The latest shot in the ongoing feud between movie theaters and internet streaming services has been fired by the Directors Guild of America. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the union announced Wednesday that movies that do not have an exclusive theatrical release before they hit streaming services will no longer be eligible for the top prize at the DGA awards. Accordingly, the name of the award has been changed from “Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film” to “Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Theatrical Feature Film.”
In a statement, DGA President Thomas Schlamme explained that the change was meant to celebrate and protect the theatrical experience:
The DGA proudly affirms that a first-run theatrical release is a distinctive element of our feature film award. We celebrate the important role that theatrical cinema has played in bringing together audiences as they collectively experience films as the filmmakers intended them to be viewed. We also take great pride in recognizing all of the work created by our members through the many categories and formats that are part of the DGA Awards.
Last year’s Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film went to Roma, which was distributed by Netflix. The film had a three-week exclusive theatrical window before hitting the service, and would still have been eligible to win the award under the new rules, so this isn’t just a case of sour grapes after a strong award season showing from Netflix. The rule applies to movies released this year, though, so nothing the studio has released so far in 2019 will be eligible: Bad luck for Brie Larson’s directorial debut Unicorn Store. However, as the DGA was careful to point out, the eligibility requirements for the other DGA Awards have not changed, and streaming-only features will still be in the running for the First Time Feature Film award, which is good news for Brie Larson’s directorial debut Unicorn Store. The DGA hasn’t specified how long or how wide the theatrical release window needs to be, only that “day-and-date” releases are disqualified from their top prize.
Changing the eligibility for the top award seems like a reasonable way to split the difference between supporting the theatrical experience and supporting up-and-coming filmmakers whose distributors are not willing to risk the expense of a theatrical release. But it’s going to make acquisitions more complicated for streaming services: Netflix distributed around 70 original feature films in 2018, but only three of those (Bird Box, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Roma) made it to theaters. Traditional studios have a good idea of the awards prospects of the movies they produce and distribute, and they presumably have to have tough conversations informing the director of How to Stuff a Wild Bikini or whatever that their movie doesn’t rate an awards campaign—but they don’t have to have those conversations preemptively. In the short term, the studio can expect tense phone calls from people with upcoming Netflix releases, including Martin Scorsese. His upcoming film The Irishman is supposed to get a theatrical release this fall, but no one knows the details yet, and major theater chains are still refusing to carry Netflix’s films. Amazon is in better shape: It has traditionally observed the theatrical window, and all of its films this year should still be in the running for the DGA award. But the studio announced in February that it would be producing some movies to go straight to Prime Video without theatrical releases, so they’ll be facing the same headaches soon enough. The Oscars won’t be affected by any of this; the Academy decided in April not to exclude day-and-date streaming releases.
It’ll be years before the dust settles between movie theaters, traditional studios, and streaming services, but one thing is already becoming clear: Proxy fights between multinational corporations over competing distribution models are going to make this year’s awards season longer than ever. Chalk up another win for moviegoers!