For about an hour inside the Dolby Theater last month, it seemed like Netflix might have finally pulled it off. All Quiet on the Western Front had beaten Babylon for best score and Elvis for best cinematography and production design, suggesting to me, and the Netflix folks I was sitting near, that a best picture shocker was at least plausible. Alas, despite spending more than $100 million campaigning over the past 7 or 8 years, co-C.E.O. Ted Sarandos still hasn’t taken home that top trophy. And now, the Academy appears likely to do something that would certainly annoy Ted & Co., and might make it costlier to win that coveted prize.
It’s all being kept quiet for now, but the Oscars are poised to enact one of the most significant rules changes in the Academy’s recent history, potentially adding a new theatrical distribution requirement for films to be eligible for best picture. According to a plan that is said to be supported by Academy C.E.O. Bill Kramer, and which must still be approved by the 54-member board of governors at its meeting in late April, films will need to play in theaters in 15 or 20 of the top 50 markets in the U.S. to be eligible. That would surely bring smiles to executive suites at the theater chains and the traditional studios, and frowny-faces to the leadership of Netflix.
The Academy declined to comment, but here’s what’s going on, based on my conversations this week with studio executives and Oscars insiders. For the past few months, and really since Kramer took over for Dawn Hudson last summer, the Academy has been talking with studios, streamers, and small distributors about how to better leverage the Oscars to promote moviegoing. The Academy has always tried to stay out of the business of movies, but it does maintain a requirement—relaxed during the pandemic, but reinstated last year—that films play theatrically for at least a week in one of six markets: L.A., New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, or Atlanta. A streamer can put the film online day-and-date, but it can’t stream it before it appears in a theater.