Power of the streamer: How a potential Oscars win for Netflix could change the film industry

Netflix, as with the last few awards seasons, isn’t the lone streamer on the Oscar ballot. But a big win for its film The Power of the Dog could open the floodgates, allowing streamers to take their place in an industry that has historically given them a chilly reception.

Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog could be the first Netflix film to win best picture on Sunday

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in The Power of the Dog as a charismatic cowboy whose torment of his brother's wife and her eccentric son is all part of a delicate facade of masculinity. The film has received 12 Oscar nominations, including best picture. (Netflix)

With each passing year, Netflix inches ever closer to its quest for entertainment world domination. And on Sunday, it could make history — setting a new standard for the streaming era — when its psychological cowboy drama, The Power of the Dog, vies for best picture and 11 other prizes at the 94th Academy Awards.

Directed by Jane Campion, the film is a clear front-runner for the night's top prize, having swept many of the guild and critics awards this season. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a charismatic cowboy whose torment of his brother's wife (Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst) and her eccentric son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is all part of a delicate facade of masculinity.

"I knew it was special, but I didn't know, you know, how others were going to respond to that," said Smit-McPhee, who is nominated for best supporting actor.

"And I guess that's our mission as storytellers, is to try and convey that intimate feeling that we have with something in front of us on the page and to the world."

WATCH | The Power of the Dog, a Netflix production, is vying for best picture this year:

The Power of the Dog battles for Oscar best picture, could be Netflix’s first

2 years ago
Duration 2:08
Featured VideoNetflix’s psychological cowboy drama, The Power of the Dog, is facing stiff competition for best picture at the 94th Academy Awards, going up against the Apple TV+ film CODA, which follows a music student raised by deaf parents. If either film wins the coveted prize, it’ll be a first for streaming services.

Netflix, as with the last few awards seasons, isn't the lone streamer on the ballot (just the most prolific, having nabbed 27 nominations across categories, including a second best picture nomination for climate satire Don't Look Up). Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus are all in the running.

But a big win for The Power of the Dog could open the floodgates, allowing streamers to take their place in an industry that has historically given them a chilly reception.

'The habits of the spectator have changed'

It's been a long journey to respectability for Netflix. 

Its distribution model disrupted traditional modes of movie-going in the early 2010s, with critics pointing to the streaming giant as a symbol of television's encroachment on cinema. It has slowly shed that reputation thanks to a slew of Oscar nominations and collaborations with big-name directors.

Cumberbatch is pictured with co-star Jesse Plemons in The Power of the Dog. The film is directed by Jane Campion, a previous Oscar nominee for her 1993 period romance, The Piano. (TIFF)

The pandemic has forced the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to make concessions around eligibility that were previously a headache for streaming companies. For the second year, films can skip a theatrical release and still be eligible for the Oscars. It's fitting that streamers dominate the categories during a year where many watched movies from the comfort of their homes.

"When we met Netflix in Cannes three years ago — because we had other offers, and we decided for Netflix — they said that they wanted to do with The Power of the Dog what they did for Roma," said Roger Frappier, the Montreal producer behind The Power of the Dog

WATCH | The trailer for psychological drama The Power of the Dog:

Netflix's past best picture contenders include Roma, The Irishman, The Trial of the Chicago Seven and Mank. Roma, a black and white art house film about a domestic worker in 1970s Mexico City, was the best picture front-runner in 2019 — but no cigar. It was defeated by the road trip drama Green Book

"When we … accepted Netflix, we didn't know that the pandemic will be coming ahead of us," Frappier said.

"And during the pandemic, the habits of the spectator have changed."

Upon its release, The Power of the Dog took the number 1 spot on Netflix's global top 10 list.

"I read in so many [periods] in my life, in the '70s and the '80s, the '90s, the 20th century, that cinema was dying because of VHS, because of DVD, because of streaming," Frappier said.

"No … cinema is becoming more accessible."

The industry veteran produced previous Oscar nominees Jesus de Montreal and The Decline of the American Empire, both by Québécois director Denys Arcand.

"I think that people understand more and more that this is the new way that cinema will be made and received."

Netflix awards campaigns a turn-off for some voters

Some academy members may be reluctant to reward the top prize to a studio that wants it "too much," according to Clayton Davis, the awards editor for Variety magazine.

"I recall a conversation I had last year with an academy voter, and a lot of people have felt that Netflix spends too much money on awards campaigns and in essence, are trying to, quote unquote, buy their best picture wins," Davis said.

From left, directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas pose with Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos during the American Film Institute’s tribute to John Williams on June 9, 2016 in Los Angeles. Sarandos has defended the company's position to simultaneously stream and release its films in cinemas. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Netflix's executives have been transparent about the company's hunger for Oscar nominations.

"We all want to be recognized by our peers as the best in class," Netflix's film chief, Scott Stuber, told the Wall Street Journal last year

CEO Ted Sarandos has defended the company's position to simultaneously stream and release its films in cinemas, forgoing the exclusive theatrical run that legacy industry bodies like the Cannes Film Festival and the academy have previously insisted on.

Sarandos said in a 2017 interview with Vanity Fair that the academy should be celebrating the art of moviemaking, not the art of distribution.

In 2020, industry insiders estimated that Netflix spent $70 million US on its awards marketing, a conservative guess that still blows traditional distributors out of the water. Smaller studios rely on grassroots campaigns to make a dent in the money-happy Oscar race, Davis said.

Dark horse contender

"I think the resistance that [Netflix] faced has been quite significant," said Radhika Seth, a film and culture editor at British Vogue.

"And I think if they were to finally cross that threshold, it means that more Netflix films and more films from other streaming platforms also get those awards."

CODA is a dark horse contender for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards. The family dramedy follows a child of deaf adults, Ruby, as she questions whether pursuing her love of music would infringe on her family obligations. (Apple TV+)

But a surprise dark horse contender has risen to the occasion: family dramedy CODA, about the only hearing child in a family of people who are deaf, was distributed by Netflix's plucky rivals at Apple TV Plus. Its subdued style and feel-good story have resonated.

The Oscars use a preferential ballot, where voters rank their top picks for best picture. As such, The Power of the Dog will have tons of votes at the top of the ranking, but just as many in the bottom percentile, Davis said. CODA might be advantaged by having a majority of votes in the second and third spots.

"After all this talk about Netflix, if Apple TV plus became the first streamer to win a best picture Oscar … how incredible would that be?" Seth said.

WATCH | The trailer for three-time Oscar nominee CODA: 

As of Wednesday, CODA was listed as the top choice for a best picture win on Gold Derby, an awards prediction website.

Davis agreed a win by Apple TV is a possibility.

"Who would have ever thunk — not me — that Apple could be the first one to do it?" he asked. 

"It really stands a very good chance because, again, with the preferential ballot, it's not about what's most loved, it's about what's most liked."


Jenna Benchetrit is a web and radio journalist for CBC News. She works primarily with the entertainment and education teams and occasionally covers business and general assignment stories. A Montrealer based in Toronto, Jenna holds a master's degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at jenna.benchetrit@cbc.ca.

With files from Teghan Beaudette and Eli Glasner