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Oscars 2021: Netflix and Disney dominate in streaming’s biggest year

Viola Davis sings into a microphone in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" with musicians behind her.
Viola Davis in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” a Netflix film.
(Netflix)

Netflix and Walt Disney Co. dominated the entertainment industry conversation in a year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic and streaming. So why should the Oscars be any different?

The 93rd Academy Awards represented a strong night for Netflix, which, despite losing best picture to Disney-owned Searchlight’s “Nomadland,” won seven prizes for movies including “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Mank” and multiple smaller films. It was the top distributor of the night, with a haul representing a big jump from 2020, when the Los Gatos company won in two categories.

The streaming giant came into the ceremony with an industry-leading 36 nominations, including two best picture nominees: “Mank” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” David Fincher’s “Mank,” the most nominated film with 10 nods, ended the ceremony with two awards — production design and cinematography — thanks to the film’s re-creation of old Hollywood and San Simeon. The cinematography win over “Nomadland” was considered an upset.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” in which Viola Davis plays 1920s blues singer Ma Rainey in the adaptation of August Wilson’s celebrated play, won for costume design and hair and makeup. In a significant upset, the late “Ma Rainey” star Chadwick Boseman lost the lead actor prize to Anthony Hopkins, who won for Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Father.”

“Nomadland” takes home the best picture, director and lead actress awards at the 2021 Oscars.

In other awards, Netflix’s armful of trophies included the lovingly shot underwater film “My Octopus Teacher,” winner for documentary feature. “Two Distant Strangers” — about a Black artist stuck in a time loop always ending with his killing by a white police officer — won for live action short. Netflix acquired the timely short after the nominations were announced. The company also released the animated short winner “If Anything Happens I Love You.”

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The attention lavished on Netflix movies was well-timed as the company fights to maintain its dominance in the streaming video space. The company recently reported adding fewer global subscribers than expected in the most recent quarter as rival video services including HBO Max and Disney+ take market share.

As expected, best picture went to “Nomadland,” one of three statuettes earned by the quiet, sweeping drama about a van-dwelling woman’s experience of America. It also won best director for Chloé Zhao and lead actress for Frances McDormand. Zhao became the first woman of color and the first woman of Asian descent to win the academy’s feature directing prize.

The film was released in theaters and on Hulu, which is also owned by Disney.

The “Nomadland” victory comes less than a week after Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula, the duo that has led Searchlight Pictures through a remarkable run of success in the business of prestige film, announced their retirement. Utley and Gilula are known for shepherding Oscar winners “Slumdog Millionaire,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman” and “The Shape of Water.” After winning for “Nomadland,” Searchlight has released four of the last eight best picture winners.

Searchlight has proven its worth to Disney, which acquired the film stalwart in 2019 as part of its $71-billion purchase of 21st Century Fox entertainment assets. The deal spurred speculation about what would become of the indie film business under the corporate umbrella of Disney, which hasn’t focused on Oscar bait since it owned Miramax.

With her directing win for “Nomadland,” Chloé Zhao is in the Oscar history books as one of cinema’s great boundary breakers.

Searchlight, which dropped the Fox moniker after joining Disney, has continued to be a top-tier player among the indie studios and specialty labels.

Disney was also well-represented in other respects. The company’s computer animation powerhouse Pixar won animated feature for “Soul,” which also nabbed the award for original score. Including Searchlight and Pixar victories, Disney took home five trophies, making it the second-winningest company.

And the Mouse House’s fingerprints were visible in other ways. Ads for Disney’s streaming services (Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+) and Disney movies and shows (such as Steven Spielberg’s film remake of “West Side Story”) peppered the broadcast, which aired on Disney-owned ABC.

Among the major studios, Warner Bros.’ “Judas and the Black Messiah” earned best supporting actor for Daniel Kaluuya’s turn as Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton and original song for H.E.R.'s “Fight for You.” Warner Bros.’ “Tenet,” directed by Christopher Nolan, won for its visual effects. AT&T-owned Warner Bros. won a total of three Oscars.

Amazon, which came in with 12 nominations, also enjoyed some spoils from the night. “Sound of Metal,” about a drummer who loses his hearing, won sound and editing Oscars for its remarkable technical aspects.

Besides Searchlight, traditional distributors took their moment in the spotlight with Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Father” winning adapted screenplay along with Hopkins’ lead actor honor. Focus Features nabbed original screenplay with “Promising Young Woman,” written by Emerald Fennell.

“Minari,” from New York-based indie darling A24, won one award: supporting actress for Yuh-Jung Youn as the film’s memorable foul-mouthed Korean grandmother. She is the first Korean winner of an acting Oscar.

Samuel Goldwyn Films released the international film winner, Denmark’s “Another Round,” directed by Thomas Vinterberg.


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