The Hot Button
The Hot Button
THB #105: 5 Days To Oscar

THB #105: 5 Days To Oscar

Voting is about to close - 51 minutes as I make this audio for this - and you can be sure that 99% of those who are going to vote have voted. And they sure aren’t reading newsletters to decide what to do.


I really don’t care what film wins Best Picture on Sunday. This is one of the weakest line-ups for Best Picture in modern Oscar history.

This doesn’t mean that these are bad movies. They aren’t. There is only one movie amongst the ten that I would give a ‘thumbs down” to if I were seated next to the late, great Roger Ebert one last time. And that is a matter of my personal taste. I doubt anyone reading this doesn’t have at least one such title from the ten and it probably is different than my own in most cases.

I really like The Power of the Dog. I’ve seen it 4 times… twice on a big screen and twice on my big TV. If 50% of the voters saw it on a movie theater screen, there would be no competition right now and the movie would be a lock, in this field, to win Best Picture.

But that’s not the case.

Netflix has run the movie on hundreds of theatrical screens in the last 6 months. But there is no way more than 20% of The Academy has seen it on a theater screen. Likely, like all these movies, the number is under 10%. Netflix, I can assure you, knows exactly how many Academy voters saw it on a theatrical screen and if my assumption is wrong, I will get a call soon enough. But I don’t expect one.

And by the way… after 3 years of me openly saying that The Academy should put more restrictions on qualifying for Oscar and being in a clear minority, as the fashion has been to root for the demise of movie theaters while patronizingly shrugging and talking about how “things change” and how the experience hasn’t gotten any better in decades and how it will be okay having just giant IP on screens and the rest on TV… I just hit on yet another reason why The Academy needs to take action out of self-preservation. Can’t believe it took me this long.


If the movies nominated for Best Picture are not advertised in a way much like they are when released for real theatricals (meaning, runs of at least 4 weeks, reporting grosses, running TV spots), that means The Oscars are not being set up for success.

Screen Engine did a poll with the L.A. Times that ran this morning. I don’t trust these polls on the granular level. But I do as a broad read… and when it comes to award season, the audience that Oscar does have some appeal to is actually the audience most easily and accurately polled these days…

You will notice that the assumed frontrunners are on the bottom half of both charts.

You will also notice that none of the nominees hit 20% viewership of those polled.

Now, there is no history of this poll, so we can only make assumptions about the past. But you can plainly see that the 3 films with the highest awareness were the three that were most advertised nationally. As stupid as Kilar’s Folly/Project Popcorn was, Warner Bros spent the kind of money in advertising that you would for a proper theatrical release because it was really targeting potential HBO Max sign-ups.

Netflix is not helpful to Oscar, but it sure is an excellent internal marketing machine. Throw some movie stars - developed in a system that isn’t like Netflix and sometime we should discuss what happens to Netflix Movies when they have killed the movie star once and for all - into a Netflix movie, offer it up in a strong position on the welcome screen and in the top lines offering content, and the Netflix audience watches… whether it’s Adam McKay or Adam Sandler or The Adam Project.

The most seen movie of the season - and this is likely correct - was Don’t Look Up, driven by Leo and Jennifer and a little Meryl, and as you can see, about 50% of people who know the film exists say they saw it. I don’t think it can be overstated how remarkable that stat is.

Spider-Man: No Way Home has grossed $800 million domestic, which means as many as 80 million Americans saw it in a theater….but still, if you surveyed, you can be sure than more than 160 million Americans know that the film exists. Now, if you add in all the people who will eventually see Spidey-to-the-3rd-power on their TV, the film will likely get to Don’t Look Up numbers, in terms of watching to awareness. This is the power of theatrical and the revenue opportunity. And it scales down to smaller movies - comedies and dramas - no matter what people LOVE to claim is true about only giant movies matter in theatrical.

Last season, the most seen movie in the Oscar race was Netflix’s The Midnight Sky. Netflix Power is greater than Desert Power.

But I digress…

If Netflix was spending $100 million marketing their movies for theatrical each Oscar season, instead of “just” spending $30 million marketing to the core of 9000+ Oscar voters, 100 Globes voters, however many SAG nom com nominators there now are, another 10,000 guild voters, and a bit for the final broad SAG vote… the Oscar show would be in better shape because their titles would be recognized by the public in a different way.

Netflix doesn’t want to do this. And it’s not some nefarious thing. It’s their overall model. Everyone likes to throw around everyone else’s money in this town, but if Netflix started spending on traditional marketing like movies have for 100 years, it would impact their financials, because it wouldn’t just be awards movies expecting it. You can be sure that Shawn Levy would be looking to get a higher marketing spend for the very mediocre The Adam Project than any of the awards movies. And that would not only impact that project, but Levy-produced Stranger Things and whatever other Levy-connected projects are in the pipeline. And that would infect every other producer. And suddenly, the $15 billion+ annual content spend is a $10 billion content spend and a $5 billion marketing spend.

