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Netflix Faces an Uphill Battle Heading Into Oscar Season

A major player in Best Picture in recent years, the streamer's 2022 woes could extend to a depressed movie awards season.
  • Photos: Netflix
    Photos: Netflix

    Joe Reid isn't just Primetimer's managing editor. He's also an awards expert and one half of the popular podcast, This Had Oscar Buzz. So who better to weigh in on Netflix's chances at next year's Academy Awards?

    2022 has been, in most respects, a really rough year for Netflix. The streamer's seen bad PR over Dave Chappelle's anti-trans comments, plummeting subscriber numbers, and anxiety over whether actions like a tiered payment system (with commercials) or cracking down on password sharing will be able to stem the tide of what may just be the changing reality of the streaming landscape. So it would have been a nice reprieve for Netflix to be able to move into the fall season with at least some optimism about what has increasingly become an area of strength for the platform: prestige motion pictures. But 2022 might not have that in the cards either, as the season's major film festivals have revealed Netflix to be entering into awards season with its weakest lineup in years.

    A year ago at this time, Netflix was sitting in what had become a familiar position: finishing up the fall festivals — traditionally the late-August Venice and Telluride, the early September Toronto, and the early October New York film festivals — with a major contender in the Best Picture race. Last year, that movie was Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog, which took the position of the Oscar frontrunner and held it for nearly the entirety of awards season. 12 Oscar nominations and a Best Director win for Jane Campion were great, but Apple TV+'s feel-good family dramedy CODA swept in and snatched Best Picture at the last minute, meaning Netflix still has never won Oscar's top prize.

    That kind of expectation game must seem strange for an entity that wasn't making original movies a decade ago. But Netflix, as is its custom, moved fast, and, after a few years where it looked like Hollywood would be resistant to these streaming insurgents, the platform began to take a major foothold in the Oscar race. 2018 was the breakthrough year, with Alfonso Cuarón's acclaimed Roma landing 10 Oscar nominations, and 3 wins (Green Book won Best Picture). In 2019, both The Irishman (10 nominations) and Marriage Story (6 nominations) scored Best Picture nods, with the latter film's Laura Dern nabbed Netflix's first win in an acting category.

    With the pandemic devastating the theatrical film industry in 2020, Netflix was poised to dominate. But while David Fincher's Mank (10 nominations) and Aaron Sorkin's The Trial of the Chicago 7 (6 nominations) were Best Picture nominees, and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (5 nominations) won two awards, Best Picture went to Searchlight/Hulu's Nomadland.

    Last year marked the third year in a row that Netflix boasted multiple Best Picture nominees: The Power of the Dog and Adam McKay's strident climate-crisis allegory Don't Look Up. But once again, a Best Picture win proved elusive.

    For many, a Netflix Best Picture win has seemed like an inevitability. But from this admittedly early-bird perch several months out, the odds don't look to be in Netflix's favor. In fact, the possibility looms that if it doesn't campaign very skillfully, Netflix could get shut out of the Best Picture category entirely for the first time in five years.

    What's wild about Netflix's rough outlook this awards season is that it's not like so many things went disastrously wrong. The spring and summer didn't offer any early-year awards contenders — nobody seemed to like the Dakota Johnson Persuasion very much, and the much ballyhooed The Gray Man was pitched as a summer blockbuster, not an awards play — but that's par for the course as far as Netflix's release schedule has gone historically. The streamer tends to target the end of the year for Oscar contenders, pretty much exclusively.

    Of the movies scheduled to premiere in the next three and a half months, the only one that really cratered was Blonde, the Andrew Dominik-directed Marilyn Monroe biopic starring Ana de Armas. Originally targeted for a 2020 or possible 2021 release, during De Armas's high-visibility era (i.e. her relationship with Ben Affleck), you can see why expectations were high. But now, two years and a lot of confusing buzz about an NC-17 rating later, the film's reception at Venice was not positive, and it's essentially drawing dead in awards season.

    As for the rest of Netflix's fall slate, it's a mix of smaller non-starters, a few films with high hopes but challenging paths to Oscar, and a film that might prove to be the streamer's one great hope. Here they are from least to most likely to be nominated:

    The Good Nurse stars Jessica Chastain in the true story of a nurse who begins to suspect her co-worker (Eddie Redmayne) of murder. After the world premiere in Toronto last week, reviews were neither terrible nor particularly enthusiastic, with few critics clamoring for Chastain to follow up last year's Best Actress win with a nomination here. (Premieres October 26th)

