By Sean Boelman
Every year around the time of the Academy Awards, the major contenders end up getting more significant theatrical play because of the increased interest. However, recent years have seen films get nominated that weren’t intended to get theatrical play in the first place. Oscar week marathons and other extended play is a great chance for people to catch up on the nominated films they haven’t seen or revisit those they didn’t get to see in theaters.
Last year, for the 93rd Academy Awards, was the first year that all of the nominees had been available to screen in theaters across the country since the 90th edition (since Netflix would get their first Best Picture nomination in the 2018-19 season with Roma). However, the pandemic showed the need there was for theaters to adapt and be flexible with the changing distribution ecosystem, and the theater chain squeaked out a deal with Netflix in November 2020.
This is a nice return to what makes the Oscars what they are — a celebration of the best movies to grace the silver screen. But the reality of the matter is that people aren’t consuming media the same way they used to. Theatrical is still alive and well, yes, but with more options than ever before to watch from home, and those options being as high quality as they are, it is nice to see those being recognized as well.
In a move that split cinephiles everywhere, the entire Warner Bros. slate for the year of 2021 streamed on HBO Max for 30 days on the same day it opened in theaters. Under the old eligibility guidelines, Dune and King Richard would have been disqualified, but the Academy’s willingness to adapt has allowed these films to be recognized. WB even emphasized the theatrical experience for Dune, running it several weeks in PLF screens and holding numerous in-person FYC events for voters in major markets. It’s a gorgeous film that demanded to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Interestingly enough, streaming service Netflix had more of a commitment to theatrical exhibition than the legacy studio WB. Their Best Picture nominees Don’t Look Up and Power of the Dog each had theatrical exclusivity periods of a few weeks, and for the most part, even only screened for press theatrically only. Don’t Look Up blew up on Netflix, but it’s the type of film where the laughter plays well with a crowd. Power of the Dog is the only film that maybe benefits from a lack of theatrical play because, despite Ari Wegner’s cinematography being a sight to behold, its glacial pacing is hard to sit through in a theater.
Some studios still committed to a limited theatrical window with their releases. Focus’s Belfast played exclusively in theaters for 19 days before being available to rent at home for $19.99 in the PVOD model. While this is the type of prestige pic that likely would have gotten a theatrical run anyway, it was still nice to be able to see this with a full crowd of people laughing and crying alongside the film.
Disney-owned 20th Century Studios took it a step further with 45-day theatrical exclusivity periods for Nightmare Alley and West Side Story before they hit HBO Max and studio-owned services (Hulu and Disney+, respectively). Both are films that feel like they came from a bygone era, one a moody noir drama, and the other a big-screen musical. Both benefit from the immersion of being able to see them with an extraordinary sound system and picture quality.
The two films that had a full theatrical run were MGM’s Licorice Pizza and Janus Films’s Drive My Car. Licorice Pizza even had a full-month run exclusively in 70mm film before even opening in theaters nationwide. It felt like a prestigious theatrical event. Drive My Car had a specialty run, and part of what makes the Oscars so special is that a nomination can boost a film’s profile significantly. Now, the film is getting play in major multiplexes across the country.
One of the most surprising things about this year’s Best Picture race is that one of the frontrunners had the least theatrical play. CODA is a true crowd-pleaser in every sense, and it hits so much harder emotionally when you see it with a crowd of people who are eating it up. It’s unfortunate that only a select few people have gotten the chance to see this on the big screen, but those few who did had a truly lovely experience.
It’s a great feeling to be able to see all of the Best Picture nominees on the big screen again. With so many of these films being available for at-home viewing, it’s easy to forget the magic that these films can have on the big screen.
The Snake Hole
Retrospectives, opinion pieces, awards commentary, personal essays, and any other type of article that isn't a traditional review or interview.