SINGAPORE: Even the furore over Ricky Gervais’ commentary as emcee at the Golden Globes could not overshadow the excitement at having Netflix draw shoulder-to-shoulder with the giants of old Hollywood.
Audience disappointment at Netflix not winning big at the Globes ceremony could not detract from the growing recognition that they are a force to be reckoned with.
In fact, Netflix and Apple were nominated in a wide range of coveted categories from Best Film and Best Director to Best actor, Best actress and Best supporting cast.
This bodes well for Netflix in particular and promises a landslide win for the formerly patronised business model: Streaming services.
STEADY RISE OF AWARD NOMINATIONS AND WINS SINCE 2014
Netflix’s plethora of nominations marks a steady rise from their first appearance on the Golden Globes’ circuit with one 2014 win for television series House of Cards’ Robin Wright for Best Actress and Kevin Spacey for Best Actor the following year.
In 2017, Peter Morgan was awarded Best Television Series for The Crown while the show’s star Claire Foy took out Best Actress that same year.
Netflix’s victories at the Golden Globes have extended beyond television series to movies, best remembered when it won a double hit with Best Foreign Language Film for Roma and Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón in 2019.
The nominations in and of themselves heralds a new future in entertainment for the streaming giant.
Both Netflix productions dysfunctional divorce drama Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johanssen, and tough guy epic The Irishman directed by Martin Scorsese, were cult favourites, despite not winning.
And there’s more ground for Netflix to gain. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just announced a record-breaking 24 nominations for Netflix, more than any other production house this year, and a huge surge from the 15 in 2019 and 8 in 2018.
Netflix stands in good stead for Oscar wins, given Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma stunning international audiences with 3 wins last year - for Best Foreign Language Firm, Best Director, and Best Achievement in Cinematography out of 10 nominations.
These unprecedented numbers attest to the astronomical rise of Netflix’s subscriber-based platform model, which has drawn meretricious attention from many other industry-coveted award committees, and speaks to the sheer volume of critically acclaimed films produced and world-renowned directors bagged.
Netflix has also been hailed for cutting out the middleman and having faith in the ideas of risky filmmakers and out-of-the-box televisual fare.
A NEW FUTURE IN ENTERTAINMENT
Since the late 1990s, Hollywood has taken a cavalier approach to the idea of live-streaming as a platform for serious film and television drama. But time and technology have changed all that.
In fact, the nominations lists this year featured a great many artists funded through streaming networks: Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, nominated for their performances in The Two Popes, while Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston headlined Apple TV’s The Morning Show, just to name a few.
There is, of course, a long history of the relationship between old studio Hollywood and online streaming sites, which involved Hollywood initially ignoring the technology then eventually unsuccessfully attempting to distribute films through the Internet.
More often than not, Hollywood’s prejudice was based on their refusal to alter tried-and-true business formulas, an industry where business decisions are often based on personal relationships.
An unfortunate side-consequence of this obstinacy was that some truly great filmmakers, such as Scorsese and Baumbach, turned to streaming services for their initial revenue.
WHY NETFLIX HAS STAYED AHEAD OF THE GAME
Since the 1990s, seismic shifts in the technological distribution of shows and movies have disrupted the film industry, which have come to a head with Netflix’s rise.
Netflix’s subscription-based streaming service includes an escalating rate of in-house productions, which have seen their popularity surged ahead.
Netflix knows their audience segments, they know how to locate each, what each watch most and they are financing some fine film and television fare such as China’s Us and Them, Iran’s A Separation and the outstanding documentary The Square from Egypt with practised discernment.
In 2002, Netflix subscribers reached 1 million rising to 5.6 million by 2006 then 14 million in 2010. By 2020, Netflix boasts over 148 million paid subscriptions worldwide.
Netflix have proved that our entertainment habits have changed vastly in the last ten years and can cater to that growing need both technologically and artistically.
Even the announced 10 to 20 per cent increase in Netflix subscription fees in 2020 in Singapore barely drew a squeak, as Singapore viewers expressed a general willingness to pay more for their favourite TV shows.
S$17 a month sounds completely reasonable, since it also offers some of the latest movies, and we can share the subscription with other family members, the logic from some viewers went.
In a year where Singaporeans will grapple with raised public transport costs, utility bills and for some, new premiums for disability insurance, the muted response on this front speaks volumes.
THE AGE OF NETFLIX
The fact is Netflix is providing fresh television audiences for willing producers. Since 2007, Netflix spent US$12 billion on a wide range of programming.
Part of Netflix’s formula for success lies in narrow-casting. Niche shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and feature films of Indian auteur Mira Nair found audience success through Netflix.
Stand-up comedy has been turbocharged. Singapore Social also made a splash here.
But it has also won big in broadcast. Scorsese himself, sporting decades of brave work in collaboration with the great Robert de Niro, notes that he tried unsuccessfully to raise traditional funding for six years for The Irishman and consequently turned to Netflix – as did House of Cards before him.
The way The Irishman was presented truly represents the triumph of the Netflix model: That the sprawling plot did not need to be watched in one sitting, but could be viewed over several nights via the streaming service.
The film also adopts more televisual codes than cinematic, allowing viewers to appreciate the genius of the deNiro-Scorsese team centred within a cast of brilliantly twisted crims whose illuminations of life’s enthralling, hard-boiled moments represent a landslide of operatic criminality.
Netflix, as an audience-guaranteed platform, allows filmmakers to develop their cinema and television for identifiable audiences.
It knows this too, one reason why Netflix will increase subscription rates globally further to counter-balance their debts, which amounted to US$21.9 billion in 2017
Netflix’s strategic directions must change in 2020 to remain in healthy competition with other emerging platforms. By 2018, Netflix ran themselves into a further US$2 billion debt for funding new productions.
THE AUDIENCE WINS
So forget the poor showing at the Golden Globe awards, because industry recognition through nomination might have been enough to secure triumph for Netflix’s artistic and business model and boost its ability to raise subscription rates.
But the race for more gold is still on, as viewers and filmmakers look to the 92nd Academy Awards on Feb 10.
According to Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson, The Globes’ Best Actor and Actress winners tend to be 90 per cent aligned with the Oscars, while Best Director and Best Picture awards predict less than 50 per cent.
But as CNBC entertainment correspondent Sarah Witten notes, the Globes are no barometer predicting the Academy Awards especially in the latter’s favouring of dramas over comedies.
Ian Dixon is an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, whose research focuses on film theory, celebrity and cultural studies. Ian is also a professional screenwriter and published novelist.
Editor's note: This commentary has been corrected to reflect the number of Oscars won by Roma in 2019. We apologise for the error.