Oscars 2021: Netflix scores increasing nominations every year, but the Best Picture win remains elusive

Netflix may enter the night of 25 April with 35 nominations, but how much hardware will it really walk away with?

Prahlad Srihari April 13, 2021 08:05:34 IST
Oscars 2021: Netflix scores increasing nominations every year, but the Best Picture win remains elusive

Netflix scored 35 nominations at Oscars 2021

Netflix has over 200 million paying subscribers around the world, and millions more of family, friends, and reluctant cord-cutters borrowing passwords indefinitely. All their viewing habits are driven by a reliable enough algorithm, and an interface engineered to foster addiction. Since 2014, the streaming giant has produced hundreds of movies in-house, and exclusively distributed hundreds more. The more prestigious of these Netflix Originals have made headlines each awards season. 

This year was no exception. Notching 35 nominations, Netflix led the 2021 Oscars scorecard over other studios and streamers. It bested its own record of 24 nominations from last year. That was up from 15 in 2019, and eight in 2018. The trajectory sums up its continuing success story.

Yet the question remains: Netflix may enter the night of 25 April with 35 nominations, but how much hardware will it really walk away with? Because nominations are one thing, wins another.

For the company has added 89 nominations to its haul since 2014, only eight wins.

That's the kind of percentage which would surely earn the chagrin of every Asian parent with exacting standards. Every non-win is the embarrassing equivalent of a participation certificate.

Among those eight wins, only one came in the so-called "Big Five" categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Original/Adapted Screenplay) — when Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Roma in 2019. Above all, Netflix wants the credibility of a home-grown Best Picture winner in its library. But it's an honour that remains elusive.

What you've got is a classic underachiever. Fortunately for Netflix, it's got the kind of Rich White American parents ready to buy its admission into the big leagues. The lobbying outlay attests to the company's deep pockets. Besides the usual screenings and cocktail parties, Netflix spends on billboards, TV commercials, and YouTube featurettes, all of which help create and maintain buzz around its titles throughout awards season.

Oscars 2021 Netflix scores increasing nominations every year but the Best Picture win remains elusive

Still from Mank

In 2018, the company also hired Oscar strategist Lisa Taback, who had worked on Best Picture campaigns for Harvey Weinstein. As a consequence, Roma's promotion budget mushroomed, reportedly exceeding its production budget by $10 million. The following year's campaign championing The Irishman and Marriage Story for Best Picture is said to have cost over $100 million. This year, Netflix again has thrown more than one hat in the ring, with Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7. Neither is really a Best Picture frontrunner, but look likely to take home at least a couple of consolation prizes.

On paper, Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7 are the kind of films the Academy loves. Both are helmed by filmmakers of some prestige in David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin. Mank belongs to a tradition of films as love letters to Hollywood, which the Academy eats up with nostalgic glee. In the decade past, The Artist won Best Picture in 2012, and La La Land nearly won in 2017. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was a nominee in 2020. The Trial of the Chicago 7, on the other hand, is a courtroom drama about turbulent times in the '60s which gained renewed urgency due to turbulent times in the now. But Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7 are still dark horses. 

Oscars 2021 Netflix scores increasing nominations every year but the Best Picture win remains elusive

Still from The Trial of the Chicago 7

The momentum seems to be with Nomadland, whose journey began with top crowns at Venice and Toronto, and was boosted by recent wins at the Golden Globes and PGA Awards. Chloé Zhao's film yielded Searchlight Pictures six nominations. The once indie arm of Rupert Murdoch's entertainment empire now adds to Disney's monopoly, whose other nine nominations are spread over Mulan, and its Pixar and Disney Animation titles. 

Which proves studios still rule the roost. What will no doubt annoy Netflix is if its competitors earn the industry's most prestigious award before it does. Fellow streamer Amazon Prime Video did break through the Best Picture race with Manchester by the Sea earning a nomination in 2017, two years before Netflix did with Roma. Amazon also won its first Best Foreign Language Film (now called Best International Feature Film) the same year with The Salesman. This year, the Jen Salke-run studio bested its tally with a dozen nominations, boosted by Sound of Metal

Best Picture aside, Netflix will rue over missed opportunities that might have bestowed more nominations in marquee categories. Delroy Lindo should have been a Best Actor shoo-in for his delirious turn in Da 5 Bloods. I'm Thinking of Ending Things and The Forty-Year-Old Version deserved some love in the Screenplay categories. At the least over The White Tiger

This brings to light how the majority opinion of critics is at variance with the majority opinion of Academy voters, just as often both are with public opinion. Speaking of, what earned Netflix great viewership numbers among US audiences were in fact universally panned titles like Hillbilly Elegy and The Midnight Sky. Critical darlings like The Forty-Year-Old Version, Mank, and I'm Thinking of Ending Things had the lowest scores, according to FlixPatrol.

In 2014, Netflix had one Oscar nomination (for the documentary The Square). It now has 89. It still yearns for the Academy’s Best Picture endorsement. It may not arrive this year, but the streaming giant will undoubtedly take the trophy-case half-full perspective: it was once a Hollywood outlier. Now, it heads the cool-kids table.

The Academy Awards will air in India on 26 April.

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