The last film that students watch in my film and media studies course is whatever has won the Best Picture Oscar that year. I was a little nervous to see what won this year because some of the nominees were available only through a streaming service.
Unfortunately, my fears were warranted. This year’s Best Picture winner is CODA, which you can view only if you have a subscription to Apple TV+. I do not personally want the hassle of subscribing to and then unsubscribing from Apple TV+ just to view this film. Why can’t I purchase a DVD instead? And suppose I lived in an area where broadband service was limited and I could not subscribe easily to a streaming service? How could I watch CODA then?
The lead-up to the Oscars broadcast this year was quite controversial. The show’s producer decided to relegate several of the “less important” awards to a separate ceremony, which would be then be taped and spliced into the regular Oscars broadcast. The reason given was that the Academy wanted to make its awards show more relevant to, more enjoyable for a wider audience. Or something like that.
Well, the film industry is beset by many problems beyond its annual awards broadcast, and they are all somewhat exemplified by last night’s show, which was was a train wreck. The pre-recorded awards were thrown up so rapidly, just flashing in front of viewers and then quickly rushed off screen, that a few times I didn’t even know what happened. I saw the Oscar statuette handed over, I saw an acceptance speech delivered, but I had no idea which award had just been given.
However, the biggest problem of last night’s Oscars broadcast goes beyond the show itself. The film that won Best Picture will never be available for viewing for much of that wider audience the Academy was trying to reach.
That’s right. Not unless they subscribe to Apple TV+.
You can’t even purchase a DVD of the movie that won the big award.
I’m torn about what to do with my class. I could subscribe to Apple TV+, but I feel opposed to doing so for both practical and philosophical reasons.
First the practical. I don’t like walking into class without a back-up plan. Suppose Apple TV+ removes CODA from its service by the time we reach the end of the academic term in May. Suppose the Internet service on campus goes down on the day my students are supposed to view the film. Then what? If I own the DVD, then I can at least pop it into my DVD player and show the film that way.
Second, the philosophical. I sincerely hope the film industry takes a good hard look at itself. This year’s Best Picture winner and its Apple TV+ exclusivity is a symptom of larger problems that have ben exacerbated by the pandemic’s impact on cinema. The world has changed a lot since the dawn of this industry. But even now, even as technology continually alters our viewing habits, the film industry needs to examine its core value if it wants to remain relevant. Cinema is an art form that must resist relegation to “content.” Streaming TV services should not be considered part of the film industry (in terms of Academy Award eligibility) unless films those companies produce and broadcast are also made available to all the way a theater ticket is available to all or a DVD purchase is available to all.
I love streaming, don’t get me wrong. But the world seems increasingly divided between the Haves and the Have Nots. Making me subscribe to AppleTV+ to view CODA is hardly the most egregious human rights violation ever, but it is symptomatic of the film industry’s arrogance and its lack of connection to the audience it seeks in general. Worldwide far more people would be able to view this film via DVD than will be able to view it via Apple TV+.
If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is truly concerned about connecting with a wider audience, it will take a good hard look at whether that audience even has the ability to view and enjoy the film that wins its highest award. The annual Oscars awards show, no matter how quickly organizers hand out awards or otherwise fiddle with format, will remain irrelevant and meaningless to people who aren’t able to see the winning films and performances themselves because they lack the privilege necessary to breach streaming paywalls.
Oscar-nominated films often have a limited theatrical release. Many people viewing the Oscars broadcast last night had not yet seen the Best Picture winner. (Like me, for instance.) Thanks to Apple TV+ and the Academy’s complicity, this year for the first time since movie viewing was globally democratized by widespread adoption of videotapes and DVDs, making it possible for Best Picture winners to be seen even in the most remote corners of the world, many people who viewed the Oscars broadcast and would like to see that film will never be able to.
The Academy dooms itself to irrelevance when it sanctions paywalls by allowing a film like CODA, unavailable in any other format to non-Apple TV+-subscribers, to be eligible for the Oscar. No one can alienate that “wider audience” the Academy is seeking any more than what the Academy is doing to itself. It’s hard to imagine what could be less relevant than giving an award to a film that your viewers can never subsequently seek out and watch!
As for which film to show at the end of this academic term to students in in my film and media studies class? Well, we’ll see. I haven’t decided yet, but I am leaning toward having students watch Parasite, the film that won Best Picture two years ago, accompanied by an explanation of why I’m breaking with my annual tradition of showing the current winner.
P.S. As long as I’m ranting, let me add that I have a low opinion of Apple TV+ ever since they tried to take Charlie Brown away from children by purchasing rights to the much-loved Peanuts holiday specials and making them exclusively available via their streaming service. Only after much uproar and backlash did Apple allow PBS to broadcast the annual TV specials, as well.