If you haven’t heard of Austin McConnell by now, you should probably go check out his channel on YouTube. He’s a filmmaker, and he specializes in short, fantastic video essays. Better than that is his tone, which is honest and makes it feel like he’s a friend in the same room, not a largely-disembodied voice. If I’m being honest, I envy the way he does that. I imagine it isn’t easy, but it’s something I would love to be able to do on this blog.

His most recent video, “Should Netflix Originals Be Eligible for Oscars?” demonstrates his constant quality and attention to detail. I would like to respond to it, though, not because I disagree with his conclusion, but because he totally frames his argument wrong and consequently makes a pretty weak argument.

Here’s the issue that he lays out in the video, which is worth a watch on its own accord: The Cannes Film Festival banned Netflix’s shows and movies from eligibility for awards because Netflix doesn’t release films in French Theaters and Cannes is a French Film Festival.

To quote the video, “. . . [t]he message Netflix took away from the dust-up was: if your films don’t release in theaters, we don’t consider them real films.”

Already, we have two competing questions that must be answered.

  1. Should Netflix be allowed to compete in film festivals?
  2. “What are real films?”

The rest of the video shows some famous directors responding negatively to the idea that Netflix should be allowed to compete, an outline of why you might be for or against such a thing, an explanation of how Netflix has won awards for content it acquired, but how the rules are written in such a way that the content they produce in-house would be unlikely to win.

McConnell ends the video with a section where he gives you his opinion on the matter.

The most important points:

  1. “Theatrical releases are no longer an indication of merit . . . or of popularity.”
  2. “The rule of requiring theatrical releases for film awards is archaic. It doesn’t reflect the current state of film consumption and hinders progress for the industry.”

His point is that most film watching takes place online now, and it represents the future of the medium. Excluding content released on this platform is retrogressive.

It’s not a bad argument, but I don’t think it’s the best argument out there.

I believe that we didn’t answer the two questions that we laid out at the start. I agree that Netflix should be allowed to compete, but not on the grounds that McConnell laid out. Just because streaming is the future, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t require films to have a release in theaters. Also, he seems to uncritically accept the claims of the directors that the films are somehow diminished if the medium they’re seen in is not a movie theater.

I heavily disagree with this, but I also think that it holds bearing on how and why Netflix should be allowed to compete.

Here’s why.

I own the “Jurassic Park Collection” on Blu-ray.1 Notably, this collection also came with a code I could redeem in order to stream the same films online.

Now I could watch this film in my room, where I work, by popping the discs into my computer and watching them on my monitor. Or, I could go out into the living room, and put the discs into a designated Blu-ray player, watch it on a 60” 4K TV with surround sound. Or, I could lay down on my bed and steam it to my phone, which has a 4K screen, but is also tiny.

No matter where or how I watch the film, the film remains the same. What changes is the experience around the film. It’s going to look and sound better in the living room, but the film is still the same film. The changes are relatively small. The film is “real” regardless of where you watch it.

This is why seeing the film in a theater might be important. In most cases, the theater is going to have the best technology, and give the best experience around the movie, even though the movie itself remains the same.

Consequently, I see no reason to not require Netflix to have to show its movies in theaters if it wants them to compete. It makes sense that the people who vote should have to see the movies in the context of the best experience.

In fact, let’s hold all the movie companies to this standard.

You might not have heard of the “For Your Consideration” Academy Screener, but they’re important to this discussion. Every studio with a film that has been nominated for an Oscar prints a copy of that film to a DVD, and mails one to each person who will be voting on the award.2

That’s right. Even though movies must premiere in Los Angeles and have a pretty significant run in theaters, the people voting on the awards get to watch the movies in the comfort of their own home.

Which, could be an issue, as the equipment is going to vary from home to home, and some people might watch only the DVD screeners for some movies but go to see others in the same category in the theater.

The existence of DVD screeners suggests that the given rationale for requiring theater releases, namely that it’s important that the voters watch the movies in the theater, is false. The rules are written to try and keep streaming services out, for whatever reason.

The funny thing is that streaming is, for the most part, roughly-DVD quality. The Academy needs to make a decision, for at least consistency’s sake. Either all voters should be required to see all films in all categories they vote on in the theater, or the DVD screener/streamed version should be the definitive one.

But they shouldn’t allow their voters to mix and match. While I think the differences in experience should be very small, it would be bad if two films were neck and neck in someone’s mind and the fact that they saw one in the theater and had a slightly better time made the difference.

If Netflix wants to compete and the academy decides that theaters are the way to go, it should be required to show the film for a long enough time in enough theaters that all the voters have a reasonable chance of going to see it.

Because, at the end of the day, this isn’t a question about fairness between rival film studios, but rather fairness between the films themselves.

May the best movie win.

  1. Chosen because the director of the first movie, Stephen Spielberg, said Netflix shouldn’t be able to compete.
  2. These DVDs are infamous due to the fact that the notoriously anti-piracy film industry mails free copies of movies on DVD to the general public, which makes illegal copying, well, easy.