I love going to the theater. For most films it’s the ideal way to see them. The dark room, the big screen, the communal energy of an engrossed audience: this is what makes cinema special as an experience, and part of why we get our butts into seats for the next big blockbuster or gather to celebrate the next big awards contenders. Yet, as we start settling in to an extended Oscar season prompted by the COVID-related delay of the Academy Awards to April 2021, I find myself unsettled by some of the discourse surrounding what can qualify as “the year’s best” in a year where theatrical exhibition has been unsafe and continues to be so.
The Academy Awards disqualifies non-theatrical feature releases from entry in most categories. When you consider what the purpose of the Oscars are, that makes a lot of sense. Despite all the pomp and circumstance around the Oscars in the film community, one has to remember that the show is not designed to pay homage to the most universally acclaimed films of a year or even to have an especially well-informed body of individuals to pick their favorites. The Oscars are a trade show, and the race for Oscar glory is a combination of marketing tactic for films acting as supposed "high-brow" alternatives to the majority of Hollywood’s output, career moves for film professionals looking to leverage their earnings and prestige, and overall round of applause for Hollywood continuing to be as great as it thinks it is. It’s a process dominated by drawn-out marketing campaigns and months of prognostication, breaking down films to their categorical components in the closest thing film buffs have to a Fantasy Football league.
So it’s easy to see why critics’ associations and other awards voting bodies gravitate toward a similar model of judgment. After all, they all receive the same advance screener packages as Academy voters, sometimes even with the same gifts and perks to keep particular films in the forefront of their minds, so when the discourse filters out in their writing and their social media presence, it’s understandable that collective conversation is dominated by relatively few films. Of course, almost every critic and culture writer has their particular off-beat favorites that they proselytize for in any year, but it’s still prevalent for our community to adhere to, if not formalized, an unspoken standard that movies worthy of consideration need to have had a theatrical run.
However, it’s easy to see what this does to independent cinema. By that, I’m not referring to so called “Independent Cinema” as produced by arthouse studios like Searchlight Pictures, A24, or NEON. I’m referring to much smaller players, the films scooped up at festivals that unfortunately aren’t afforded the opportunity to be exhibited in a full theatrical release because the business model of their purchaser relies on providing content for streaming platforms. I’m referring to Netflix here, which does fund the creation of original content, but will also acquire and distribute films like Cam, The Perfection, and His House without a theatrical release. The same can also be said, though, of acquisitions by smaller distributors who only opt for a digital distribution strategy, like how Vertical Entertainment distributed The True Adventures of Wolfboy on digital platforms last month without a theatrical release. Each of these examples was crafted with the theatrical experience in mind, and yet there is a not uncommon line of thinking that they are lesser because they were not seen as worthy of exhibition.
The cold fact of the matter is that films made by and exploring the lives of marginalized groups are disproportionately affected by corporate calculus of what distributors think will pull box office returns. Of the examples I just listed, we have a film written by a former sex worker that centers the lives of sex workers, a film that centers lesbian protagonists without their relationship being the point of the story, a film about Sudanese refugees written and directed by a Black man, and a film written by a trans woman that casually features a young trans actress. This isn’t to say that marginalized representation does not exist within the studio system, but it is reflective of a disparity where films that reflect the marginalized experience of their marginalized creators are further marginalized in discourse to favor projects that have had more money thrown at them by people with the money to throw it.
This is particularly shameful in an age when streaming and digital rental have made film more widely accessible than ever before. Whether streaming or digital purchase should ever entirely supplant physical media ownership or theatrical exhibition is an entirely separate issue, and most film buffs would agree that streaming should be supplemental, not a replacement, but it’s hard to deny that this decade has seen an explosion in the kinds of films directly accessible by consumers.
Direct-to-video films of decades past had a reputation for low production value, exploitative content, and a general laisse faire attitude toward quality. While this reputation certainly has its exceptions and is unfair in its own way, it’s certainly even more far removed from the modern landscape of streaming and digital content. It may characterize some modern ventures, as you won’t see me out here shilling on behalf of every overlong meandering production Netflix unceremoniously dumps to its platform, but there’s definitely more variety and greater accessibility.
Which brings us back to the greater conversation of quality in assessing the year’s best. Particularly in this horrible pandemic year, filmgoers have relied on streaming services to provide new content, even as theaters have reopened to unsafe conditions. Outside of any film’s objective quality, most cinephiles who engage in safe practices are going to associate the best films they saw this year with their Netflix accounts, their Hulu and Amazon Prime subscriptions, and that weekend where everyone lost their mind for Hamilton on Disney Plus. Shudder has had a particularly prolific year in releasing excellent content that will never see a theatrical release, including The Blood of Wolves, Blood Quantum, Monstrum, and Scream, Queen! Dismissing these films only because of how they were delivered to their audience is not only archaic, but is willfully ignorant of the realities of releasing films in 2020.
The sad fact of the matter is that we might not get to have this sort of semantic argument for much longer. The American cinema exhibition industry is in massive need of a bailout as less people gather in enclosed spaces for their own safety and blockbusters keep hoping enough of an industry survives to release once COVID-19 starts to wane. We might not ever get to have cinema again as we once knew it. So it seems silly to think that we should only elevate conversation around films that studios push out as safe prospects for Academy tastes, into theaters where almost no one is seeing them, to the exclusion of more easily accessible and potentially better films that are otherwise ignored.
The Oscars are going to do what the Oscars are going to do. We aren’t going to change the trade show nature of their existence, and their goal of glamorizing and preserving theatrical exhibition is a laudable one. We just also owe it to ourselves as movie fans, this year and every year, to discuss more movies than those which have been marketed to the hardest.
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