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Mudbound didn’t do what they’d hoped it would. Netflix won’t let that happen again.
It’s not easy to gauge just how well Mudbound did or didn’t do at the Academy Awards this year. After a strong reception at 2017’s Sundance, the period piece was picked up by streaming giant Netflix with the clear implication that this would be their go-to Oscar contender. The move made a lot of sense. In the socially conscious ‘woke’ atmosphere of 2018 that Hollywood was desperate to catch up to, here is a film that was written and directed by a black woman that dealt directly with the racial injustices faced by the African-American population in post second world war, Jim Crow south. It had supreme acting talent (Jason Mitchell, Michelle Williams), a gritty cinematic look and told weighty interlocking tales about two impoverished families—one white, one black—whose suffering was not equal only because their skin colour differed.
Yet Mudbound’s showing wasn’t much to shout about. It received just 3 nominations—Best supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Song—and took home exactly zero awards on the night. Perhaps most irksomely, Netflix missing out on a Best Picture nod, something they had really gunned for and something that would have rung out as a watershed moment for them in the film industry. It would have marked them finally taking a seat at the table the big studios have occupied for decades. Many decried this as evidence of Hollywood’s prejudice against the streaming company. After all, Netflix had come under attack from cinephile circles for not willing to give any of their films a wide theatrical release before putting them on their platforms.
Again, It’s hard to tell if this was the case. Others argued that Mudbound did about as well as it could have done. While Dee Rees’ film was well-received with most critics and audiences upon release, it wasn’t exactly given a rapturous ovation. Sure, it has 96% on Rotten Tomatoes and there are those who loved it. Yet, the dreary drama wasn’t beloved in the same way Lady Bird or a Call Me By Your Name were. There are without a doubt films of the same quality in the past that did as about as well as Mudbound did at the Oscars. There are probably even better ones that did worse.
There’s even an argument to be made that a more diverse academy was fed up with seeing the black experience only through the prism of brutally depressing, historical dramas a la 12 Years a Slave or The Color Purple. Comparatively, the contemporaneous and genuinely original ‘social thriller’ Get Out was much more in tune with the zeitgeist. Meanwhile, Netflix’s sport doping doc Icarus did also take home the award for Best Documentary on the night, so they can’t all have had it out for the streaming age.
They still have plenty of reason to believe that the odds were stacked against them. The film that arguably snatched up the last best picture spot, Darkest Hour, was a moderately reviewed, clunky chamber piece that featured Gary Oldman playing Churchill with Playdo under his chin. Almost no one would argue it’s a better film than Mudbound. The Academy has made it no secret that it takes issue with the streaming company’s refusal to give their products a cinema release prior to them showing up on their services.
“The Academy was founded on film exhibited in theatres,” one anonymous member told Vanity Fair last year, bemoaning the day-and-date strategy. “It’s the same thing as saying television is a movie”. He’s not the only one. Plenty of old guard, high-profile filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg have publicly taken umbrage with the Netflix release model with Cameron calling it “a stupid idea” that threatens the “The sanctity of the theatre-going experience”. Cinema purists they may be, that backlash can’t help them come award season.
Whatever the reason for it, Netflix clearly were not happy with their performance and it’s something they already seem eager to rectify next year. In July the streaming giant sent shockwaves around the industry when it was announced that strategist Lisa Taback would be providing her services exclusively for the streaming giant. You may not know her name. Yet, in the hyper-competitive world of ‘For-Your-Consideration’ Oscar campaigning, it doesn’t get more illustrious than her.
Taback is one of the most successful awards strategists in the last 20 years and as a result, one of the most sought after. Cutting her teeth in Miramax with the Weinstein brothers, she’s known for her bullish, determined approach in getting the desired result for her clients. In the past she was integral in the successful Best Picture campaigns of The King’s Speech, The English Patient and Chicago. Her aggressive campaigning for Shakespeare in Love contributed to one of the biggest upsets in Oscars history when it beat out the hotly tipped Saving Private Ryan for the top prize in 1999.
In recent years Taback has mostly worked as a free agent with her close team at her PR firm LT-LA, where she has guided the campaigns that aided Brie Larson’s Best Actress win for Room and Spotlight’s Best Picture victory in 2011. Netflix getting her on board exclusively is a clear statement of intent, one that demonstrates that they aren’t willing to wait for a cultural sea change or for the old, anti-streaming, wing of the academy to die out before they make a real push for awards glory.
It remains to be seen whether the streaming company will change tack with regards to how they release their films or, at least the ones they want to win awards. Amazon, Netflix’s biggest rival, have already had success back in 2017 with the emotional sucker punch Manchester by The Sea. The weepy drama by Kenneth Lonergan picked up a Best Picture and Director nominees as well as awards for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Unlike Netlflix, Amazon were willing to play the game. Manchester ran the increasingly important festival circuit until it was given a wide release in North American cinemas in late 2016. Taback’s influence may steer them in that direction. Even if Netflix would prefer to win awards without compromising their release model.
Netflix’s Oscar Favourites
It’s unlikely that the streaming service will have any big contenders come next Oscar season. There are few possible titles that have an outside chance in snapping up the much coveted Best Picture nomination for them. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma might be their best bet. The rather timely film chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family in Mexico City in the early 1970s. It will have its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September 2018 and we will know pretty soon after if there’s hope. The fact that it will presumably not be an English language feature doesn’t help it’s run however.
Netflix also have the upcoming Bird Box, a post-apocalyptic horror with an A-List cast (Sandra Bullock, Sarah Paulson) based on the chilling, acclaimed novel by Josh Lalerman. David MacKenzie, director of Hell or Highwater, reunites with Chris Pine for The Outlaw King, in which Pine will attempt a Scottish accent as he plays the infamous rebel Robert the Bruce. The performance of these movies—which will all be streamed on their service at the same time of any cinema release—might well be a litmus test for the streaming giant. If they do well, Netflix will be emboldened into not altering course going forward.
Netflix’s real opportunity for next year would have been Martin Scorsese’s gangster drama The Irishman, but that was pushed back to 2019 due to the timely, costly visual effects work that still needed to be done: Veteran actors Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, who play hitman Frank Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa respectively, will be painstakingly aged down in almost every scene they’re in. Taback’s exclusive dedication to Netflix will only come into play after next year’s Oscars, so it appears that it was for The Irishman that her services were really brought in for.
The plan for the Hoffa biopic still remains muddy. Scorsese himself is clear that he wants as wide a theatrical release as possible. That doesn’t mean he’ll get it. According to IndieWire, sources close to production say the negotiation between Scorsese’s team and Netflix resulted in a commitment to release the movie in theatres for at least two weeks. Yet, these plans have not been made official. It’s likely it will get this. However, a theatrical run of only two weeks will feel like more of the same to the Academy. A lukewarm effort only done so as to achieve eligibility on a technicality.
Provided it’s good, it will be The Irishman that will prove the real test of the Academy’s resolve when it comes to honouring films released on streaming services. It’s a real Oscar box ticker, made by a world-renowned director in his most popular genre and featuring nothing short of cinematic legends. If it dominates the season and makes Netflix the major player they long to be, it could be the turning point that streaming companies have been waiting for. With the undeniably, effective influence of Taback on board, there is no doubt that Netflix have given the film every chance bar actually releasing the thing the way other studios would. She could be the keys to the gate they’ve been banging on for some time now.