Netflix dominating the Golden Globes is a win for couch potatoes

ScarJo and Adam Driver in "Marriage Story" © NETFLIX
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in "Marriage Story" © NETFLIX

In just three years, film awards have transformed dramatically.

We’re not talking about diversity, unfortunately. Nominations and top laurels still mostly go to white men, in spite of movements like #TimesUp and #MeToo. The Golden Globe nominations, announced Monday morning, bafflingly don’t include a single female nominee for best director — despite Natalie Portman famously calling out the awards show for its misogyny in 2018. And despite there being a wealth of critically-acclaimed films made by women released this year.

No, the seismic change we’re going to hear a lot about this awards season is the takeover of Netflix. It dominated the 2020 Golden Globes nominations, scoring 17 nods in the film categories alone. By comparison, the best-faring traditional studio this year was Sony Pictures, with 10 nominations. Netflix has only been a player at the Globes since 2016, when Idris Elba received a lone nomination for Beasts of No Nation. Just three years later, streaming services reign over both the film and TV categories.

What this means for real audiences is pretty cool: this is the first year that people can watch a lot of awards contenders right from their living rooms. If you’re a film buff, you know it can be somewhat of a quest (and an investment) to catch all the major releases that flood theaters at year’s end. It’s one reason I mourn MoviePass and love my job as an entertainment critic (it affords me access to free screenings and “For Your Consideration” DVDs, making keeping up somewhat easier).

It’s been nearly a year since Netflix debuted Bird Box, the uneven Sandra Bullock thriller that attracted a massive audience the week around Christmas. Nielsen reported that nearly 26 million people in the US watched Bird Box between December 21 and 27; Netflix claimed more than 45 million Netflix accounts worldwide had watched at least 70 percent of the film by December 28.

In the months since, Netflix has strategically deployed similar releases of its original films. More than 25 million households watched El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie the week it premiered in October, the streaming service said. Nielsen estimated more than 17 million people watched Martin Scorsese’s mafia epic The Irishman in the first five days after it was released on Netflix, around Thanksgiving.

The interesting thing is that when Netflix drops a buzzy original show or film on its platform, it creates a cultural moment that can resonate more widely than most theatrical premieres these days. Its content is available immediately to anyone with a Netflix subscription and internet access.

Just look at another awards contender produced by the service: Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, which scooped up six Golden Globes nominations on Monday. The film premiered on Netflix on Friday, but it’s been screening in select theaters since early November. Anecdotally, it wasn’t until this weekend that my various timelines filled with memes of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver screaming at one another, proving on a micro scale that the movie had suddenly entered public consciousness. Netflix hasn’t released any viewership numbers for Marriage Story, but it’s part of the studio’s trio of awards darlings along with The Irishman and The Two Popes, out later this month.

Awards shows as a genre are struggling to stay relevant. Nobody watched the Emmys last September (more precisely, only 6.9 million people tuned in, which is not a lot). Making more of the stuff that’s nominated easily accessible to audiences would be a good thing, in that respect. People are more likely to watch and care about awards if they’ve seen and enjoyed the things that are being celebrated. The public would also more likely watch and care about awards if they recognized fresh, diverse talent, but that’s a story for another blog.

Hollywood is learning the hard way that it has to change the way it does business to keep up in the digital age. Right now, streaming services with an original content arm are ahead of the curve, forcing the movie industry to change its distribution model and keep up with the ways people watch entertainment today.

This year, the best movies (according to at least one small group of industry tastemakers) were produced by Netflix. Lucky for audiences, many of us can already watch them at home.