Netflix' shot to finally win a best picture Oscar is good -- and still may miss

It's an ironic twist to an Oscar ceremony that'll celebrate the best filmmaking from the movie industry's worst year.

Joan E. Solsman Former Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Joan E. Solsman
3 min read

Netflix's film Mank (left) leads the 2021 Oscar field with the most nominations of any movie, but the company's The Trial of the Chicago 7 is more highly favored to win best picture in recent betting odds. 


Netflix  arguably has more Oscar momentum than ever going into Sunday night's ceremony. Coming off a pandemic year when "streaming  movies " felt like the only movies, it will arrive with the most nominations of any company, 35 total. It has the most-nominated single film, Mank, with 10 nods. And in the coveted best picture category, it's the only media company with two nominees vying for Oscar's top prize, with Mank and The Trial of the Chicago Seven.

And yet, whether Netflix can finally clinch a best picture Oscar, a long-elusive ambition for the world's biggest subscription video service, is anybody's guess. It's just one twist to an Academy Awards ceremony highlighting the best filmmaking from the movie industry's worst year.

The COVID-19 pandemic decimated the global box office, which plunged 72% in value last year. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which runs the Oscars, faced the conundrum of celebrating theatrical movies at a time when hardly anyone could go to the theaters. So early in the pandemic, the Academy loosened its eligibility requirements for the Oscar awards. Streaming-only releases could apply to be nominated, so long as the films had originally been planned to hit the big screen. 

That's led to a field of best picture nominees populated more by "streaming" movies than not. 

Eight films are nominated for best picture. Five of them were available to stream on a subscription service either the same day they hit theaters or shortly thereafter: Netflix's Mank and The Trial of the Chicago Seven; Amazon's Sound of Metal; Nomadland, which briefly ran in Imax theaters before it hit Hulu the same day as its wide theatrical release; and Judas and the Black Messiah, which premiered on HBO Max and in theaters on the same day. 

The other three best picture nominees -- Minari, Promising Young Woman and The Father -- all either premiered with virtual screenings at the same time as physical ones or moved swiftly to become online rentals a month or less after their debuts in cinemas. 

These topsy-turvy film release cycles mean box-office performance is even less of an indicator of a best picture nominee's chances than in past years. Though box-office success has never made a movie a shoo-in for best picture, a film's impact on a large audience can factor into Academy voters' calculus. 

Box office grosses are independently monitored, setting a standard gauge for how large a movie's audience has been. But streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu keep viewership details of their titles close to the vest. The closest we have to knowing whether any of these nominees are being received by wide audiences is Nomadland managing to sneak onto Nielsen's rankings of most-watched streaming titles the week it debuted on Hulu. 

Nomadland, coincidentally, is the front-runner to win best picture this year and the betting favorite to win, with odds that imply an 87% chance of taking home the last statue of the night, according to the Action Network. That has much to do with its hot streak at earlier awards so far, with best picture wins at the Golden Globes, the Baftas, the Independent Spirit Awards and others. 

A Netflix film is the most-favored underdog, however. The Trial of the Chicago Seven has the next-best betting odds after Nomadland. But with its win probability of 14%, Netflix yet again may enter the Oscars with a promising scoresheet and leave without the most coveted prize of the night. 

Netflix -- Hollywood's newest Goliath with a $17 billion content budget -- has been here before. Last year, like this year, it had more nominations than anyone else. Like this year, It had two contenders for best picture, with Marriage Story and The Irishman. The Irishman was one nomination away from tying Joker for the most. And yet that best picture statue remained out of reach. Parasite won. 

And the year before that, Netflx's Roma was the betting-favorite to win best picture, but The Green Book took the category. 

In fact, Oscar's best picture winners have been unusually hard to predict in the last five years. From 2000 through 2015, the betting favorite won best picture every time except twice. But since then, the last five winners were all upsets. 

A best-picture upset this year could end up putting the statue in Netflix's hands, at last. It'd be a fitting end to streaming's biggest year for the world's biggest streaming service.