Oscars

DOJ Lawyers Now Want to Be Involved in Oscar Nominations

The Department of Justice is threatening antitrust action if the Academy keeps out streaming services like Netflix.

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Do you remember this year's Academy Awards? What the controversies were? Which movie won Best Picture? There was no host, because of Twitter. A new award for popular filmmaking was introduced; no one understood it, and the award was eventually cancelled. Oh, and this year's Best Picture award went to Green Book, a thoroughly conventional racial reconciliation movie few people truly loved, some people hated, and which probably won because of ranked choice voting, which tends to elevate lower-ranked consensus picks when the top choice is divisive. It's a system that, even after some revisions, is designed to pick boring, unmemorable winners that pander to the Academy's predictable tastes.

Which, along with the broadcast's low ratings—up slightly from last year, but still the second lowest in history—probably explains why, less than two months after the ceremony, this year's big winner and the controversies around it have already largely slipped from the cultural conversation. Over the last several years, fewer people have watched the Academy Awards, presumably because, even as the movie business itself sets global box office records, fewer people care. It's still widely watched, but it's far from the mass event it was in the era of network-television dominance. People have other options, from video games to cable to social media, and they are exercising them.

This decline in cultural relevance has coincided with some prominent figures in Hollywood, most notably Steven Spielberg, arguing that the Academy should re-establish itself as the premiere place for celebrating the theatrical experience by shutting out streaming-first competitors like Netflix unless they follow a more traditional theatrical release schedule. The idea, apparently, is that the way for the Oscars to appeal to the younger, more connected and tech-savvy viewers who have been tuning out is to…prohibit movies distributed online.

Naturally, the federal government has decided that now, in the Oscars' dotage, is the time to intervene in the process. Yesterday, the Department of Justice sent a letter to the academy warning that shutting out streamers could be taken as illegal, anti-competitive behavior by what amounts to a studio cartel: "In the event that the Academy—an association that includes multiple competitors in its membership—establishes certain eligibility requirements for the Oscars that eliminate competition without pro-competitive justification, such conduct may raise antitrust concerns," the assistant attorney general for the DOJ's antitrust division wrote.

I am a devotee of the old-school theatrical experience. I prefer film to digital projection, and the vast darkness of a theater to the more intimate experience of watching a movie at home. I spent my Saturday evening last weekend watching a theatrical presentation of Blade Runner, a movie I have seen dozens and dozens of times at home, just because it's such a radically different experience on the big screen. But the DOJ's concerns are absurd—a demonstration of the small and short-sighted nature of so much federal antitrust enforcement.

One takeaway from this letter is that although antitrust is often lauded by supporters as a heroic defense against the overwhelming power of big business, in practice, it is remarkably petty. As with Elizabeth Warren's crusade against Amazon's inexpensive, reliably accessible HDMI cables, the DOJ's position here is that the federal government should be able to exercise oversight power regarding which films do and do not qualify for the Oscars. A core function of government this is decidedly not.

Another takeaway is that, while antitrust is often portrayed as a way to help little guys, it frequently amounts to federal meddling in disputes between large, powerful players. Netflix is a huge, successful company that is expected to spend a whopping $15 billion on content this year alone. Some of that will be filler. Some of it will be interesting. Some of it—like last year's Roma, which was nominated for Best Picture—might even be truly, staggeringly great. Shutting out Netflix and its streaming contemporaries would mean shutting out movies like Roma. It would be a decision to eliminate great, widely distributed films from contention. Excellent, widely distributed films that capture the public imagination are what the Oscars need more of. In some ways, then, the Oscars need Netflix more than Netflix needs the Oscars.

Finally, what the letter suggests is how antitrust enforcement almost always stems from a fixed mindset, in which the marketplace will always exist as it does today, requiring government to come in and set the rules. In the 1990s, antitrust bureaucrats wrongly assumed that Microsoft would always reign supreme over desktop computing, and desktop computing would always be the primary way that people interacted with the internet, thus making Microsoft's integration between Windows and Internet Explorer an anti-competitive act. Internet Explorer eventually faded from use because new business models, and new technologies—especially mobile—came along.

Similarly, the DOJ's letter assumes that the Oscars will always be the most prominent cultural hub for filmmakers, and that shutting out Netflix would thus permanently hurt the company's chances. But the falling ratings for the ceremony provide evidence that the Academy's power is waning, and that the Oscars are ceding their spot at the center of the filmmaking universe. This is especially true for producers and distributors, like Netflix, working outside the old system. The Oscars, like Internet Explorer, won't necessarily be dominant forever—especially if they keep rewarding films like Green Book.

If Netflix and the studios want to fight this out, the federal government should let them. There is no reason to have DOJ lawyers involved in the Oscar nomination process, which is inscrutable, bureaucratic, and political enough on its own.

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  1. “Green Book…won because of ranked choice voting”

    And the worst you can say about the result is that it’s boring?

    Let’s have political elections with ranked-choice voting – we should be so lucky as to have a merely boring candidate win.

