Can Marketing Help Netflix Win an Oscar?

Hal Conick
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

​What? Netflix wanted to make a splash with Beasts of No NationHowever, after months of high hopes, the film was shut out by the Academy Awards this year. 

So what? Netflix unsuccessful attempts at creating a movie that would net Academy Award nominations may make future attempts by streaming companies a bit harder. 

Now what? Netflix may have to reassess how it markets these films, according to a movie media research professional. Targeting the smaller group of Academy Award voters may be the way to go. 

February 25, 2016

​Netflix's Beasts of No Nations was shut out of this year's Academy Awards. Can Netflix win big in the future with a renewed focus on targeted marketing?

Netflix wanted to make a splash with Beasts of No Nation. The company invested millions for its distribution rights, laid out a huge marketing initiative and released the film in a unique way: Both in theaters and directly to Netflix users. 

However, after months of high hopes, the film was shut out by the Academy Awards this year.

The film, which tells the story of an African warlord training a group of children soldiers amidst a civil war, stars Idris Elba (who starred in The Wire as Stringer Bell) and is directed by Cary Fukunaga (known for his work as director of True Detective). The film’s Oscar snubbing has left many to wonder if a streaming full-length feature can compete for an Oscar.

Setting a Precedent 

Netflix’s hopes for Beasts of No Nation were apparent. The company paid a reported $12 million for the rights to distribute the film, according to Variety. However, it was overlooked entirely by the Oscars. 

Joshua Lynn, president of Piedmont Media Research, a research company that specializes in concept testing, actor evaluation and tracking for films, says that Netflix was trying to make a similar splash with Beasts as the company made when they released the acclaimed House of Cards series in 2013. The online-only drama series, which stars Kevin Spacey, became the first streaming Web show to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award, racking up nine nominations and three wins in its first season.

“They put so much marketing behind House of Cards. I actually still remember when they had the Emmy push for it; there were ads for it everywhere,” Lynn says. “Basically, they did the same thing [with Beasts]. It was a big prestige project.”

The push didn’t stop at ads. Lynn says his colleagues in the Academy received screeners for Beasts the same way they would any other film. They were “marketing the hell out of this thing,” he says, adding that Netflix was not just hoping for an award for this film, but also attempting to establish a foothold for the relevance of streaming films to help make winning future awards easier. This is just what House of Cards did, making way for streaming-only Emmy award winners such as Amazon’s Transparent and Netflix’s Orange is the New Black.

Lacking the Numbers

What may have really hurt Beasts of No Nation was its box office numbers. Theater chains largely shunned the film, leading to an opening weekend of $51,003 and a total domestic gross of $90,777, according to Box Office Mojo. At its widest release, the movie played in a mere 31 theaters across the country. 

Despite high praise from critics and high scores from movie rating aggregate websites, such as Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB, Lynn says major theater chains “revolted” against the film, as video-on-demand films are a big point of contention between movie theaters and movie production companies.

While Netflix does not release its streaming data, the company told Deadline that the film had more than 3 million views in North America alone within two weeks of the film’s release on its service. 

The problem with trying and failing to make a big marketing and awards show splash may be that the narrative is now set, Lynn says: Streaming films don’t get nominated for Oscars. This may have already come back to bite Netflix, as Nate Parker’s Sundance darling, Birth of a Nation, a film about Nat Turner’s rebellion, was sold to Fox Searchlight in late January for $17.5 million even when Netflix reportedly offered $20 million

“They took less money to sell it to Fox Searchlight, because Fox Searchlight has an historic track record of being able to shepherd movies and really put then out in the right way to the Academy and to get them nominations,” Lynn says. “I think in their minds, not only is the prestige that much more important than the $2.5m differential, but if it wins the award, that’s even more money.”

IBISWorld reported in 2014 that if a film wins Best Picture, it stands to make an addition $13.8 million post-Oscar. Films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar earned 50.2% of its box office before the nominees were announced, 31.8% once they are nominated and 18.1% after the Oscar win, showing just how big the potential for victory can be. 

Can Netflix Ever Win Big? With Targeted Marketing, Maybe

Winning a “big five category” Oscar may be a bit more of an uphill battle now for Netflix. Lynn says that while he remembers seeing ads all around Los Angeles for Beasts of No Nation, something not normally seen for a Netflix film, the company may need to take a different marketing approach to really get the attention of the Academy.

“It’s one of those things that for television, it’s really just based on viewership,” he says. “So many people have Netflix. House of Cards comes on and it’s supposed to be good … the prism of success is based on viewers and based on getting into conversation and people watching and talking about it. 

“The Academy Award is about getting the nomination. It’s a smaller, more limited group you need to target; it’s not open to the entire world or the population of America.”

Instead of blanketing advertisements and marketing for a film, Lynn believes Netflix would see more success by politicking with the right people. 

Bob and Harvey Weinstein, now of The Weinstein Company, were “great at playing that game” while at Miramax, Lynn says. He heard stories of them going to speak with older members of the Academy (average member age as of 2014: 62) with directors of films as a way to make a push. While this may not be the exact thing Netflix has to do to see success at the Academy Awards, Lynn believes they’d need to extend their reach to that smaller group of voters.

Netflix did receive two 2016 nominations for Best Documentary Feature for both What Happened, Miss Simone? and Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, as well as a win for short documentary in 2014 for The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, so perhaps not all hope is lost for the medium. 

Netflix did not return our calls for comment.

Author Bio:

Hal Conick
Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @HalConick.
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