An analysis of yet another awards season that ended with the streamer underperforming on Hollywood's biggest night

When this Oscars season began, did you think that Netflix's biggest win would wind up being for My Octopus Teacher?

This pundit, for one, did not. Bolstered by the pandemic, 2021 was supposed to be the awards year of streamer domination. The year Netflix finally ran the table. The year the traditional players faded away, unable to keep up while we all watched movies at home. But during Sunday's long, meandering, harrowingly anticlimactic Academy Awards, the story turned out to be quite the opposite. While Netflix won the most awards overall — inevitable, given the scale and shape of its movies, particularly multi-winning, craft-forward period dramas Mank and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom — the studio did not win a single of the big eight trophies (for acting, Picture, Director, or Screenplay). Instead, indie companies swept: Searchlight and Sony Classics dominated with Nomadland and The Father, respectively, taking the majority of the big prizes; stalwarts A24 and Focus Features won one each (for Minari and Promising Young Woman, respectively) despite pushing many of their (theatrical) releases out of the eligibility window; and big studio Warner Bros. managed to nab an acting trophy, too, for its February release Judas and the Black Messiah (Daniel Kaluuya).

These films, in many cases, were not as widely seen as they deserved to be, and maybe Sunday's wins will change that. But at least in an Oscars context, those behind them made necessary, ingenious pivots. Judas and the Black Messiah launched at a suddenly, perfectly timed virtual Sundance Film Festival and released simultaneously on its studio's streamer, HBO Max. Nomadland debuted in select theaters on the same day that, in a late-breaking shift, it debuted on Hulu. The Father and Promising Young Woman built buzz off steady on-demand releases; Minari did the same while also selling out "digital screenings." Meanwhile, the more popular films at Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, like Sound of Metal, cleaned up below the line but couldn't win anything above it.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Chadwick Boseman
(L to R) Glynn Turman, Chadwick Boseman, Michael Potts, and Colman Domingo in 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'
| Credit: David Lee/Netflix

The late Chadwick Boseman's shocking loss in the Best Actor category was foreshadowed, somewhat, by Anthony Hopkins' win at BAFTA; on Sunday morning, any prognosticator would have told you that the race was closer than it looked a few weeks ago. But bizarre, spectacularly misguided intervention by the telecast's producers made it such that Boseman — and, by extension, Netflix — would have to triumph to end the ceremony. They did not.

Such is the challenge of striving to mine drama out of an Oscars that had a very clear frontrunner, for a very long time, in Nomadland. It was a small critical darling that nonetheless made history with star-producer Frances McDormand becoming the first woman ever to win Best Picture and Best Actress in the same year, and filmmaker Chloé Zhao becoming the first woman of color to win directing. The movie was adored, if not popular; same goes for many of the night's other big winners, including Hopkins (whose Best Actor win will forever carry an asterisk well out of his control).

The Academy, perhaps admirably, did not bend to pleas for relevance, sticking firmly to its ways and its tastes — to occasionally uncomfortable results — while also allowing for some thrilling breakthroughs (see also: first-ever Korean acting winner in Yuh-Jung Youn). It's probably what we needed, if not necessarily wanted, from the voting body tasked with evaluating an industry that's been under siege over the past year. Around the tragedy and uncertainty and production horrors (why, Steven Soderbergh, why!), this institution held steady. Did an anti-Netflix bias, as we knew existed years ago, persist? Possibly. Did the streamer's enormous campaigns fail to take them all the way? Yet again, it seems so. (Its apparent strongest Best Picture play, The Trial of the Chicago 7, didn't win a single award.) Importantly, though, we're not exiting the longest awards season in recent memory with a completely changed idea of who the Oscars, and in turn Hollywood, are. The paradigm did not quite shift. As the industry slowly mounts its comeback, and as more eyeballs (hopefully) return to the Academy-favored, we can take some comfort in that.

Check out more from EW's The Awardist, featuring exclusive interviews, analysis, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's best films.

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