    1. Back in my day we had boring candidates. Including the king of all sleepers, Gerald Ford. Even candidates like Michael Dukakistacracy would now be considered sleep inducing.

      Heck, not that many years ago that we had the Democrats madly trying to whip the public up in a frenzy of fearmongering over… Mitt Romney. Yawn. Pardon me, but I feel a nap coming on.

      1. funny you should mention Mitt. unimpressive candidate, but I recall that my reason for voting for him at the time was that he was the candidate who hadn’t already demonstrated the ability and intention to seriously eff things up, so he was the better bet.

    2. Calvin Coolidge, the last great president America ever had, reveled in his boring persona & actually thought the Prez should keep a very, very low profile!

      1. DARE to be dull.

  2. Hollywood. What a joke they are.

    1. Antitrust laws. What a joke they are too.

  3. I used to think a natural monopoly was impossible. Now I see that you can actually have a natural monopoly on something if nobody wants it.

    1. The shit market has yet to be taken over by a single monopoly, guess that shows you where Hollywood Awards are on the list.

      1. depends on where you are. I think there is a honey bucket monopoly in the Norfolk area by one company, so that might be a counter example.

        😀

  4. First of all, I love movies. I hate films. Which generally means I couldn’t care less about 90% of the stuff that gets nominated for the Oscars (except in the effects categories, and occasionally music).

    Second, made for TV movies have never been eligible for the Oscars. Even HBO originals etc.
    Why should streaming services be any different? The Academy can set whatever rules they want. Let the people involved with streaming services come up with their own awards.

    Third, I don’t really care either way. Just felt like bitching.

    1. First of all, I love movies. I hate films.

      Amen, brother.

    2. The rule is that a film must run for at least 1 week in Los Angeles County. If Netflix wants to run their stuff in a theater for a week they can be considered

      Personally I think they’d be better off forming their own “academy” with Hulu, Amazon, Youtube, et al and running their own awards show for streaming media

  5. I’m so glad that our glorious government has solved all of the really serious problems and thus can now turn to piddly matters like this.

  6. That’s what Hollywood gets for donating just to Democrats.

  7. They still have an Academy Awards show? I have never once, in my 50 years of existence, watched any of these ignorant productions. These ‘award shows” are even worse than the whole “participation trophy” phenom. The whole premise is nothing more than self-congratulatory hubris. And as for the people who watch this crap, they are just looking for “group acceptance” ( I really liked this movie and so did the Academy, so I must be special). If I like a particular movie, or actor, or song, I don’t need someone to agree with me to justify my tastes. It is all crap and needs to go away.

  8. This ranks up there with steroids in baseball and the Kaepernick shitshow as something so utterly stupid and unimportant and irrelevant to any government action. Why the hell does the government even care?

    1. Nothing is too stupid and unimportant and irrelevant for the party of Trump. You probably realize the man has early-stage Alzheimer’s, don’t you?

      1. that’s hilarious. nothing is too stupid for either the Republican or Democrat party – it has absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Trump (or Mr. Obama, or Mr. Bush, or Mr. Clinton, etc.). the list of senseless and usually counter-productive interventions is long, bipartisan, and utterly embarrassing.

  9. How many tax dollars go toward supporting the movie industry? If it’s none, then I agree the DOJ shoulf stay out. But if it’s more than none I think it’s important that everyone who takes handouts realize that nothing in life, especially from the government, is free.

  10. This is pretty much the worst thing to come out of the Trump administration. I’m absolutely serious. It is so far beyond what Government should be doing that it even eclipses the “but Gorsuch…” argument.

  11. so start the Streamies and have Kevin Hart host I bet it would kill

  12. THEY want to choose who delivers the “Trump is a big poopyhead” speech.

  13. The GOP, the party that likes to get rid of regulations, especially regulations that protect consumers, now wants regulations about the Oscars???? Banks can do what they want, but not the movies. Who the hell are these people, anyway? How about a good, old fashioned book burning?

  14. The Academy what?

  15. Roma was a shitty movie. Netflix bought it rather than developed it. Most Netflix content is second-rate material aimed at people whose aspirations do not reach beyond the couch. There is a place for such offering, as the financial success of fast food purveyors, ‘rasslin promoters, the brewer of Corona, faith healers, and other downscale vendors demonstrates.

    In any event, if the Academy wishes to require eligible movies to be available to the public, without a subscription, it should be entitled to administer its awards in line with its wishes in a free country.

    1. Actually the Academy requires eligible movies have at least a 1 week run in a theater in Los Angeles County. That’s why TV shows, TV movies, and straight-to-DVD offerings aren’t included either.

      If Netflix wants to run their stuff in a theater for a week, they can be considered for Academy Awards.

      Alternatively, if Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and other services wants to create their own “Streamie” awards for made-for-streaming productions, they would probably get more viewers than the Oscars these days.

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  17. “Internet Explorer eventually faded from use because new business models, and new technologies?especially mobile?came along.”

    that, & it’s a clunky piece of garbage. ironically, after the antitrust action, the main thing keeping people using IE is government websites based on outdated platforms that refuse to function with anything up to date like Firefox or Chrome.

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