This year’s Academy Awards were truly unique. For once, I’m not talking about that tiny incident in the last 5 minutes of a 5 hour-long show that made history (Oh PwC… you were 17 years away from a perfect 100-year streak at the Oscars: it’s going to take more than R/GA to save you).
No. I’m actually talking about how this was the first year that a tech juggernaut won an Oscar. In fact not just one, but two of them won Oscars. Wow! The media world has really changed, uh?
It seemed like just a few years ago that Jimmy Kimmel was cracking jokes in his Primetime Emmys monologue about how none of the major TV networks had been nominated for the Drama category. Those were simpler times. That was in 2012. 5 years ago. Back then, for awards purposes, ‘old media’ were broadcast networks and pay-TV cable was where interesting and high quality content had its home, with its knight in shiny armour HBO leading the charge.
It seemed like there was no stopping HBO back then. That year they had been nominated for an impressive 81 Emmys and had won 23 of them, the most of any network that year for the 11th consecutive year — as their press-releases like to read.
But fast forward… just one year… to 2013 and the press outlets were splattering a different kind of news after that year’s Primetime Emmys: David Fincher had just won the Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series for House of Cards, making Netflix the first online video provider to ever win an Emmy. And this was just the first year that they’d been nominated! Television was under transformation and Neil Patrick Harris’ opened his monologue accordingly.
The winds were changing. By next year’s Emmys with Seth Meyers, the butt of the host’s jokes was still network television. But the punchline wasn’t just cable TV anymore: it was Netflix.
Netflix (and Amazon) would go on to become major players in the television awards game, with shows like Transparent, House of Cards, etc. In 2015 they made the press go wild by being nominated in the best series categories. And despite not exactly cleaning up, they tallied up a joint total of 46 Emmy nominations. The next year that number had rose up to 70, definitely planting the streaming flag on TV land.
The scene was a dark one at a site that was once called the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live, only to be ironically rebranded as the Microsoft Theatre. But a few blocks away from Downtown, at the iconic Kodak Theatre in Hollywood where the Academy Awards are hosted, things were very different.
For years, light celebrity roasts and larger-than-life political statements reigned supreme at the Oscars, peppered with a few brilliant industry in-jokes. Who can forget those two amazing consecutive jabs that Billy Crystal delivered at Orion films in 1991 and 1992?
Despite some hilarious M&A jokes here and there, the movie business didn’t have an equivalent hotshot contender like the cable industry to worry about. In fact, since 1990 the large majority of Best Picture Oscars had indeed gone to major film studios, with Miramax, Universal and Warner Bros. ranking up 4 wins each. Sure, there were up and coming production companies and studios to worry about. But an industry has to have an appropriate level of competition for it to produce quality products. And above all else, pretty much all of these companies had been founded by old studio execs with very good relationships in Hollywood who just wanted to do movies on their own terms. A good example of this is Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment which produced Schindler’s List, winner of the 1993 Oscar for Best Picture. It’s hard to think of Amblin Entertainment and other well-connected new companies as the young turks of Hollywood, much less the proverbial industry outsiders.
It would take until 2006 for the Academy to openly joke about what was to come, when Jon Stewart made the controversial joke about piracy in the movie business, a first since the late 1980s VCR jokes.
Back then the movie business was waging a struggling war with online piracy. LEK had done an analysis for the Motion Picture Association of America where it had laid down the impressive stat: The major U.S motion picture studios had lost $6.1 billion in 2005 to piracy worldwide. This was the same year that TorrentFreak launched, the same year Grokster loss their landmark case against MGM, and the same year that BitTorrent was forced by the MPAA to remove links to illegal content on their website. Consumers’ habits were irreversibly changing and the industry was irresponsibly lagging.
Then along came 2017.
The Golden Globes have the particularity of celebrating the best of what both television and cinema have to offer. Yet there’s a common saying that the Golden Globes serve as good prelude for the Oscars. So after Amazon received 11 nominations, Jimmy Fallon’s joke at the Golden Globes’ opening monologue shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
Not only did it not come as a surprise, but it also served as an appetiser for what was to follow. That night Amazon went on to make history: Casey Affleck’s win for Manchester by the Sea was the first time Amazon won a Golden Globe for a feature film. In fact, this was the first time any online service had achieved that accolade. Golden Globes had been awarded to Netflix and Amazon before, but they had been only awarded for the television categories. The way was paved for the rest of the awards season.
A lot of people tend to think that, just like the Golden Globes, the entire awards season is just a big ratings-bait operation before the Oscars. So after Amazon placing second in the the number of film nominations at the SAG Awards in January and then scoring, alongside Netflix, their first BAFTA Film awards in February, things were getting hot for the Academy Awards.
5 years after his Emmy cable joke, Jimmy Kimmel was closing the loop: he was joking on how the movie business had changed forever, giving Jeff Bezos a free cameo and catapulting Amazon, the outsider, onto the movie-business pantheon.
That night made 2017 the most important year ever for online streaming, video platforms and this new age of tech-meets-media companies. Amazon won three Oscars, with Manchester by the Sea taking home best original screenplay and best picture, and The Salesman winning best foreign-language film. Interestingly enough, both of these wins were earned not for production, but rather for distribution. Netflix on the other hand effectively took home the Oscar for best documentary short, putting its original content budget to good use by producing and distributing The White Helmets. But if everyone was talking about both Amazon’s and Netflix’s wins that year, the trinity could have been complete with Google. Personally, I was sad for Google’s incredibly touching VR/360 short movie called Pearl not having won the Oscar for best animated short. If anything, because it actually represented one of the most interesting uses of technology at this year’s Oscars. I wonder how long will we have to wait for the first VR Oscar win? Or Google’s first?
There’s no other way that anyone can take these Academy Awards but as the sign of times. The film industry has officially been invaded by the tech industry. And especially now that they’ve tasted blood, we might as well get used to the sight of Silicon Valley executives parading around on the red carpet with their favourite movie stars.
DISCLAIMER: PwC, Amazon and TimeWarner, HBO’s owner, have all been my employers in the past, so judge my comments with the appropriate pinch of salt.