It’s Hollywood’s biggest night on Sunday – the Oscars – when stars are anointed and future classics crowned. Except this year the pandemic, and a longer-term trend away from mass-market movies, mean the nominated films have struggled to cut through.
In case it passed you by, the leading contender for the Academy Awards this year with 10 nominations – four more than any other film – is Mank, Netflix’s black-and-white homage to old Hollywood, starring Gary Oldman as Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz.
It’s a movie about the making of one of the greatest movies ever made – the type of film the Oscars like, even if others are less keen.
Mank doesn’t appear in the top 500 most popular films on streaming platforms over the past 12 months, according to Flix Patrol, a site that tries to measure the popularity of streaming films.
The site gives points based on how long films have spent in the main platforms’ top 10 lists, and in how many countries – not a perfect method, but about the best we’ve got given that streaming services, unlike cinema box offices, don’t release useful audience figures.
Mank has 69 points – compared with 1,700 for the film currently in 500th place, Daniel Radcliffe’s 2020 drama Escape From Pretoria.
Just one of Mank’s points has come from the US – meaning in America, according to Flix Patrol, the film has spent one day in the Netflix top 10 since its release in December, and that was in 10th place.
Mank has succeeded in earning valuable prestige for Netflix, but it has been “almost invisible” to most viewers, according to Flix Patrol founder Tomáš Vyskočil.
“I was surprised that I was not recommended Mank during the premiere [period],” he says. “Usually new releases from Netflix are pushed to people from left and right, even when your taste would be different, but not with Mank.”
‘More are watching Thunder Force’
Netflix’s other Academy Award contenders include Aaron Sorkin’s courtroom drama The Trial of the Chicago 7; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis as 1920s blues musicians; plus Hillbilly Elegy and Pieces of a Woman which have acting nominations for Glenn Close and Vanessa Kirby respectively.
But none set the streaming rankings alight. Vyskočil says Netflix has managed to achieve the magic combination of critical acclaim and audience popularity with some TV shows – but less so with films.
“With movies this year, they’re only for a couple of nerds or film lovers, and more people are actually watching Thunder Force.”
Despite its nominations, Mank isn’t actually predicted to go home with many Oscars on Sunday.
Of the other best picture nominees, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is highest in Flix Patrol’s top 500, in 262nd place. It has also been out for longest.
In the US, where the Oscar films have been out longer, Promising Young Women – which stars Carey Mulligan as a woman avenging the rape of her best friend – has performed the best since the nominations were announced in March, according to the site.
The frontrunner for the top award is Nomadland, a quietly compelling portrait of a woman, played by Frances McDormand, who lives in a van after losing her job, her husband and her entire home town.
It is also the only best picture nominee to appear in a new US weekly top 10 that counts movies on subscription streaming services, which has been published by ratings body Nielsen since the start of the year.
In its first two weeks on Hulu, Nomadland was watched for 236 million minutes, Nielsen said – the equivalent of 2.2 million full viewings.
That’s pretty good – but it’s dwarfed by releases like Soul, which is up for best animated film but not best picture and was watched the equivalent of 30 million times in its first two weeks; and I Care A Lot, which earned Rosamund Pike a Golden Globe but not an Oscar nomination and was watched 13.5 million times in its opening fortnight.
Find out about the nominees:
Most of the main Oscar contenders are low-key in both tone and in profile.
“You had quite a number of fairly depressing movies this year,” says Sharon Waxman, founder of Hollywood site The Wrap.
“But it’s not a new phenomenon that very small arthouse movies dominate at the Oscars. That dates back at least a decade.
“The major studios are no longer in the business of making character-based dramas or character-driven films of the kind that speak to the art of film. The major studios are in the business of making huge blockbuster franchises.”
Of the past five best picture winners – Parasite, Green Book, The Shape of Water, Moonlight and Spotlight – most could be filed as “small arthouse movies”.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tried to address this by expanding the best picture category in 2010, and hits like Joker, Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody have been nominated in recent years.
But the days when juggernauts like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Gladiator and Titanic (or, going further back, Forrest Gump, Schindler’s List and The Silence of the Lambs) conquered the Oscars seem long ago.
It’s no coincidence that TV ratings for the ceremony are also on a steady decline. They could plummet this year if they go the way of the Golden Globes, for which the US audience dropped by 60% at the end of February.
“It’s a really tough year for cultural resonance for movies, and that includes the Oscar movies,” says Waxman. “Very simply, the movies were not in movie theatres to be able to become the subject of cultural conversation.”
That was, of course, down to the pandemic. Studios have delayed many major releases until cinemas are fully open. Most of those would not have been Oscar-worthy, but some might have been in the mix.
They include Steven Spielberg’s new version of West Side Story; a big-screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s pre-Hamilton musical In the Heights, and a remake of Dune starring Timothée Chalamet.
The films that did come out “never really got to blossom out there in the mass public consciousness” because much of the “machinery” of the movie industry was absent, Waxman explains.
“You need the critics, the festivals, the theatrical openings, the marketing, the PR,” she adds. “All of those things together are what drives that conversation, and about three quarters of that was missing this year.”
US radio and podcast host Chris Booker says he has “very little awareness of any of the nominations” this year.
“In past years, most would say, ‘Heard of it, but never seen it,'” he says. “This year, it’s, ‘I’ve never even heard of it.'”
The Oscars are becoming “less and less” relevant, he believes – partly because there’s so much choice on streaming, and the fact that “TV shows are king at the moment”.
‘It’s just right there’
Travis Bean, who writes about film for Forbes, has also come up with a points system to rank streaming films. He agrees that Oscar movies “haven’t really been performing as well in the streaming market”. But this crop would hardly have been expected to perform strongly at the box office either, he says.
And given that so many people have streaming subscriptions, films like Nomadland have probably reached more people than if cinemas had been open, Bean adds.
“So many people can just access it if they have the subscription,” he says. “It’s just right there. I know a lot of people who wouldn’t normally watch these kinds of movies – and it’s there, and they have seen it.
“For the movie that’s expected to win best picture to just to be there for anybody, it’s really interesting, and it gives it a kind of popularity that’s different.”
The Academy Awards take place on Sunday 25 April. Follow live updates on the BBC News website from 23:30 BST (15:30 PT) on the night.