    The Wonder is the latest film from director Sebastián Lelio, whose A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Best International Feature for 2017. This one stars Florence Pugh as a nurse (a theme!) in the 19th century called to a small Irish community to observe a young girl who is claimed to have been fasting religiously for months with no ill effects. The film premiered at Telluride and then played Toronto but was easily overshadowed by films with more enthusiastic appeal. Pugh's currently filming Dune: Part Two and avoiding talking about Don't Worry Darling, so it doesn't look like she has plans to campaign for this one anyway. (Premieres November 16th)

    Lady Chatterley's Lover stars The Crown's Emma Corrin as well as Jack O'Connell in this adaptation of the notorious D.H. Lawrence smut bonanza. It played Telluride to positive reviews but not much Oscar buzz, and while in the old days a studio like Miramax was able to change horses in the middle of an Oscar race that wasn't going the way it was expected to, Netflix hasn't really proved itself to be quite so nimble, so this one feels destined to stay on the back burner. (Premieres December 2nd)

    All Quiet on the Western Front, from director Edward Berger, is the latest adaptation of the World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque. It stars German actor Daniel Brühl (Inglourious Basterds) and premiered in Toronto last week to a handful of good reviews but, much like our Lady Chatterley in Telluride, wasn't able to wrest any kind of attention away from the bigger films, which doesn't bode well for an awards push. (Premieres October 28th.)

    Wendell & Wild is the latest animated feature from director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas; Coraline), co-written and produced by Jordan Peele, who voices one of the title characters alongside his comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key. The film premiered in Toronto to a warm reception even as critics noted its overstuffed narrative (albeit in service of stunning animation). It won't contend for Best Picture, but if campaigned correctly, Netflix could definitely snag an Animated Feature nomination. (Premieres October 28th)

    Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio could end up being Netflix's big priority when it comes to animation, as it comes from a recent Oscar-winning director and features subject matter that is widely known (unless the public is burned out on Pinocchio stories — there have been a LOT lately). Netflix has been an increasingly strong presence in the Animated category, including last year's aggressive campaign for The Mitchells vs. the Machines. The competition in 2022 isn't particularly strong, so this could be Netflix's one area to get a win this awards season. (Premieres December 9th)

    White Noise is Noah Baumbach's third Netflix movie, after The Meyerowitz Stories and Marriage Story, though it's his first adaptation of someone else's work — in this case, author Don DeLillo's acclaimed novel of the same name. This was clearly a major awards-season priority for Netflix, complete with a gala premiere at Venice, followed by opening the New York Film Festival in October. But even the positive reviews out of Venice (and there were many) were measured and mixed, and other Venice premieres like Tar and The Banshees of Inisherin emerged with stronger Oscar buzz. Netflix will still likely push hard for Baumbach as well as lead actor Adam Driver, but at the moment White Noise doesn't really feel like a Best Picture contender. (Premieres December 30th)

    Bardo (False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths) is the latest unwieldy title from Oscar-winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu, reportedly an intensely personal film of intimidating running time (nearly three hours), which got absolutely roasted by critics when it premiered at Venice. Iñarritu has been called self-indulgent and pretentious before, even as he was winning back-to-back Best Director trophies for Birdman and The Revenant, so Oscar voters may yet respond to this one, but it's got some obstacles to overcome. (Premieres December 16th)

    Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is, as its arduous title suggests, a sequel to Knives Out, the crowd-pleasing murder mystery from 2019 that scored an Original Screenplay nomination (though nothing else). Writer/director Rian Johnson and star Daniel Craig are back with an all-new mystery that is best experienced fresh, so no details here, except to say that its premiere in Toronto was a raucous success that was later reflected in rave reviews. Netflix is faced with an interesting awards case with Glass Onion. The fact that a movie as well-loved as Knives Out only got one nomination indicates that Oscar voters only went for it to a point. Does that mean that they'd similarly turn up their noses to another broadly-appealing Benoit Blanc mystery? Or will the esteem that Johnson enjoyed for Knives Out — which has only grown in the last three years — mean that Netflix will try to capitalize on the one movie in their fall arsenal that has generated real enthusiasm? (Premieres December 23rd)

    From this vantage point, Netflix has only three even halfway realistic hopes for the Best Picture race: White Noise (at best respectable, at worst uneven), Bardo (despised on the Lido but possibly capable of inspiring equally fervent appreciation stateside), and Glass Onion (widely, enthusiastically loved, if perhaps subject to genre snobbery). None of these films are a lock for even a nomination for Best Picture, much less the two nominations that have been the norm. And in a world where Steven Spielberg's The Fabelmans, the two-time Oscar-winning director's love letter to family and filmmaking, took Toronto by storm, is there room to hope that any of the three can win? It's a long road to Oscar, but for Netflix this year that road is going to be steeply uphill.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Netflix, 95th Academy Awards, Bardo (False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths), Blonde, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, White Noise, Adam Driver, Alejandro Iñarritu, Noah Baumbach, Rian Johnson