With Netflix’s Roma tapped for a Best Picture Oscar in 2019, Silicon Valley is cementing its Hollywood takeover.
Roma, director Alfonso Cuarón’s cinematic ode to his Mexico City upbringing, could scarcely have won more plaudits since its debut at the Venice Film Festival in August. Variety has called it “a masterpiece of then and now,” and “a film you want to frame and hang on your wall.” The Guardian, meanwhile, has praised the film as “an exquisite study of class and domestic crisis in 70s Mexico City.” Since debuting at Venice in August—where it received a standing ovation—Roma has been widely hailed as a favorite for the Best Picture Oscar in 2019.
For Netflix, which acquired the distribution rights to Roma earlier this year, winning the coveted statuette would mark a watershed in the streaming service’s reputation. Decider points out that if Netflix does take home the Best Picture award, “they’ll prove that they can be a home for art-driven auteurs looking to make films the studios can’t or won’t.” This highly cinematic film has also, IndieWire reports, led Netflix to reconsider its theatrical release strategy, with the streaming service planning to release Roma with Landmark, a US chain of independent movie theaters, in December.
A Best Picture win would also be a riposte to the accusations that Netflix has faced of focusing on quantity over quality in its programming. In April, The New Republic argued that while Netflix is making “more content than ever, a lot of it is mediocre.” Indeed, at the Television Critics Association press tour in August, Cindy Holland, head of original programming at Netflix, addressed those gripes. Variety quoted her as pointing out to the journalists that “quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive. Our primary goal is to please audiences and, every once in a while, some of you like what we’re doing, too, and we’re grateful for that.”
Not to be left behind, Amazon has also made waves with its original content, developed through its Amazon Studios arm. Manchester by the Sea, acquired by the tech giant at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival for $10 million, was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award in 2017, and its lead, Casey Affleck, won an Oscar for Best Actor in the same year. Among other Amazon Studios hits are its Emmy-winning television series Transparent and The Man in the High Castle.
Amazon’s head of film and television, Jennifer Salke, underlined the company’s cultural ambitions in an interview with Screen Daily earlier this month, declaring that Amazon Studios wants to create “the best home for talent.” The publication also noted that Amazon’s budget for content was reported to be $4.5 billion in 2017, and that the figure has increased for 2018. To match those dizzying budgets, Salke has a heavy-hitting background in the film world, having previously served in roles at NBCUniversal, 20th Century Fox, and Aaron Spelling Productions. Since her appointment at Amazon, Salke has signed actor and director Jordan Peele, Nicole Kidman, director Reed Morano, and writer Gillian Flynn to first-look deals, the publication reports. Emphasizing her focus on quality, Salke tells Screen Daily that she wants to “free up the teams to jump into things without feeling like they’re under some sort of mandate as far as numbers. It isn’t about how many things can you get made, it’s what are the things we think can make an impact and really please our customers.”
However, Reuters reported earlier this year that at the “core” of Amazon’s film strategy is the resolutely commercial aim of using Prime membership, fueled by its film content—a subscription is a requirement to watch its productions—to “convert viewers into shoppers.” Indeed, Reuters cites Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, speaking at a conference in 2016, when he pointed out: “when we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes.” This is because, Bezos explained, film and TV customers renew their subscriptions at higher rates and convert from free trials at higher rates than members who don’t subscribe to Prime’s streaming service.
Apple, too, is making its mark in high-brow film-making. In September the company acquired the rights to Wolfwalkers, a forthcoming animated film from the Irish Kilkenny-based Cartoon Saloon studio. Cartoon Saloon has produced several captivating animated features that have been nominated or shortlisted for Oscars, including The Breadwinner, The Secret of Kells, and Song of the Sea. In the same month, Apple also acquired the rights to documentary film The Elephant Queen. “What this tells us is it’s a very high pedigree of film-making that Apple are interested in,” said Bloomberg’s Anousha Sakoui. “But they will have to do a lot to catch up with Netflix and the major Hollywood studios, who spend billions on content.”
But amid tech’s encroachment on Hollywood, there’s concern among some quarters about the centrality of algorithms and data to how Netflix, Amazon and Apple operate, and how this could impact the art of film-making. In a Vanity Fair article published last year, ominously titled “Why Hollywood as We Know it is Already Over,” writer Nick Bilton addressed the possibility of computer algorithms that “could come close to replicating an Aaron Sorkin screenplay,” and an “AI bot that could create 50 different cuts of a film and stream them to consumers.”
Whatever their ultimate aims, it’s likely that—as with every other industry they touch—these tech monoliths are set to reshape the future of film in their own image.