Apple TV Plus, HBO Max Movies Big Winners As Oscars Embrace Streaming

As Oscar after Oscar Sunday night went to movies that had substantially or almost wholly been seen online in the past pandemic-cursed year, one thing was clear: Hollywood’s transition to its streaming future is nearly complete.

Oh, sure, there’ll still be plenty of big-budget superhero flicks, action blockbusters and cheap and reliable horror films finding audiences in traditional theaters. Just look at the $1.888 billion that Spider-Man: No Way Home caught in its web last year. That was third-most ever, according to BoxOfficeMojo, pandemic or not.

But the kinds of movies that regularly festoon awards contenders lists (except for a couple of behind-the-camera categories such as visual effects, costume design or production design) usually depend on the critic-driven audiences who stayed home in droves during the pandemic. Even as the world edges toward something like an accommodation with the pandemic, it’s not clear the theater-going habit will return as quickly for the audiences that make awards movies pay.

So, the Motion Picture Academy likely will continue to accommodate the realities of streaming as it was forced to do the past two years with rules changes to requirements on theatrical runs and the like. The results in terms of nominations and winners don’t feel wildly different than they might have been a few years back, but the companies behind this year’s winners tended to be streaming a lot, and likely will continue to do so.

Thus, the Best Picture winner, CODA, won four awards at Sundance Film Festival in January 2021, then sold for a record $25 million to Apple, which put it on its TV+ service last summer, and continued to tout it for months after in ads, product-event and earnings-call sizzle reels and more.

That no doubt helped drive awareness of deaf actor Troy Kotsur’s historic and Oscar-winning turn as the father of the mostly deaf family at the heart of the film. His thoughtful and moving speech was easily one of the night’s highlights.

In her acceptance speech for winning best adapted screenplay (the film won all three awards for which it was nominated), CODA director Sian Heder thanked Apple for being “amazing partners on this ride” and doing the work to get the film seen everywhere in the world, something that’s very hard to do for a small independent movie on its own.

Her comments echoed those of Alfonso Cuaron, whose Roma in 2018 was the first big streaming film to pick up a serious batch of Oscar nominations, 10 in its case.

Asked then why he let the movie debut on a streamer instead of a classic “platformed”indie/foreign-film release in theaters, Cuaron pointed out the unlikelihood of much of anyone seeing a black-and-white film about a 1970s maid living in revolutionary Mexico City, speaking only Mixto and Spanish, and played by an unknown actress.

With Netflix, he said, millions saw his work around the world. The film went on to win three Oscars, including for Cuaron’s direction and luminous cinematography.

Netflix was again the bridesmaid Sunday night, though, its early favorite The Power of the Dog losing 11 of 12 times. Its makers were left with only the substantial consolation of, again, a best director win, this time for pioneering filmmaker Jane Campion.

Netflix had nine other films with nominations, including three of the five documentary shorts, (the winner in that category was a New York Times Op-Doc), but little luck getting statues. As with The Power of the Dog, most of its projects’ creators went home with acceptance speeches still sitting unused in their pockets. It’s hard to know if there’s still lingering resentment among some academy voters toward the online shifts Netflix helped create, but one can wonder.

But plenty of other streaming-only or streaming-mostly projects did just fine on Sunday night, thank you.

Disney had three of the five animated feature nominees, and Encanto won as expected, beating out its most serious competition, Netflix’s Sony-produced The Mitchells vs. The Machines. All three of the Mouse House movies appeared only on Disney+ during the year, as the company continued to experiment with release strategies for different kinds of films.

Another Disney operation, Hulu, had a solid night. Its much-loved Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) won Best Documentary Feature, an award that was loudly applauded by Academy members. The film finally put on millions of televisions long-lost footage of a summer-long music festival in Harlem that featured pretty much all the biggest names in Black music at the time.

As producer/director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson put it in another of the night’s highlights, “this is a film that (my parents) should have taken me to when I was 5.”

That the footage of those performances sat in storage for five decades was a tragedy, but Academy members seemed happy to give the transcendent performances even more visibility all these years later. One side note: it was a good night for Sundance projects, both Coda and Summer of Soul debuted on opening night there last year, won awards there, and were then bought for substantial sums by streamers.

Another Hulu project, Flee, scored a historic triple, with nominations for documentary feature, animated feature, and international feature, but perhaps was spread too thinly to win any of them. It remains a formidable piece of work.

Another film that spent a lot of time online, Disney’s Cruella, grabbed the Best Costumes Oscar for its wildly over-the-top clothes. And though it’s hard to remember 10 months later, while Cruella had a decent theatrical run, grossing $233 million worldwide, it also was one of Disney’s first Premium VOD releases, available opening night to Disney+ subscribers for an additional $30.

WarnerMedia actually had the biggest night of anybody, and it’s the media company that experimented most boldly with streaming, when Jason Kilar made Warner Bros.’ entire 2021 slate available in theaters and on the then-struggling HBO Max simultaneously.

The regular jolt of high-profile films surely boosted HBO Max’s fortunes, which by year’s end had perked up considerably with accelerating subscriber additions and other promising metrics.

And it likely did little to harm the awards prospects of Dune, the night’s biggest winner with six awards for behind-the-camera achievements including cinematography, editing, and production design. The film grossed $400 million worldwide, far less than Spider-Man: No Way Home, but it almost certainly had a huge impact on the improving fortunes of HBO Max, which will continue to make a lot of money for WarnerMedia when it merges with Discovery in a few weeks.

Another HBO Max film, King Richard, was at the center of the night’s most disconcerting moment, when star Will Smith charged the stage and slapped presenter Chris Rock for making a joke about the hair-loss challenges of Smith’s wife.

When Smith next was on stage a few minutes later, to accept the Best Actor award, he tearfully apologized to the academy and other nominees (but not Rock) for acting a little too much like the iconoclastic and domineering man he played in the movie, the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams.

“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family….” Smith said. “Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, like Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.”

Yes, indeed. I’m not sure the show ever quite regained its footing thereafter, as on-stage presenters such as Sean Combs and co-host Amy Schumer tried to patch over the stunning moment and keep the planned bits chugging forward, including a nicely improved In Memoriam segment.

Electric moments like Smith’s, and the speeches of Kotsur and Thompson, are reminders of the power of live events. Whether the Oscars telecast itself ever becomes a streamed event, as the reach of broadcast networks continues to decline in the streaming-fueled era of cord-cutting, is probably a question we’ll be looking at again sooner than later.

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