Inside Netflix’s Oscar Factory

When her movie Private Life screened for the first time at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Tamara Jenkins says she experienced something she never had in her 27 years as a filmmaker.

“I heard someone behind me laughing, loving the movie,” says Jenkins, who wrote and directed the Netflix-financed film about a New York couple struggling with infertility. “I turn around and it’s Ted Sarandos. He was reacting to it like a film lover. It was startling to see an executive have a visceral reaction like that.”

Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, loved Private Life so much that he added the movie to the streaming giant’s slate of nearly a dozen films it’s pushing during this long Oscar awards season. For the first time in its 20-year history, Netflix’s awards hopefuls are showing in theaters en masse, receiving unprecedented runs ahead of their stream dates. Among them: Private Life, Paul Greengrass’s 22 July, Andy Serkis’s Mowgli, the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Sandra Bullock–starring Bird Box, and director Alfonso Cuarón’s Spanish language Roma. The Cuarón film, Netflix’s Oscar-contender crown jewel, may appear in up to 20 countries theatrically by the time its 130-million-plus subscribers can stream it on Dec. 14.

Director Alfonso Cuarón, won the Oscar for directing and editing “Gravity” in 2014. A feat that Netflix hopes “Roma” will equal.Jason Merritt—Getty Images
Jason Merritt—Getty Images

Such a massive rollout bucks Sarandos’s long-standing rule against releasing movies in theaters ahead of their stream dates. It’s a history that one insider says has frustrated theater owners who have been eager to show Netflix films for their cinephile-leaning audiences. It has also opened the door for streaming competitors to establish their own awards-season presence at the multiplex: Amazon’s 2016 film Manchester by the Sea had a three-month theatrical run before it streamed online and went on to earn Best Picture and Best Director nominations and statues for Original Screenplay and Lead Actor.

“Netflix is now prioritizing winning Oscars as a branding benefit for the company,” says Anne Thompson, a veteran film reporter who serves as editor-at-large for the trade publication IndieWire. She says Netflix’s doubling-down on awards was cemented when Sarandos hired Hollywood’s most in-demand Oscar-campaign strategist, Lisa Taback (La La Land, Moonlight), last summer to work in-house for Netflix. Another Hollywood insider, who declined to be named citing active business relationships, estimates the company’s annual awards budget could now be as high as $20 million. “Ted is doing for movies what he’s done for TV,” says Thompson. “And Hollywood is running scared.”

Whether scared or strategic, precious few of the Hollywood executives, campaign strategists, agents, Academy voters, and producers that Fortune asked about Netflix’s awards efforts were willing to speak on the record. (“No one wants to show their hand, especially this year,” one consultant says.) ­Sarandos and Taback also declined to comment for this article, but a Netflix spokesperson did confirm details of the company’s Oscar-season rollout strategy.

Netflix’s luck at the Academy Awards has ebbed and flowed. In 2015, the company positioned Beasts of No Nation as a Best Picture hopeful, but the film failed to connect with voters and performed poorly in theaters. Netflix earned consecutive Best Documentary nominations in 2016 for What Happened, Miss Simone? and in 2017 for Ava DuVernay’s 13th; in January, the critically acclaimed Mudbound earned four major nominations but failed to break into the Best Picture pool.

Sarandos’s hopes this year are pinned on Roma, Cuarón’s love letter to the nanny who helped raise him in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood in the 1970s. It also may be one of the biggest Best Picture gambles of all time. It features no known actors (lead Yalitza Aparicio is a preschool teacher from Oaxaca), it’s filmed in black and white, and it’s in a mix of Spanish and indigenous languages. One Academy member says Roma risks being favored more by voters in “below the line” Oscar categories like cinematography and sound design and may not connect as easily with the Academy’s largest contingent of voters—actors—because the performances are so natural. Cuarón shot Roma in the expansive 65-millimeter format using Dolby Atmos sound technology, all making it likely to attract an audience that’s more art house than Avengers.

Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Marco Graf as Pepe, and Daniela Demesa as Sofi in still from Roma.Alfonso Cuarón—Netflix
Alfonso Cuarón—Netflix

Netflix, according to one executive, therefore will likely employ a “four wall” release strategy for Roma, a tactic in which studios essentially rent out theaters to make films immune to poor box-office performance. Another insider notes that Netflix is “easily” the business’s largest awards advertiser. “It’s all working, because that early sense of elitism among film Academy voters about a ‘TV company’ making Oscar movies is gone,” says Rich Licata, a veteran awards strategist and CEO of Licata & Co. “There was a fallacy of voters being too old to understand Netflix. But the sentiment is positive now. There’s been a need to innovate the awards business. That’s what Netflix and Amazon are both doing. They’re attracting talent, and talent runs Hollywood.”

For Jenkins, whose film Private Life earned nominations for Best Screenplay and Lead Actress from the Gotham Independent Film Awards this fall (often a harbinger of Oscar’s favorites), the idea that a character-driven Netflix movie like hers would land on the big screen across the U.S., in the U.K., and in Canada—let alone be in the mix for Oscars—is still sinking in. “I thought we’d be in one or two theaters total,” she says. “I could have never imagined 21. It actually felt like a real release. It’s been the best of both worlds.”

A version of this article appears in the December 1, 2018 issue of Fortune with the headline “Netflix’s Oscar Factory.”

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