Amazon as Hollywood powerhouse: Oscar nods for 'Manchester by the Sea'

Amazon's movie 'Manchester' has received multiple Oscar nominations, putting the company ahead of rivals such as Netflix and Hulu and proving that streaming services can release acclaimed movies as well as TV shows.

Claire Folger/Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios/AP
'Manchester by the Sea' stars Michelle Williams (l.) and Casey Affleck (r.).

With Oscar nominations for the film “Manchester by the Sea,” Amazon has achieved an important milestone in the world of entertainment as streaming services continue to reshape the television and film industries.

With Oscar nominations for best picture, best actor (Casey Affleck), best supporting actress (Michelle Williams), best supporting actor (Lucas Hedges), and best director (Kenneth Lonergan), “Manchester” – a movie that Amazon acquired at the Sundance Film Festival – will be a major presence at the Academy Awards. 

It’s a big feather in Amazon’s cap, offering the company awards season prestige far surpassing that of streaming service rivals such as Netflix and Hulu. 

The streaming service companies have been presences at TV awards shows for several years now since Netflix released “House of Cards.” “House” became the first online-only series to win an award at the Primetime Emmys when the program received such prizes as "best directing for a drama series" in 2013. Amazon followed suit when Jeffrey Tambor won an Emmy Award for "best actor in a comedy series" for “Transparent.” Hulu’s also been the subject of TV awards attention with such nominations as a Golden Globe nod for "best comedy" or "musical TV series" for “Casual.” 

But now, with the “Manchester” Oscar nominations in major categories (Netflix has previously received nods in the "best documentary" category), the streaming services can now be coronated as a significant creative force in Hollywood.

“It shows you that Amazon is a big player, not only in selling books, not only in selling just about everything, not only in putting on great television series like ‘The Man in the High Castle,’” Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University and author of "The Plot to Save Socrates,” says. “…Not only is Amazon great at doing that but it also now is becoming a major player in the movie business as well.”

Jeanine​ ​Basinger, ​p​rofessor of ​f​ilm ​s​tudies​ at Wesleyan University, says the TV achievements paved the way for the Oscar nominations. 

“They learned from television,” Professor Basinger says of the company. “'If we can do this for TV, why can't we do this for film?’ And what they're finding out is they can.” 

“Manchester” tells the story of a janitor who returns to his hometown after his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies and he must take care of his nephew (Lucas Hedges). 

How did Amazon successfully travel the road to the Oscars? Professor Levinson says the company displayed a good eye for quality when it acquired the domestic rights for the film after a festival screening.

“A great story is a great story,” he says. (Monitor film critic Peter Rainer gave the movie an A grade and called dialogue between the characters portrayed by Mr. Affleck and Ms. Williams “the strongest scene in any movie I’ve seen all year.”) “...Amazon understands that and acted on it.”

​Basinger agrees that the strong story in “Manchester” made it a natural fit for awards consideration, no matter where it was coming from. 

If a film is a good story, “the audience will look at it,” she says. “They'll look at it on their wristwatch, they'll look at it on a big screen, they'll look at it on a tablet. They'll look at it on a TV. So they don't care where it came from. They don't even care as much as they used to about who's in it. They just want it to be good.” 

Netflix in particular has tried to enter this Oscars arena before. Its 2015 film “Beasts of No Nation” was thought by some to be a possible Oscars contender and the film did net actor Idris Elba a Screen Actors Guild Award for "best supporting actor" as well as a Golden Globe nomination. But both Mr. Elba and the movie as a whole missed out when 2016 Oscar nominations were announced. 

Thomas Schatz, author and media professor at The University of Texas at Austin, points out that Amazon has succeeded with "Manchester" by embracing a traditional theatrical release. Netflix had "Beasts" debut in movie theaters and on its streaming service on the same day. Theater chains such as Regal Entertainment Group subsequently boycotted the film.

By contrast, Amazon has "been willing to play by the rules," Professor Schatz says. "...They're playing ball with those guys. This is a very traditional platform in the release strategy and it's worked very, very well."

Both companies have put their money behind the efforts. Boston Consulting Group and SNL Kagan estimated that Amazon had spent $3.2 billion on programming in 2016, while Netflix had spent $5 billion. Amazon purchased the domestic rights for "Manchester" at the Sundance Film Festival for about $10 million.

Now the “Manchester” Oscar nominations put Amazon ahead of rivals like Netflix and Hulu. 

Levinson says that Netflix is still ahead of Amazon where television is concerned but adds that the “House of Cards” company will now be working on its film strategy. 

“I'm sure the people at Netflix now are talking, 'What can we get out there into old-fashioned box office movie theaters?,’” he says. “...They've been trying. They'll probably redouble their efforts.” 

However, Schatz thinks Netflix will stay on its current track. "Their business model is working fine," he says. "Netflix has established the original series as their go-to product... I don't see them making significant adjustments."

He also sees Amazon as having succeeded in 2016 with more than "Manchester." The company was also behind films such as the Jane Austen adaptation "Love and Friendship," director Jim Jarmusch's "Paterson," and the latest from Woody Allen, "Café Society." 

"This seems to be the breakout year," Schatz says of Amazon Studios' film output.

The success of Amazon emphasizes the fact that good TV or film can come from anywhere. That also means, notes Basinger, that someone with a good narrative has more places to go. 

“All kinds of avenues exist for my students that never used to exist for making things, selling things, getting their work seen, and for companies to back something that they like,” she says. “…But it's nice to know that something obscure being made by people who are new and fresh, with new and fresh ideas, can get it to us, the general audience, whereas they might not have been able to before. And they'll be facilitated by services like Amazon.”

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