In recent years, many indelible Hollywood forces have made it crystal clear that they aren’t too fond of these new fangled streaming services. This isn’t film, they argue, this is blockbuster television. It’s a dusty notion the old guard clings to and a truth the digital generation sneers at with the cocksuredness only youth can muster. Last year, Steven Spielberg, echoing previous comments of Tier 1 filmmakers, labeled Netflix a “clear and present danger to filmgoers.” The Cannes Film Festival banned Netflix from competition. And yet here we stand in the wake of 2019’s Oscars ceremony, the company having achieved another “first” with Alfonso Cuarón taking home the Best Director statue for Roma, witnessing the streaming service tick off another benchmark of legitimacy.
Roma, a Netflix film, may not have won the Best Picture award at the Oscars thanks to a deflating upset by the flawed and outmoded Green Book. But it did take home three statues on the night, including the Best Director award. No, it isn’t quite the concussive blow of a victory the streamer expected, but it is a signal flare to the rest of the industry: anyone who still rails against the forces of streaming are clearly waging a fruitless war. Netflix has done what it set out to do.
The company has become a dominant, omnipresent force within our greater culture. Consider how we think about Netflix. We casually employ it as both a noun and a verb, a possessive object and a term of active engagement. It’s even become a euphemism for sex, as we slyly float the idea of Netflix and Chill? to those that catch our eye. Has there ever been a traditional studio with such a nonchalantly constant presence?
The platform is youth-driven but with the casual functionality to appeal to all ages. It’s a monthly bill but a steal compared to cable. And it’s now an Oscar-winning film studio willing to hurl resources at elite talent.
Sure, maybe the old guard has a few legitimate gripes. The quality of all this online content has surely suffered under the weight of its insatiable volume. And our consumption is now built around sugar-blast binge sessions, which cap critical thinking.
Wall Street gives Netflix, which they view as a tech stock, an impossibly longer leash than a Sony or a Paramount. The deep pockets are what allows them to spend a historic $25 million-plus on Roma‘s Oscars campaign. A cynic could argue that the unparalleled spending muscled Roma to the top spot in many a pre-ceremony prediction piece, but The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey captured the public sentiment more acutely, writing, “Roma just feels right, and so little else does.” That it didn’t take home the top prize is disappointing, but will only endear it more to audiences as an Oscars narrative most moviegoers can embrace. Call it the anti-Crash.
Still, you’d be hard pressed to find a more fitting lasting image than Cuarón making repeated visits to the stage last night—a sight fellow filmmakers won’t soon forget as the traditional studio system continues to constrict. You’d be foolish not to realize the race for the 2020 Oscars has already begun; it wasn’t an accident that the first teaser for Martin Scorsese’s Netflix gangster flick The Irishman debuted during the broadcast. The Academy wasn’t ready to allow Netflix full entry into their gilded world, but it’s coming.
We could debate the historical significance of Netflix’s breakthrough (and ultimate stumble at the finish line) for the remainder of the night, but the stats say it all. In 2009, Reed Hastings said Netflix would be streaming new releases in a decade; they did it in six years. In 2003, they had 1 million subscribers; today, they have a hair under 140 million across 190 countries. In fact, if Netflix were a country, it would be the tenth most-populous in the world. Like its vast library, Netflix’s epochal rise aims to be endless. We don’t mean to proselytize, but wow.
The streamer is planning to release 90 original films a year, running the gamut from awards-focused prestige pictures to $200 million blockbusters. In comparison, the six main studios released 114 films combined in 2018. Even without a Best Picture trophy, Netflix’s multiple wins made for big night, but it is just one in a series. The platform tied HBO for the most wins at the Emmys last year with 23. It’s spending $12 billion on content this year alone. Netflix is a juggernaut that has branched into every inch of entertainment. So Spielberg and Cannes and Christopher Nolan can all huff and puff about the streaming industry until they’re blue in the face. All they’re doing is building a sand castle against the high tide.