I don’t remember the exact date, but I absolutely do remember that it was very late (full disclosure, I was asleep) and it was a Saturday in November, 2014. A representative from Focus Features was on the line.
“Is this George Prentice?” a pleasant but quite formal voice asked.
“It depends,” I mumbled, a failed attempt at being cogent. “Who’s calling?”
Over the next few minutes, she requested my permission that Focus Features reprint a quote of mine for an advertisement – not just any advertisement mind you – she didn’t have to get too far in describing the layout when she said the words, “Arts and Leisure.”
“The Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times?” I asked, now fully awake.
“Well, yes… actually, both The New York and Los Angeles Times,” she said. She had my full attention. “We’d like to include a blurb from your review of The Theory of Everything.”
I hope you’ll recall “The Theory of Everything” as a biopic, co-starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and Jane Hawking. The rep proceeded to say they wanted to print the following, as part of a full-page ad, to help promote the film’s soon-to-be-opening and, more importantly, an Oscar campaign (the top of the full-page ad would read, “For your consideration.’) Simply put, it was directed to voting members of the Motion Picture Academy.
“The film’s theme is literally universal, reminding us that looking for the stars in one another’s eyes unlocks the universe’s mystery.”
“That’s a pretty good blurb.” I said.
“Well, you wrote it,” she replied (I could nearly hear her eye roll over the phone).
For the record, there is no compensation for such a request – and I shudder the thought if one had been offered. That said, I would suppose that there is some… well, let’s call it a kind of currency in seeing your name attached to a full-page advertising campaign, particularly if it’s a prestige film. But I’m also supposing that that particular currency is transferable only in New York or Hollywood, not for someone who writes about film for Boise Weekly. Again, for the record, many of my reviews at the time were being reprinted in other U.S. newspapers and, in fact, the Focus Features rep had read my review of “The Theory of Everything” in a New Orleans newspaper.
As you may also recall, “The Theory of Everything” went on to win more than its share of awards – a couple of BAFTAs, Golden Globes (when they actually held some sway), plus honors from the Screen Actors Guild, and the New York Film Critics Circle. And, oh yes, “The Theory of Everything” earned five Oscar nods (Mr. Redmayne won Best Actor). Indeed, when full-page ads in the New York- or Los Angeles Times trumpet “For Your Consideration,” and include some effusive praise – yes, even from Idaho – well, every little bit helped to win one of those coveted statuettes.
That was then.
Fast forward to September 2022. I had just emerged from the world premiere of a fantabulous film, “The Swimmers” at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it quickly leapt to my short list of movies that might be Oscar contenders.
“The Swimmers” is an epic adventure – chronicles a remarkable tale of sisters Yusra and Sara Mardini, who fled their home in war-torn Damascus, deciding to risk a perilous journey to Lebanon, then Turkey, then in a bravura sequence equal to any great action blockbuster, they board a small boat teeming with fellow refugees to cross a lethal stretch of the Mediterranean Sea. I loved this film. So, I was more than a bit curious about the film’s Oscar prospects. Now, the worst kept secret in media is that Netflix has done nearly everything to win a Best Picture Oscar in the past few years, but to no avail. Netflix made a concerted effort to put several high-profile films in cinemas, in advance of streaming, just so they might be eligible for an Oscar nomination. “Don’t Look Up,” “The Irishman,” “Mank,” “Marriage Story,” “The Power of the Dog,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” and perhaps their best bet, “Roma” in 2018. For certain, Netflix spent a lot of time, effort, and capital to win that Best Picture Oscar, but with no luck. All the while, their subscription base began to stagnate.
“Don’t even ask if it’s going into theaters,” another scribe told me after the premiere. Indeed, she knew that I’d be asking about how or when “The Swimmers” might appear in cinemas prior to streaming, so that it might be considered as a Best Picture contender.
“Don’t you read the papers?” she asked. “It’s all about streaming for Netflix, now. The Oscars? Well…. Don’t you read the papers? It’s less about the Oscars now and more about their subscribers.”
Read the papers? Sure, I read the papers. Occasionally, I’m in them. And what I read is that Netflix and other streamers are in the fight for their lives. But I also deeply believe that they would like nothing more than to take home one of those Best Picture Oscars. And when Apple+ won for “CODA” earlier this year, Netflix probably blew a fuse. Come on guys. Dust yourself off. Try harder. There’s no harm in trying to mount an in-cinema campaign while trying to woo subscribers. Quantity is swell, but quality is, and always will be, the gold standard. I’m afraid that “The Swimmers” will be lost in the firehose of content that Netflix pours into its service. What a shame.