Amazon and Netflix are not only rivals when it comes to original streaming projects: now more than ever, the platforms are at loggerheads during awards season. That rivalry reached a new pitch today: Manchester by the Sea, a critical darling with numerous accolades to its name, is now a Best Picture nominee at the 89th annual Academy Awards. The distinction puts it a notch above Netflix when it comes to a certain kind of Hollywood prestige, and will likely have real ramifications as competition continues to heat up in years ahead.
Manchester by the Sea getting a Best Picture nod was considered a foregone conclusion before the nominations were even announced. The film was met with glowing praise from critics dating back to its premiere at Sundance last year. Despite a scandal that continues to dog him, Casey Affleck is still considered to have put on the performance of his life in the lead role, and just weeks ago won a Golden Globe for the effort.
But awards glory has as much to do with visibility as it does quality filmmaking, and Amazon has positioned itself as a distributor Hollywood can work easily with. Unlike Netflix, whose insistence on simultaneous streaming release for its films has rankled theater chains, Amazon’s more lax policy allows its movies to show in theaters before they debut online. That, along with positive word of mouth, paved the way toward Manchester having a successful release in theaters last fall — something Academy voters pay specific attention to.
Contrast that with Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation, which was snubbed at last year’s Oscars. Despite touting powerhouse performances from Abraham Attah and Idris Elba, the film was largely ignored by the Academy even after it won several industry awards after its debut. That it became such a powerful exemplar of industry bias amid the #OscarsSoWhite controversy can’t be ignored, but the film was also crippled by the fact that so few people (read: older Academy members) could see the movie in theaters. Because Netflix pushed for a simultaneous release, the four largest theater chains in America — AMC, Cinemark, Regal, and Carmike Cinemas — all boycotted the film. It didn’t matter that Netflix subscribers could watch the movie in the comfort of their own homes. Theaters are still gatekeepers for prestige movies in a real way.
That reality will almost certainly change in the long term. Streaming has already changed the rules for television, and, as directors and producers rally around products like Screening Room that may one day bring new releases to people’s living rooms, theaters will eventually lose their grip on the industry. As director Macon Blair told The Verge at Sundance, “Obviously it’d be great if everybody only saw movies on the big screen all the time. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for being able to view something in your home.” Netflix would likely agree, but for now a more gradualist approach is paying dividends for Amazon.
That Amazon was able to reach this specific benchmark is significant. Best Picture nominations are a big deal in a way other nominations aren’t, and the industry is sure to take notice. Netflix already has several Best Documentary Feature nominations, including one for Ava DuVernay’s 13th. However, a Best Picture nod — Hollywood’s highest honor — lends an air of legitimacy to a project. Amazon benefits because it’s already working on high-quality projects like Transparent, so the perception in Hollywood will surely be that it’s becoming a new power. And the fact that these award-winning efforts will be available exclusively on Prime means consumers will be obliged to subscribe, meaning more money in Amazon’s coffers.
Both Amazon and Netflix are now in a race for awards glory as the industry changes around them. Nominations are a testament to projects working, and the experiments these companies are pulling off are forcing the industry to follow in their wake. Amazon has the advantage for now, and it hasn’t even won an Oscar yet. It’s now on Netflix to catch up for next year.