The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced a series of rule changes on Tuesday. The move came after months of sound and fury over the growing domination of Netflix in the world of movie awards, as well as reports that the industry titan Steven Spielberg was amassing forces to take on the streaming company. The biggest of the Oscar changes? The category for Best Makeup and Hairstyling will now have five nominees instead of three. Rumblings about a proposed rule that would keep streaming films out of awards contention unless they committed to a theatrical-release “window” ended up amounting to nothing.
Spielberg had become the poster boy for a proposal that would have required Netflix to release its films exclusively in cinemas for 28 days before putting them online. In March, trade publications such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter claimed that Spielberg was seeking support from the Academy’s Board of Governors for such a rule. Though the director had in the past aired his concerns about the overwhelming strength of Netflix and the company’s disinterest in promoting a theater experience, he didn’t comment publicly as the newer reports began to spread. He also wasn’t present at the Academy’s recent meeting, petitioned for nothing, and, at least according to The New York Times, never really had major beef with Netflix in the first place.
Instead, Spielberg is “frustrated that exhibitors have been unwilling to compromise,” the Times reported. “I want people to find their entertainment in any form or fashion that suits them … I want to see the survival of movie theaters. I want the theatrical experience to remain relevant in our culture,” the director said in an email to the Times. When I wrote about the concept of a 28-day theatrical window in March, I noted that it seemed like a last-ditch effort at negotiation between the streaming site (which prefers to release films in theaters and online simultaneously) and major theater chains (which still insist on a 90-day window of exclusivity).
Netflix clearly cares about the Oscars—it spent tens of millions on its campaign for Roma, which this year netted a Best Director trophy, among others. An AMPAS rule change demanding proper theatrical runs for eligible movies might have been enough to force Netflix to the bargaining table, though theater chains would also have to make concessions. But the reality is that the movie business has already transformed too much for the Oscars to singlehandedly make Netflix change its entire strategy. The mere suggestion of this kind of rule change prompted the Department of Justice to send a very odd letter to AMPAS warning of potential antitrust violations. No matter what major exhibitors might think, Netflix is a prominent studio that works with well-liked artists, churns out a lot of well-reviewed films, and is a new member of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Essentially, Netflix is part of the Hollywood firmament. AMPAS President John Bailey still stressed in a statement on the Academy’s meeting that the theatrical experience matters to the Board of Governors, though he didn’t mention the streaming service by name. “We support the theatrical experience as integral to the art of motion pictures, and this weighed heavily in our discussions,” he said. “Our rules currently require theatrical exhibition, and also allow for a broad selection of films to be submitted for Oscars consideration. We plan to further study the profound changes occurring in our industry and continue discussions with our members about these issues.”
Current Oscar rules require only a one-week theatrical run in a commercial Los Angeles theater, with three screenings a day, for a movie to qualify for awards. That’s no issue for Netflix, which simply pays theaters to exhibit its releases, renting the room and paying up front for the screenings, a practice known as “four-walling.” For now, the Academy appears happy to keep things the way they are, though Bailey’s statement did have enough caveats about “further study” to keep the streaming company on its toes. Spielberg, meanwhile, will get to work on his latest film, a remake of West Side Story; according to the Times, he’s an avid Netflix user who binge-watches just like everyone else.
The new rules actually taken up by the Academy are mostly cosmetic changes to the annual ceremony. The expansion of the Best Makeup and Hairstyling category, which has always been limited to three nominees, seemed only fair, given that practically every other category honors at least five films. The category of Best Foreign Language Film has been retitled to Best International Feature Film because AMPAS “noted that the reference to ‘Foreign’ is outdated within the global filmmaking community,” said Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, who are co-chairs of the category’s committee.
Additionally, the Oscars will air earlier in 2020, on February 9, moving up three weeks from the ceremony’s traditional spot in an attempt to shorten the grueling length of campaign season. The Academy also announced that the ceremony would begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, an hour earlier than usual, which may help address ABC’s concerns about the length of the broadcast, which led to controversy this year. These small, logical steps should help the Oscars remain popular in the future. But the Academy’s governors clearly recognized that the best way to stay relevant is to keep Netflix as an ally, rather than creating further conflict.