Netflix looks to disrupt Oscar tradition with powerful ‘Mudbound’

Updated November 11, 2017 - 4:18 pm

“Mudbound” was one of the most buzzed-about movies at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, making it a very early Oscar contender. But you won’t see it at a movie theater near you — not even one of those tiny auditoriums in the back of Village Square.

The epic tale of post-World War II racism and sharecropping in the Mississippi Delta was one of 15 feature films — out of the 120 that played the festival — gobbled up by Netflix. The streaming giant is releasing it in just 17 theaters for Oscar qualifying purposes on Nov. 17, the same day you can watch it for free on your phone.

An uphill battle

Of those 15 movies, and the many more acquired by Netflix this year, “Mudbound” is the only one getting the full-court promotional push. It’s Netflix’s second canary in the Academy Awards coal mine, following 2015’s child-soldier drama “Beasts of No Nation.” That glowingly reviewed film, which earned Idris Elba a Golden Globe nomination and a Screen Actors Guild Award, didn’t garner a single Oscar nod.

Netflix did pick up its first Academy Award earlier this year in the documentary short subject category. But that achievement was dwarfed by Amazon’s three Oscars: Casey Affleck won best actor and Kenneth Lonergan earned best original screenplay for “Manchester by the Sea,” while “The Salesman” was named best foreign-language film.

Despite Amazon’s breakthrough, “Mudbound,” which chronicles the struggles of two families — one black, one white — and the unlikely friendship struck up by veterans returning home to each, still faces an uphill battle for awards-season love simply because it was bought by Netflix instead of, say, Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight or even Amazon.

Unlike Netflix’s strategy, Amazon gives its movies, including the Sundance sensation “The Big Sick” and Woody Allen’s upcoming “Wonder Wheel,” a traditional release, letting them run their course in theaters before debuting them on its streaming site. That’s the way movies have won Oscars ever since 1929, and if there’s any constant to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it’s that it doesn’t easily embrace change.

The Netflix void

Selling your movie to Netflix has become a double-edged sword. Netflix has mighty deep pockets, having spent $6 billion on content this year with plans to spend $8 billion in 2018. Theoretically, the streamer puts your film in front of millions of eyeballs. But with the exception of movies such as “Mudbound” — for which Netflix paid $12.5 million, the high-water mark at this year’s Sundance — most of the films the company acquires just disappear into a void where you might accidentally stumble across them based on something else that you watched.

The documentaries “Casting JonBenet” and “Chasing Coral” made a little bit of noise. But, aside from early criticism that it glorified eating disorders, the charming “To the Bone,” starring Keanu Reeves and Lily Collins, was greeted with little fanfare.

Netflix debuted the dark comedy “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” less than a month after it won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize, and I don’t know a single person aside from fellow critics who’s even heard of it, let alone seen it. By comparison, the five previous winners of that award were “The Birth of a Nation,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and best-picture nominees “Whiplash” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Small screen, big ambition

For its part, “Mudbound” is a powerful story about race and class, told by a bold, new-ish cinematic voice in director and co-writer Dee Rees. There were plenty of tears following the Sundance screening I attended. And, with a cast led by ​Carey​ ​Mulligan,​ ​Jason​ ​Clarke,​ ​Garrett​ ​Hedlund and Mary​ ​J.​ ​Blige,​ along with a breakthrough performance by “Straight Outta Compton’s” Jason Mitchell, it certainly feels like it belongs in the Oscar conversation.

Then again, I saw it on a movie screen.

Debuting on Netflix makes it hard for a film to come across as something other than a made-for-TV movie. Even if that film is the Will Smith supernatural cop story “Bright,” due out next month, which came with a reported $90 million price tag.

In October, Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos announced plans to release 80 original films in 2018. By comparison, this year the six major movie studios — Warner Bros., Universal, Fox, Disney, Sony and Paramount — will combine to release 89. So at some point, the law of averages suggests a Netflix movie will be taken seriously at the Oscars.

But should it?

And when it finally is, what’s to keep HBO from releasing “Game of Thrones” or one of its other series in a couple of theaters and jumping into the Oscar race as well?

TV to watch

■ After avenging the deaths of his wife and children, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) discovers the conspiracy runs deeper than he imagined in the 13-episode “The Punisher” (Friday, Netflix).

■ When janitor Josh Futturman (Josh Hutcherson, “The Hunger Games”) finally defeats his favorite video game, its characters, Tiger (Eliza Coupe) and Wolf (Derek Wilson), emerge from the screen to enlist his help in fighting a real futuristic war in “Future Man” (Tuesday, Hulu).

■ Jon Stewart hosts the live “Night of Too Many Stars: America Unites for Autism Programs” (5 p.m. Saturday, HBO) featuring performers including Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Ben Stiller.

■ Following six seasons and a move from Fox, Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project” (Tuesday, Hulu) comes to an end.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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