Netflix laughs in the face of your puny Oscar campaign

Netflix content boss Ted Sarandos has one thing on his mind right now, and it’s written right behind him.
Netflix content boss Ted Sarandos has one thing on his mind right now, and it’s written right behind him.
Image: Reuters/Danny Moloshok
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The transaction is simple, though unspoken: Netflix showers awards voters with chocolates, coffee-table books, signed posters, and other such items of reasonable value, in addition to invitations to lavish parties hosted by A-listers like Angelina Jolie. In theory, they then vote for Netflix shows and movies to win awards. It doesn’t always work, but the deep-pocketed streaming service can damn well afford to try.

Fast Company published an article on Monday (Jan. 14) detailing Netflix’s elaborate awards season blitz, which, if the company has its way, will culminate in a best picture Oscar for its film Roma. Hoping to curb Hollywood skepticism of the streamer through sheer spending power, Netflix is said to be splurging upwards of $25 million on Roma‘s Oscar campaign, Fast Company reported. (The film itself cost $15 million.)

Executives and publicists at traditional film studios appear to be super jealous. “It seems like they have unlimited resources,” one told Fast Company, anonymously. “[Netflix] doesn’t spend a little more than everyone,” another said. “They spend millions and millions more.”

As the streaming service has grown, so too have its ambitions. First they made owning a Netflix subscription a necessity to keep up with the cultural conversation. Next came convincing big-name directors and stars to be cool with releasing films directly to the global platform (that’s still a work in progress, but improving). Winning big movie awards is the company’s next big test, and it’s well-prepared to tackle it.

Netflix today covets Oscars, maybe more than anything. And not just any Oscar, the best picture Oscar—the most prestigious award in cinema. A best picture Oscar for Roma would validate the company’s entire foray into movie-making, force the old Hollywood guard to take it more seriously, and persuade more top-tier filmmakers with dreams of hoisting the trophy to forgo the traditional studio system and hop aboard the streaming express. Netflix’s thirst for the award is as much about cultivating an image as a winner—and proving it belongs among the major studios—as it is about gaining more subscribers. Of course, the former can help with the latter.

Before this year, the streaming service hadn’t had any obvious offerings on which to mount a major Oscar campaign. Its first original feature film, 2015’s Beasts of No Nation, received a warm reception by critics but failed to break through Netflix’s reputation among many Academy members as a theater-killer that threatened the very fabric of Hollywood. Last year, Dee Rees’s critically acclaimed film Mudbound seemed like the kind of movie Oscar voters might go for, but, perhaps reading the tea leaves, Netflix didn’t push it as hard as it could have, and it failed to win any of the four categories it was nominated for.

With Roma, however, Netflix has managed to cultivate a narrative that it’s not just an Oscar contender, but maybe the favorite to win best picture. It helps that Alfonso Cuarón’s drama, based in part on the domestic worker who helped raise him in 1970s Mexico City, is an undeniably stirring and gorgeous feat of filmmaking. Any awards voter who discounts the film as a candidate simply because of the disruptive platform on which it was distributed does a disservice to the industry as a whole. Realizing this, voters for Oscar precursors (the various guild awards, BAFTA, the Golden Globes, etc.) have showered Cuarón’s film with nominations and wins.

The chocolate didn’t hurt, either. Netflix reportedly sent members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the cadre of LA-based international journalists who vote on the Golden Globes) the aforementioned boxes of Oaxacan dark chocolates with notes signed by Roma actress Yalitza Aparicio and posters signed by Cuarón, according to Fast Company. HFPA members were also given the option if they wanted their bespoke posters pre-framed or rolled. They were invited to a cocktail party hosted by Angelina Jolie, and a Christmas Party at the home of Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s content boss who’s said to desperately want an Oscar. (Netflix has won two Oscars for documentary films, but never any for narrative features, and has never even been nominated in the best picture category.)

Netflix probably hasn’t tried similar tactics with members of the Academy because the Oscars have much stricter rules around such offerings (read: bribes). “Reasonable food and drink” may be provided at Academy screenings, but nothing more. Academy members may not “host” events or moderate Q&As. Campaigners may only send Academy members one mailing per week, and those cannot include signed or promotional items.

What Netflix can do to help its Oscars case is spend lots and lots of money on advertising (commercials, billboards, social media, and more), parties and events that fall within the Academy’s campaign guidelines, talk show appearances, and positive media coverage. To orchestrate this (and future) campaigns, Netflix hired Lisa Taback, a savvy Hollywood veteran known as one of the best awards campaigners in the business, who used to work with the Weinstein brothers at Miramax. But Taback has more money at her disposal than she ever had at a small studio like Miramax. New York Times awards guru Kyle Buchanan likened Netflix’s Oscars media barrage for Roma—a black-and-white film in Spanish—to that of a blockbuster superhero movie like Avengers: Infinity War.

We’ll know on Jan. 22, when Oscar nominations are announced, if Netflix accomplished the first phase of its best picture plan (spoiler alert: Roma is a virtual lock to be nominated). Then, on Feb. 24, the conclusion of all this spending and lobbying and marketing: the 91st Academy Awards. That is, until next year.