near-universal critical acclaim. In this instance, the proof is in the pudding. Whether you saw it in a multiplex surrounded by cinephiles slurping Diet Coke or curled up on your sofa on a Thursday night, the result was the same. You felt the same emotion and awe at the story, you were as moved by it regardless of the location in which you saw it.
That’s why it won all those awards, yes, but it’s also why it deserves them. Anyone who watched Roma knows that, regardless of whether they saw it in a cinema or at home.
Images: Getty, Netflix