My sympathies. I do not judge you, Netflix. But from The Academy perspective, you are a problem, no matter how many careers on which you hold the pursestrings.

And while I am on Netflix, all this veiled back biting that other newsletter writers are so happy to allow against Lisa Taback for her role at Netflix and the failure to win Best Picture. Shut up. How I feel about Lisa - better and worse - is not an issue with this. This is an objective analysis.

It’s not that complicated. Roma was wonderful… but not a film one would expect to be a Best Picture winner. The Irishman? Only critics thought it wasn’t overlong and overwrought. Mank? Are you kidding? A movie about Citizen Kane that isn’t about Citizen Kane at all? A movie about a drunk white man in the 1930s, living in luxury… yeah, that was going to catch the zeitgeist! I adore the work of all three directors of all three of these movies. I am glad they all got to make the movies they did. And anything can catch fire in an unexpected way in Oscar seasons. There were rules that were pretty sturdy (always exceptions), but not in the last decade. But still… the odds against them winning started with the films themselves.

It’s not just about liking the movies… it’s about how people like the movies.

I will always be the first in line for any Cuaron, Scorsese or Fincher movie. These are masters of cinema. But these three movies were at Netflix because no one who needed to make money off of them (studios) or to even break even would pay for them. They were high art efforts. Those rarely win Best Picture, no matter how powerful the distributor.

And The Power of the Dog is another one in that group. This may be the year that one ends up winning. But this is exactly the kind of movie that was, in years past, happy just to be nominated.

Lisa Taback has done the job that Netflix hired her for and then some. It is very possible at some point that Netflix will take another strategic approach to awards. The things I am suggesting The Academy do to improve their situation could have a big impact on that situation if The Academy actually did something. (Dawn won’t.) But Netflix isn’t going to do any better with any other leadership. And if they did and Lisa left, she would be the #1 choice of any of the companies that are chasing Oscar. Cynthia Swartz would still be a strong #2.

Now… if you want to argue about the Oscar Industrial Complex and how fucked up it is… I am always happy to have this conversation. And Lisa and Cynthia are a big part of that machinery. They are the best in the business at manipulating it. I am not a fan of every choice and I have written here about some of those choices. But people whispering about “Ted ghosting Lisa… hee hee hee” are just schadenfreuding the bed.


Circling back to the LA Times/Screen Engine polling…

The poll, in terms of the potential winner of Best Picture is irrelevant.

What is not true of “general consumer respondents” is that they haven’t had Team Penske, a bunch of other media outlets (including this one), and the distributors themselves marketing to them for month after month after month.

If the poll was of Oscar voters - which I do not encourage - awareness of the Best Picture titles would be no lower than 75% for any of them, with Drive My Car still being the lowest.

What would be more interesting is the viewing survey.

The percentage of Academy voters who have seen at least 8 of the 10 Best Picture nominees has to be over 70%, one would think. But how many have seen Drive My Car? How many had watched CODA before the last couple weeks as it started to win lots of hardware?

But take the next step? How many people watched any of these movies on a theatrical screen? Of those who saw these movies on their TVs, how many watched the entirety of these films… which films… how much did they watch if

not whole?

Those of us who cover all this and those who have a vote that matters are in a bubble. A very, very expensive bubble.

Companies operate within the rules that The Academy and guilds allow for… so to blame them for being as aggressive as they like - and thus, manipulative - is silly. It may be icky, but they are doing the job as they are asked to do the job.

The burden is on The Academy. We are getting very close to the point where The Academy will lose control of their cash cow completely… to ABC… but also to the Oscar Industrial Complex that has been built around The Oscars. The media has been the best workaround for distributors to do what they like and The Academy has done nothing about it for so long that they may have lost the leverage to do so. Now, if they want to engage in clean-up, they are taking something away from distributors and members… which can be very sticky.

As a result, I find myself asking the same thing of The Academy as I do of HFPA… which is a notion that really does make me sick to my stomach.

Step up and do the right things. Stop laying down and gathering your upside. Make choices that are in the interest of making the most honest, serious, movie-loving awards shows that you can. Stop allowing your members to participate in the marketing for awards, aside from reasonable free speech.

To HFPA, I say, “Either expand your organization to a legitimate size to match your claims and revenues or stop operating.”

To The Academy, I say, “Protect your franchise. This doesn’t mean hopping around like a frog on acid. Stop virtue signalling and be virtuous! You have one of the world’s greatest brands. Don’t piss it away…. because that is what you have been doing for years. Take yourself more seriously or people will continue to take you less and less seriously.”

Tomorrow, we can discuss how much money Apple spent sending out hardware to various voting groups.

Until tomorrow…

The Hot Button
The Hot Button
An inside perspective on the Film/TV/Streaming Industry from a 30-year veteran seeker of truth.