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Netflix Needs to Win the Best Picture Oscar This Year

By Adam Levy - Oct 9, 2019 at 9:20AM

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The streaming pioneer needs to show top talent it can get them the recognition they deserve.

Martin Scorsese's The Irishman made its debut last month at the New York Film Festival, and it's instantly become a Best Picture frontrunner. The film Netflix (NFLX -0.41%) spent $159 million on received unanimous praise.

But the debut is just the start for The Irishman and Netflix. The film will make its wider release at the beginning of next month, and not four weeks later the tech giant's 150 million global subscribers will be able to stream the movie in their homes. Netflix will also offer short theatrical runs for two more Oscar contenders this fall: Marriage Story and The Two Popes

Netflix made a big Oscar push last year with Roma, a foreign-language art film. It ultimately fell short of the big prize, although it did take home three trophies for director Alfonso Cuaron and Netflix. Last year's showing at the Oscars was seen as a pretty big success for the streaming media company. There's a lot more on the line for Netflix this year, though, given a mainstream contender like The Irishman, and it'll be a big disappointment if it doesn't take home Best Picture.

Artistic rendering of Joe Pesci, Robert DiNiro, and Al Pacino.

Promotional artwork for The Irishman. Image source: Netflix.

What a Best Picture Oscar means for Netflix

Winning Best Picture would surely have some impact on getting new customers to try out Netflix. It can tout the award on billboards -- both physical and digital -- and use it in its marketing for new original films -- e.g., "From the studio that brought you Best Picture winner..."

But the bigger marketing message Netflix is sending is to writers, directors, and actors. Netflix wants to prove that it's not just a place for made-for-TV movies; that it can win the industry's highest honor. 

Netflix brings a lot to the table for filmmakers. It has the ability to distribute films globally and reach tens of millions of viewers quickly. It has an unparalleled ability to get people to sit down and watch a movie or series and then talk about it with friends and coworkers the next week.

Netflix also has deep pockets to help artists craft a story however they see fit. Scorsese said Netflix was the only studio willing to plunk down the cash to create the film he wanted. The streaming leader is expected to spend about $15 billion in cash this year on content -- both licensed and original -- and that number keeps growing every year.

But Netflix isn't that differentiated anymore. Apple (AAPL -0.29%) is launching a streaming service in November with a massive budget for original content and the ability to reach tens of millions of consumers. Apple is giving people that buy a new Apple device a free year of Apple TV+ to quickly attract viewers. It's also going after Oscars glory.

There's also the old media, which can promise wide theatrical distribution and massive marketing budgets. That said, studios like Disney are more focused on using their popular intellectual property to improve their chances at the box office than taking risks on more artful and dramatic storytelling like The Irishman. Still, the push into streaming through sites like Disney+ may invite old media companies to take more risks on Oscar contenders in the future.

Why Netflix has to win this year

Aside from the mounting competition and the immense spending war for talent that accompanies it, Netflix has made a big bet on the Oscars this year. If it can't win Best Picture with an acclaimed director and cast who created a universally praised film, Netflix may not have the cachet with the Academy it needs in order to win the award ever.

That sends a big message to creators: If they want recognition for their work, Netflix isn't the place for them.

Despite old media companies pushing toward embracing the Netflix model, the people in charge of handing out awards may still be stuck in the old days of great films maintaining long theatrical runs. That's something Netflix won't break on, even if it bends a little bit from its prior day-and-date release demands. Its business isn't at the box office; it's in monthly subscriptions. 

Ultimately, that might hold it back from attracting the best talent in Hollywood and becoming the place for top-tier films. If it can bring home the top prize this year, though, Netflix could win a lot of great talent for years to come.

Adam Levy owns shares of Apple and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple, Netflix, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2021 $60 calls on Walt Disney, short October 2019 $125 calls on Walt Disney, short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple, long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple, short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple, and long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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