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Academy Leaves Door Open To Netflix After Tussle Over Oscars Eligibility Rules

A reproduction of an Oscar statuette stands tall at a 2016 media event in Hollywood, Calif.
Kevork Djansezian
Getty Images
A reproduction of an Oscar statuette stands tall at a 2016 media event in Hollywood, Calif.

After weeks of hand-wringing, vote-wrangling and even some stern finger-wagging from the Department of Justice, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has declined to pursue a controversial proposal to change the Oscars' eligibility rules.

That proposal, reportedly pushed by megadirector Steven Spielberg, would have made it difficult for streaming services such as Netflix to compete for the academy's big prizes by restricting eligibility to just films that got a significant run in theaters. Films that debuted online and only got a limited theatrical release simply would be out of luck.

But when the academy's board of governors released its rules for next year's prize — a book that runs to 35 pages, all told — the would-be changes were not among them.

"We support the theatrical experience as integral to the art of motion pictures, and this weighed heavily in our discussions," John Bailey, president of the academy, said in a statement released Tuesday night. "Our rules currently require theatrical exhibition, and also allow for a broad selection of films to be submitted for Oscars consideration."

The updates that didmake their way into the rulebook were rather more innocuous.

The animated feature category was placed on surer footing. It used to be the case that the category's prize would only be given out if at least eight eligible films were released that year. That caveat now has been stripped from the record.

And the foreign language film category has gotten a name change. Just call it the international feature film category now.

"We have noted that the reference to 'Foreign' is outdated within the global filmmaking community," said Larry Karaszewski and Diane Weyermann, the co-chairs of the category's committee. "We believe that International Feature Film better represents this category, and promotes a positive and inclusive view of filmmaking, and the art of film as a universal experience."

There were a few other changes too, of course, which you can check out in the full text of the rulebook below. But none made nearly the impact as the change that never was.

Not long after the idea to restrict eligibility surfaced publicly, the objections arrived in a deluge. Netflix, which has leaped enthusiastically into the arena of prestige films, with efforts such as its 2019 best picture nominee, Roma, pointedly subtweeted the proposal. The company said it supports broadening access to films and "giving filmmakers more ways to share art" — and that "these things are not mutually exclusive."

Federal authorities got involved in the dust-up as well. Justice Department official Makan Delrahim warned the academy that the proposed restrictions "may raise antitrust concerns" if they serve to eliminate competition and hurt the sales of certain movies.

Given the notable financial boost offered by Oscars recognition — which, in the case of at least one recent best picture winner, represented 10% of its total box office gross — the Justice Department may have had a reasonable argument if it decided to bring a lawsuit.

Bailey suggested that the decision Tuesday doesn't exactly mean the conversation is over, however: "We plan to further study the profound changes occurring in our industry and continue discussions with our members about these issues."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.