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Oscars 2020: Netflix wins just two awards as ‘Parasite’ boosts Neon

Robert De Niro comes to terms with the end in “The Irishman.”
Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” was nominated for 10 Oscars.
(Netflix)

Around Thanksgiving, it looked like this could have been Netflix’s year to win it all at the Oscars.

Critics were heaping praise on the epic scale of Martin Scorsese’s mob movie “The Irishman,” which felt destined to be the streaming giant’s best shot at the elusive best picture trophy.

The Los Gatos-based tech company put its weight behind the $159-million film, with its big stars and intricate age-altering effects, and pushed it hard through awards season with billboards along Sunset Boulevard.

And yet, on Sunday at the Dolby Theatre, Netflix came up short.

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In total, Netflix’s movies had 24 Oscar nominations, the most of any studio. “The Irishman” came into the Academy Awards ceremony with 10 nods, including best picture, supporting actor (Joe Pesci and Al Pacino), director and adapted screenplay (Steve Zaillian). Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” was up for six awards, including best picture, lead actress (Scarlett Johansson), lead actor (Adam Driver) and original screenplay. “The Two Popes,” while not up for best picture, was nominated in three other categories.

Still, Netflix ended up winning just two awards, including supporting actress for Laura Dern’s turn as a divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story.” Netflix also won for documentary feature “American Factory,” which was supported by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions.

la_en_laura_dern_marriage_story_47.JPG
Laura Dern in “Marriage Story.”
(Netflix)

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Hollywood executives estimate that Netflix spent at least $70 million to promote its eight awards contenders to academy voters. For most studios, an awards season budget of $15 million is considered an ample war chest for a best-picture contender. Netflix was hoping to succeed this year where it ultimately failed in 2019 in its quest to take home the big prize for Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma.” “Roma” won Oscars for director, foreign film and cinematography, but lost best picture to Universal Pictures’ “Green Book.”

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Instead, best picture went to “Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho’s South Korean satirical thriller, which was released by the scrappy upstart New York distributor Neon. “Parasite” also won for director, original screenplay and international film and became the first foreign-language film to win the academy’s top honor.

The “Parasite” wins represented a big night for Neon, the indie distributor that released the film in the U.S. Neon, run by co-founder Tom Quinn, was launched in 2017 and acquired the distribution rights to “Parasite” at 2018’s American Film Market.

“1917,” the Sam Mendes World War I feature released by Universal Pictures, won for sound mixing, cinematography and visual effects, while Warner Bros.’ “Joker” won for original score and lead actor (Joaquin Phoenix).

Searchlight Pictures, now owned by Walt Disney Co., was represented by Taika Waititi’s Nazi comedy “Jojo Rabbit,” which was nominated for six awards and won for adapted screenplay. Searchlight’s sister studio 20th Century Pictures’ “Ford v. Ferrari” was nominated in four categories, winning for sound editing and film editing. Disney also won animated feature for “Toy Story 4.”

Sony Pictures went home with trophies for “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” (supporting actor Brad Pitt and production design) and “Little Women” (costume design). Sony also released “Hair Love,” which won for animated short. Paramount Pictures won for best original song for “Rocketman,” while Lionsgate won the makeup and hair styling award for “Bombshell.”

Distributors LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions’ “Judy” won lead actress for Renée Zellweger.

Netflix’s struggles were predictable this year.

Even after the bounty of nominations was announced, the feeling among awards prognosticators including The Times’ Glenn Whipp was that momentum for “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story” had sputtered. In what seemed to be a bad omen, Netflix’s movies had 17 nominations at the Golden Globes but struck out in every film category except for supporting actress (for Dern).

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The consensus among analysts who’d watched precursors like the PGAs, the DGAs and the SAG awards was that the best picture race had evolved into a two-way contest between “1917" and “Parasite.” Netflix’s “Dolemite Is My Name,” a comedy starring Eddie Murphy as blaxploitation cinema legend Rudy Ray Moore, wasn’t nominated for anything.

Not helping matters was a certain portion of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voting bloc that remains resistant to Netflix’s practice of giving movies a truncated theatrical release in order to quickly make them available for subscribers. Some voters, who spoke to The Times anonymously, found “The Irishman” too long at 3 1/2 hours, and simply didn’t think it lived up to the hype or wasn’t as good as some of the other films.

Only one movie can win best picture, and every studio faces challenging odds. Warner Bros. hasn’t won the most coveted statuette since 2013, with “Argo,” despite having multiple nominees in recent years.

For Netflix, though, it’s clear that winning Oscars is a priority. That’s why the company hired veteran awards consultant Lisa Taback in 2018 to lead its campaign strategy.

Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, has told investors that simply being in the awards conversation for so many of its films benefits the company because it draws attention to the firm’s movies.

“It’s exciting that we end up with being the most nominated studio at the Oscars this year with our films,” he said in a January interview with Guggenheim Securities analyst Michael Morris. “But the most exciting thing is those films are all incredibly popular with our members as well.”

In December, for example, Netflix said “The Irishman” was on pace to draw 40 million viewers in its first month of release. The company said “The Irishman” was the fifth most-popular 2019 release on its service, behind Adam Sandler’s “Murder Mystery,” the third season of “Stranger Things,” Michael Bay movie “6 Underground” and Pixar’s “Incredibles 2.”

So, is the awards campaign spending worth it, despite losing? For Netflix, it’s just a marginal cost of doing business. The company is expected to spend $17.3 billion on content this year in order to continue growing amid an onslaught of competition from Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock, Amazon Prime and Apple TV+.

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What’s $70 million, give or take?


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