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Oscar goes to ... Amazon, for playing nice (sorry, Netflix)

Amazon beats Netflix to be the first streaming service with a best picture Oscar nomination. The wrinkle: It isn't actually streaming the film yet.

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
5 min read
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Amazon enjoyed heaps of attention last month when it beat bigger rival Netflix to score a best picture Oscar nomination for "Manchester by the Sea," a first for any streaming service.

Just don't presume you can stream the movie on Amazon now.


"Manchester by the Sea" earned Amazon the first best picture Oscar nomination for a streaming service.

Sundance Institute

To date, the film's only connection to streaming video had been the company that wrote the check. After "Manchester" debuted to sensational reviews at last year's Sundance Film Festival, Amazon followed its now-standard practice. It bid big to win distribution rights, partnered with a theatrical distributor and gave the flick a traditional run in theaters -- one that's ongoing.

That is, more than a year after Amazon spent a reported $10 million for "Manchester," the film had yet to show up on its own streaming service, nor had Amazon given any indication when that might happen. Now, with this year's Academy Awards ceremony out of the way, Amazon has set a date: "Manchester" will arrive on Prime Video on May 5.

On Sunday night, the film picked up Oscars for best actor and for best original screenplay. The best picture award went to "Moonlight" after some unscripted drama.

Nothing guarantees an Oscar nomination, particularly for best picture. But there are ploys that can help a movie's chances. With its "Manchester" endeavor and success bidding for other buzzy films, Amazon found its route to the red carpet: Don't rock the boat. Netflix, on the other hand, has a habit of upending Hollywood norms and along the way has found the most prestigious Oscars elusive.

Unlike Amazon, which preserves standard theatrical runs for its movies, Netflix releases films "day-and-date." That means Netflix debuts its movies in theaters and on its streaming service for home viewing at the same time.

Day-and-date rankles theater owners, who see it as a threat to traditional "windowing" release schedules that help get people into cinema seats. When Netflix said it would release "Beasts of No Nation" on its streaming service the same day as big screens in 2015, movie chains revolted. The four biggest operators -- AMC, Carmike, Cinemark and Regal -- refused to show the film.

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Ultimately, "Beasts of No Nation," Netflix's first serious contender for an Oscar, debuted in 31 theaters and grossed about $70,000 total its first week. By comparison, during the opening week for "Manchester by the Sea," the movie's average box-office take from a single theater alone was about $100,000. "Beasts" total box office gross was just $90,777, a flop by strictly traditional standards. (However, Netflix has said 3 million people watched "Beasts" online in its first week.)

Rather than concede the day-and-date strategy, Netflix instead secured a theatrical partnership in October. Upstart 15-screen chain iPic agreed to screen at least 10 of Netflix's films in Los Angeles and New York.

Showing its films in so few theaters is financially meaningless for Netflix, so why even bother to screen them at all? CEO Reed Hastings had a simple explanation: "Academy qualification," he said in an interview days after the iPic deal. To be eligible for an Oscar, films must be exhibited in a commercial theater in Los Angeles County for at least seven days.

Road to the red carpet

But a theatrical release, more along the lines of Amazon's, may be helpful to a picture's Oscar chances in more ways than simple eligibility.

For one, the voters who decide the Oscars, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, aren't exactly a young bunch. The Academy doesn't release demographic details about Oscar voters, but research by The Los Angeles Times estimated that as of 2013 their average age was 63.

Streaming, however, skews young. Nearly half of people age 15 to 24 watch on-demand video online daily, versus 21 percent for those 65 and over and 26 percent for people between 50 and 64, according to Nielsen.


Netflix's "Beasts of No Nation" received no Oscar nominations last year, widely perceived as a snub.


Beyond the viewing proclivities of Oscar voters, the promise of a cinema run has made Amazon more competitive bidding for the buzziest movies, those most likely to be catnip for awards. Amazon's theater-forward release strategy helped it lock down a deal for "The Big Sick" at the most recent Sundance Film Festival last month, one of the most sought-after pictures at the fest, according to Variety.

Neither Netflix nor Amazon would provide a comment about how its release strategy effects films' chances for awards.

Though Amazon won headlines for its six nominations for "Manchester," including best picture, Netflix is far from an Academy pariah. The streaming giant's documentaries have netted the company a feature doc nod every year since 2014.

Releasing a doc day-and-date, as Netflix does, isn't nearly as destabilizing as it is for scripted films. Documentaries aren't as reliant on their theatrical success for hype and exposure. Scripted films, whether a critical darling like "Manchester" or a big-budget popcorn flick like "Captain America," rely more on theatrical performance as a gauge of success. With the exception of rare docs that break through to be blockbusters, like "An Inconvenient Truth," documentaries' ties to television distribution are just as close as to cinemas.

Netflix's scripted films largely have failed to break through onto the Oscar stage. "Beasts of No Nation" received no nominations last year. This year, Netflix placed hope on its film "Tallulah," but the drama hasn't had much luck with any of the marquee awards and came up empty-handed at the Oscars too.

In addition to the two wins for "Manchester," Amazon earned an Oscar this year for the foreign-language film "The Salesman," which brought the company's total Oscar take Sunday night to three statues. Amazon was also nominated for the documentary "I Am Not Your Negro."

Netflix wasn't left out entirely. The service garnered its first Oscar win, too: The 40-minute "The White Helmets" won best documentary short.

With "Manchester" missing for best picture, that pinnacle of Oscar's top prize is still up for grabs, so look for more contenders. Last month, for instance, Netflix's "I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore" won the prestigious US Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. For both companies, there's always next year.

At least Amazon will actually be streaming "Manchester by the Sea" by then.

First published Feb. 26 at 5:00 a.m. PT.
Updated Feb. 27 at 4:23 a.m., 6:01 a.m. PT and 6:16 am PT: Added Amazon's and Netflix's total Oscar wins Sunday night, and that "Manchester" will debut on Prime Video on May 5.

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