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Justice Department warns film academy to preserve Netflix’s Oscar eligibility

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Filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón holds the three Oscars that the Netflix film “Roma” won at this year’s Academy Awards.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The U.S. Justice Department has warned the motion picture academy to chill when it comes to Netflix and any new Oscar eligibility rules.

Makan Delrahim, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s antitrust division, sent a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences CEO Dawn Hudson warning that potential rule changes limiting the eligibility of Netflix movies in Oscar competition might violate antitrust law.

“In the event that the Academy — an association that includes multiple competitors in its membership — establishes certain eligibility requirements for the Oscars that eliminate competition without procompetitive justification, such conduct may raise antitrust concerns,” Delrahim wrote Hudson, in the March 21 letter first obtained by Variety.

“We’ve received a letter from the Dept. of Justice and have responded accordingly,” an academy spokesperson said in an email to The Times. “The Academy’s Board of Governors will meet on April 23 for its annual awards rules meeting, where all branches submit possible updates for consideration.”

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The academy spokesperson declined to elaborate on the group’s response to the Justice Department’s action.

The department’s letter adds a new wrinkle to the clash between streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Studios and tradition-minded filmmakers and distributors over what constitutes a movie and, more specifically, what should be allowed to compete for Oscars.

Shortly after this year’s Academy Awards, reports emerged that Steven Spielberg planned to propose rule changes aimed at leveling the playing field between Netflix — which earned its first best picture nomination this year for Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” — and traditional distributors when it comes to Oscar consideration.

Spielberg has been a vocal critic of streaming services, saying they have no business competing for film awards because they’ve committed to a television format.

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“You certainly, if it’s a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar,” Spielberg told ITV News last year. “I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”

“Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation,” a spokesperson for Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Entertainment, said in February. “He’ll be happy if the others will join [his campaign] when that comes up [at the board meeting]. He will see what happens.”

The academy’s current rule, adopted in 2012, does not require an exclusive theatrical window.

Netflix broke form with “Roma” and two other movies – the Coen brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “Bird Box” — last year, giving them a theatrical release before premiering on their platform. “Roma” played in theaters exclusively for three weeks, ultimately landing in 1,100 theaters globally, according to Netflix. That figure includes about 250 locations in the United States, even though prominent chains refused to exhibit the film because Netflix did not adhere to a traditional theatrical window.

A Netflix executive, not authorized to comment publicly on the subject, told The Times in February that the company took great care to give the film a proper theatrical run, saying it served as a calling card to other filmmakers moving forward. The streamer has another impressive slate of awards-season contenders this year, including Martin Scorsese’s costly gangster movie “The Irishman,” David Michôd’s “The King” and Dee Rees’ “The Last Thing He Wanted.”

A source close to Netflix said the company denied any involvement in the Justice Department’s letter to the academy.

glenn.whipp@latimes.com

Twitter: @glennwhipp

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