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Forget the Slap, History Was Made at the Oscars


Will Smith diverted the spotlight away from the biggest story of the 2022 Academy Awards with a slap. With apologies exchanged, we can focus on a major change in the film industry that manifested itself among the wreckage of the Oscars. It is an ongoing phenomenon, now certified with an Oscar. If American audiences saw the biggest winners, it was probably in their living room.

CODA, the surprise Best Motion Picture of the Year winner, premiered on AppleTV+. Summer of Soul (...or when the revolution could not be televised) had a theater run under the Searchlight Pictures banner but quickly streamed via Hulu. Their limited runs in theaters, mostly in big markets, have more to do with qualifying for an Academy Award than showing them in the best conditions possible. Best Animated Feature Encanto had a short theatrical run. In less than a month, it landed on Disney+, delighting toddlers everywhere. If getting an Oscar still means something, we can say that streaming has arrived.

Not so fast. None of these films started as straight-to-streaming products. CODA and Summer of Soul came to life as independent productions, and one can imagine their makers dreamed of them shining on the big screen. They got nabbed for distribution at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where they came up with top prizes. Apple outbid Amazon for CODA, to the tune of 25 million dollars, breaking all records in the indie market. If anyone can get bragging rights after the Oscars, it would be Sundance. Talk about a tastemaker!

Blame the pandemic for Encanto's short theatrical window. And perhaps, there were some reservations about how welcoming English-speaking, white American audiences would be of a feature deeply embedded in Latin American culture, Colombian, to be more specific. Encanto seeped into the culture without apparent resistance, just like Pixar’s Coco and its deep dive into Mexican culture. The Academy scrambled to include a musical number of We Don’t Talk About Bruno, even though the sleeper hit did not make it into the Best Original Song nominees. Acknowledging it was a shortcut to relevance. In any case, Encanto was not, either, a home-grown streaming product. 

Less than announcing the demise of the theatrical experience, the triumvirate at the Oscars heralds the return of vertical integration to the movie business. Back in the golden age of Hollywood, in the first half of the 20th century - the actual century, not the studio Darryl F. Zanuck built up - the bigger studios had their theatrical branch. They had stars, artists, and artisans under contract. They decided what movies to make and where to show them. They could buy independent productions to fill their program when needed, but they also could block competition and decide on the price of admission. They controlled both production and exhibition. The model looks suspiciously like a monopoly.

Adversaries chipped away at the system since 1921, with a Federal Trade Commission investigation over block booking, which kept independent productions out of Studio-own theaters. Several legal fights rose over the years, but a decisive blow landed in 1938 when the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the eight largest studios in Hollywood: Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Columbia, MGM, RKO, United Artists, Universal, and Warner Bros. For brevity, the case came to be known as the U.S. versus Paramount et al. The Supreme Court practically killed off the system in 1948, with a verdict that pushed the studios to sell their theaters and effectively dismantle the system.

In a way, the streaming era has brought back verticality. The studios that survived to see the light of the internet wised up. They stopped renting their movies to Netflix and set up their own streaming outlets. Netflix and Amazon started producing their content, transforming into studios. In a grand gesture to cinephiles, Netflix bought the Paris Cinema in New York, effectively saving a historical venue from shutting down. But that one movie theater is symbolic. The most important one is in your home.

It doesn't matter if you have an old flatscreen rescued from the curve or a state-of-the-art home theater. You are putting the real estate and the hardware necessary to make the theatrical branch of the new vertical system functional. That is where most people saw or will see the recent Academy Award winners.   

For the first time in Oscar history, an act of physical violence took place in plain sight

Two milestone events took place that night at the Dolby Theater. For the first time in Oscar history, an act of physical violence took place in plain sight, broadcasted live to the whole world. This particular event might be hogging our attention now, but it will soon become a footnote in the history of the Academy. The other one marks a new era in film culture. A streaming service took home the Best Movie of the Year Oscar for the first time. 

Good old Warner Brothers took home the most statuettes, 7 in total. If it does not feel like it, it is because the majority, six prizes earned by Dune, got handed out in the hour previous to the live telecast - one of the worst decisions in the history of the Academy. The seventh Oscar, the only televised, belonged to Will Smith for his leading performance in King Richard. What a way to cast a pall on the WB party. Old studios are still alive and kicking, but the disrupters finally rained on their parade. 

Within the realm of streamers, there are winners and losers. Apple TV+ stole Netflix’s thunder by appealing to the largest audience possible. CODA is a sweet, heartwarming family drama. It was just nominated in three categories and took home all three. On the other extreme, we have The Power of the Dog. The critics’ darling went from having the most nominations, 12 in total, to taking home a single statuette (Best Director for Jane Campion). Amazon Studios went home empty-handed when Being the Ricardos failed to win in its three nominated categories. No shame, Jeff Bezos. There is always next year. After all, the Studio Streamer hybrid is here to stay.

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