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Could Netflix Make a Splash at the 2021 Oscars?

None of the streamer’s award-oriented films have emerged as a clear front-runner for Best Picture, but in a year with a thin competitive field, one of them may be able to break through

Netflix/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

While the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has tried its best to accommodate studios for next year’s Oscars—adjusting the eligibility requirements for nominees, extending the eligibility window to February 28, 2021, and pushing the ceremony to April—it’s become increasingly clear that the ongoing pandemic will create an unprecedented event. I’m not just talking about the ceremony’s (presumably) virtual setup, but also the types of films that will be in contention for Best Picture.

The fall and winter movie lineups—traditionally littered with Oscar hopefuls—are now largely devoid of major releases, most of which have been pushed back to 2021. That includes Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story, Denis Villeneuve’s take on Dune, and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch; all star-studded affairs from buzzy filmmakers that would surely attract awards-season attention in a normal year. (Even if Dune was merely poised to sweep up technical categories, including some recognition for the impressive-looking CGI of its giant butthole—sorry, “alien sandworm.”) That means that, unless Tenet or Birds of Prey unexpectedly finds its way into the Oscars race, next year’s ceremony—assuming the Academy doesn’t cancel the show altogether—could be led by indie films that would otherwise be overlooked. It’s possible, then, that we will get the most low-profile Best Picture winner since Moonlight. (First Cow for Best Picture, please!)

But that also depends on what happens in the next couple of months on Netflix. The streamer, which has had a contentious relationship with the Academy for years, is suddenly the Oscars’ best chance for a (somewhat) glitzy awards season, since its 2020 rollout has been largely unaffected by COVID-19. Of the Netflix originals already released, it’s easy to envision Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, and perhaps even Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things garnering some nominations; meanwhile, David Fincher’s Mank, Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy, George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and George Clooney’s The Midnight Sky are on the way.

Though they would seem to have a clear path to Oscars glory, Netflix’s awards-season hopefuls have been a mixed bag so far. With the notable exception of Da 5 Bloods, an excellent Spike Lee joint and an exceptional showcase for Delroy Lindo, the Netflix originals all appear to have too many holes to merit early Best Picture front-runner status. (Not that the Oscars haven’t given out plenty of awards to flawed films throughout its history.)

I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ hopes appear to begin and end with a Kaufman screenplay nod—I’m team “I would rather drink poison than watch this movie again,” but I respect those who were into it!—while The Trial of the Chicago 7 is first and foremost a showcase for its actors. (Sure enough, Netflix is campaigning all of the film’s stacked principal cast in the supporting categories.) It’s entirely possible that Sorkin’s brand of mawkish liberal idealism—I mostly enjoyed the movie, but it literally ends with a standing ovation—will win over Oscar voters; maybe I’m giving the Academy too much credit in dismissing the film as a legit Best Picture contender. But if there’s one thing that the Oscars loves more than anything else, it’s movies about movie-making.

That’s why, sight unseen, Mank has to be considered the film to beat, especially among the Netflix contingent. A movie about the making of one of the greatest films of all time (Citizen Kane, which is streaming on HBO Max for those who don’t want to admit they haven’t seen it) is as Oscar-baity as a project can get—throw in the meticulous talents of a superlative auteur like Fincher, and you’ve got a movie that would be a front-runner even in a normal awards season. Unless Fincher has made his most discombobulated feature since Alien 3—the early reactions from critics already confirm that probably isn’t the case—Mank seems like a near-lock for a score of nominations. (If the movie isn’t up to his usual standards, Fincher should be forced to make more seasons of Mindhunter as penance.) We’ll have a better idea of the movie’s reception come December 4, when Mank hits Netflix after a limited theatrical run.

Elsewhere, Hillbilly Elegy regrettably has awards-season potential—but in a very dumb, Green Book sort of way. (I know that Glenn Close and Amy Adams have been robbed of many Oscars, but my god, don’t be such a “bad Terminator” about it.) The Midnight Sky is harder to get a read on; Netflix may well be content with Clooney’s feature filling the streamer’s holiday season blockbuster quota. Think Bird Box, but hopefully good. And Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom should, if nothing else, warrant some Oscar buzz for the late, great Chadwick Boseman. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Da 5 Bloods represent Boseman’s final film roles—he could credibly be in the running for both acting categories. Disregarding the fact that the Academy has handed out posthumous Oscars in the past, Boseman is a magnetic, mythical presence in Da 5 Bloods as a fallen Vietnam squad leader, and is worthy of supporting actor consideration under any circumstances.

An undeniably weird and inevitably skimpy Best Picture race is shaping up to feature a unique slate of nominees—instead of major studio releases, the 2021 Oscars may well be a battle between Netflix and some lesser-known indies like Nomadland or Minari. (And, perhaps in some cases, Netflix against Netflix, like actors from Da 5 Bloods, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Mank duking it out in several categories.) The Academy, which has dealt with dwindling Oscar ratings for years, might need to turn to the very company that’s threatening Hollywood’s status quo to have any shot at relevance next year. (I’m all for First Cow and Nomadland making noise and getting awards, but the Academy would much rather have another Black Panther–type hit in the running to keep casual viewers invested.) As for Netflix, well, winning Best Picture would be a transcendent moment for the streamer—one that, as the awards-season campaigns for Roma and The Irishman suggest, it’s been clamoring for for years.

When it comes to dealing with the ongoing fallout of COVID-19, Netflix and the Academy need one another to get the best possible version of the 2021 Oscars. It’s the kind of uneasy but necessary alliance that only Hollywood could script.