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Why A Potential Oscars Rule Change Could Hurt The Smallest Independent Distributors

An Asian woman with light-tone skin wears a white feathery gown and raises her arms in celebration.
Michelle Yeoh celebrates on the champagne arrivals carpet on her way into the 95th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.
(Valerie Macon
AFP via Getty Images)
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The movie world has been abuzz since the entertainment website Puck reported that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is contemplating a change to its existing eligibility rules.

As Matthew Belloni reported — and as LAist has confirmed — the academy has floated the idea of requiring feature-length narrative films to play in significantly more markets to qualify for an Oscar.

Specifically, rather than play for a week in one of the six biggest cities, as is now the case, future releases would need to play in as many as 20 markets, according to people briefed on the academy plans (international features reportedly would be exempt).

The films also would have to play in those markets for as many as 20 days before they could be sent to streaming platforms. The AMPAS board is likely to consider those and other rule changes in its meeting late this month.

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According to one studio executive who spoke with AMPAS leaders, the academy is hoping this move could revitalize theatrical moviegoing.

Even before the pandemic hit, the number of total theatrical admissions in North America was trending down. More worrisome is that per-capita attendance — the number of movies an average person goes to at the multiplex — has fallen by half over the last decade.

In the wake of the report, other media stories hewed to a narrow theme. “Proposed Oscars rule change would be bad news for Netflix,” one headline said. A few others: “Oscars Want To Kill Streaming Movies With New Change,” “Oscars considering rule change to lock out Apple & Netflix.”

Yet a cursory review of recent releases by Netflix and other streamers suggest they largely would not be harmed. Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front played in nearly 600 locations theatrically, while Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio hit more than 600 locations.

Instead, a potential burden could be felt by lower-profile films distributed by the smallest distributors. In fact, one nominee from this year’s ceremony wouldn’t be eligible were the new rules in force.

To Leslie, the film that earned a controversial best-actress nomination for Andrea Riseborough, reported no domestic box office returns. (The film’s distributor, Momentum Pictures, did not reply to an email seeking comment.)

And A24 and Apple Original Films’ Causeway, nominated for supporting actor Bryan Tyree Henry, reported no domestic box office receipts either, suggesting it would fail the new rules. While that doesn’t mean Causeway didn’t play in theaters at all (it would have had to in at least one city to be eligible for the 2023 ceremony), there’s no outside evidence it reached the potentially new minimum release threshold.

Do the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?

However, executives at several established independent distributors told me they support a potential rule change, as they believe films are best seen in theaters. In an era of digital film prints, the cost of adding new markets might not exceed $200,000, and many art house movies already would surpass a 20-market test. But for the smallest of distributors, an extra $200,000 expense not only could be prohibitive but also spell the difference between profit and loss.

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In the end, such an academy rule change action might not have the intended consequence: Should it enact new eligibility rules, it’s far from certain that audiences would promptly return to the multiplex.

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn, entertainment reporter and host of our weekly podcast Retake, explores whether the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?

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