Apple Wins Best Picture, Beating Netflix to Streaming's Most Elusive Oscar
Apple winning a coveted Hollywood award may not transform the small service -- but a few more of you may try out (or return to) Apple TV Plus now.
Joan E. SolsmanFormer 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.
ExpertiseStreaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation onlineCredentials
Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Apple's film CODA won the Academy Award for best picture Sunday, beating powerhouse Netflix to become first streaming service to conquer Hollywood's most coveted film prize. Netflix was nominated in the category, too, for its film The Power of the Dog, and the two streaming services were considered to be the frontrunners in the category going into Sunday's awards ceremony.
Apple's coup is sure to give the fledgling streaming service a boost among prospective subscribers, even as competition among Apple TV Plus, Netflix and their rivals grows fiercer than ever. In the last three years, multiple corporations have poured billions of dollars into launching new services in the hope of taking on the likes of Netflix to shape the future of television.
For people like you, that has meant a mess of services to sort through and pay for as you figure out where you want to watch movies and shows online. Apple's Oscars win Sunday will raise its profile among a slice of prospective subscribers; it may lure a few lapsed members back to the fold; and it's certain to make Apple TV Plus a more attractive home for top talent.
But being first to a clutch an elusive award isn't necessarily a transformational event for streaming services.
Hulu, for example, beat Netflix to win the best-drama Emmy in 2017 but has continued to live in the shadow of Netflix's dominance since then: Netflix has more than 221 million subscribers worldwide, compared with Hulu's 45 million.
And Apple TV Plus may be smaller than that. The company has never disclosed how many people use Apple TV Plus, but The Information last summer reported that Apple TV Plus had roughly 40 million members -- all while many were freeloading on Apple's generous free trials. One analyst estimated that 62% of Apple TV Plus accounts were watching the service free with some sort of promotion. Since then, Apple has cut off many of those free promotional subscriptions, which another researcher found to have pushed Apple TV Plus to the highest rate of fleeing subscribers last year.
And Apple, at less than three years old, is still finding its footing in the noisy competitive field of today's streaming services. With a multibillion-dollar budget to rope in some of Hollywood's biggest stars, Apple TV Plus struck out on an unconventional path: It invested in big-budget, star-packed prestige originals and basically nothing else. Without any kind of back catalog to dive into, Apple TV Plus had only nine total titles to watch when it launched. In the two and a half years since then, it has accumulated more than 100 titles.
By comparison, Netflix is releasing more than 100 titles in February, March and April alone.
Netflix is the undisputed king of streaming, achieved through a mixture of first-mover advantage, aggressive spending and an aptitude for disrupting long-held norms. The last of these, however, has proven to be a liability in stalking Hollywood's most hallowed prizes.
The service has been mounting its pursuit of a best picture Oscar for years. Since it began making its own programming a decade ago, Netflix notched its first Oscar nomination in 2014 for a documentary feature and won its first Oscar in 2017 for a documentary short. Last year, Netflix was the winningest studio on Oscar night, taking home seven statues, but the award for best picture remained out of reach.
"Streaming" movies had a simpler run at the Oscars this year and last. Because the COVID-19 pandemic upended film releases around the globe, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which runs the Oscars, loosened its eligibility rules, making it simpler for streaming-only releases to be nominated.
The unprecedented style of releasing movies during the pandemic also blurred the lines of what is a streaming movie. Typically, movies by traditional studios follow rigid release windows that put films exclusively in cinemas for six to nine months. During the pandemic, that went out the window across the board. It made Oscar films in the last two years more accessible to watch from home than ever before, but it also mixed up what to consider as a streaming movie.
But Apple's big Oscars win is sure to affirm that its pursuit of prestige programming is at least paying off, with prestigious awards to match.