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Meet the Oscar Season’s Newest Power Player: The Academy Screening Portal

At Telluride, people couldn’t stop talking about Cate Blanchett in Todd Field’s “TÁR,” or Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking.” However, one of the most intriguing sources of buzz wasn’t a film at all: Everyone had an opinion about the Academy’s screening portal, the world’s most-curated streaming site that’s unavailable by subscription.

More than ever, Academy members are comfortable streaming Oscar contenders at home — and that means things are about get really complicated. Figuring out how to engage voters who can browse their options like a Netflix queue will be one of the biggest challenges this season.

Any Oscar-contending film also contends with “the awards corridor” — that narrow period in which too many films fight for a theatrical release slot that will best capture the audience’s and the voters’ attention. Now, awards campaigns face another release calendar that’s truly hellish: Imagine a major streamer on which scheduling is a siloed free-for-all. Everyone has backend access, everyone’s looking for their ideal moment, and the audience is comprised solely of people who will determine if your film wins an Oscar.

The Academy launched its portal in response to a pandemic that left people unable to gather in theaters. That’s no longer the case, but today it’s even more likely that it’s where a voting member will watch the films. The Academy discontinued screening mailers after the 2022 Oscars; declining box office often means that distributors can’t hold on to screens. (Academy members may still receive DVDs from their guilds.) That may give a big-screen advantage to major-studio releases like Disney’s “Wakanda Forever” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” as well as Paramount’s “Top Gun: Maverick” and even A24’s “Everything Everywhere All At Once.”

In a microcosm of how box office impacts VOD, many studios haven’t decided when they’ll add titles to the portal; they’re waiting to see if their films succeed in theaters. Submission requirements means some films, such as international titles, will make quiet entrances on the portal prior to going wide on other streaming platforms. For the most part, representatives for films already predestined for at-home viewing, like Netflix’s “Bardo,” are emphasizing the films’ expansive theatrical windows.

"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever"

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

Marvel/Disney

Streaming makes films more accessible, which can be a real asset: Not only did Japan’s “Drive My Car” win best International Film this year, it also received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s also a key tool in the Academy’s increased recognition of foreign-language films.

Not everything hinges on the portal. At a roundtable with the press last month, new Academy president Bill Kramer acknowledged that the Academy is putting more effort into getting members to attend in-person screenings.

“We want to bring back our member screenings in a bigger way,” Kramer said. “Because of COVID we didn’t do them for quite a while, so there’s been a slow build to bring them back as part of our much larger commitment to reengage and engage members on a much deeper level. That’s a key part of that. Very soon you’re going to see a return to member screenings that feel much more robust.”

Robust screenings will be essential for a film like “TÁR.” It’s a film without blockbuster trappings, but it’s a big-screen movie. At nearly three hours long with an hour before the plot kicks in, it demands immersion. At home, the film may leave viewers vulnerable to distraction; in a theater, it’s amazing.

Women Talking

“Women Talking”

ORION PICTURES RELEASING LLC. All Rights

There’s also the eternal question of what these carefully crafted movies look like on Academy members’ TVs. With the ubiquity of high-quality HD screens and calibrated sound bars, the answer might be, “Great!” However, it could be a challenge for a widescreen film like “Women Talking,” which chose a heavily desaturated palette. (IndieWire’s David Ehrlich deemed the film a Critic’s Pick, but decried its “musty and rotten digital cinematography.”)

Available to all distributors willing to pay the fee (last year, the cost to upload a film was $12,500; this year it’s $20,000), the portal ostensibly offers one-stop-shopping for all Oscar contenders but it’s not been an easy transition. After years of hand-wringing over whether Academy members watch films on screens or on screeners, it’s taken a while for distributors to become comfortable with the idea that all titles will receive digital presentations.

Memorably, Christopher Nolan refused to allow Warner Bros. to make “Tenet” available in 2020 for any digital distribution, including the portal, during the height of the pandemic. He finally relented March 29, 2021 — less than a month before the Oscar ceremony, where it won one Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

That same year, an Academy voter told IndieWire’s Anne Thompson that they never even logged on to the portal. “I have a Smart TV, but I can’t get Apple or HBO Max on my Panasonic, even though I subscribe to HBO,” they said. “Anyway I’ve gone through hell on this one. You can’t get on the [Academy screening] portal unless you have Apple or Roku. I haven’t done it. I never used the portal.”

Dana Harris-Bridson contributed to this report.

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