Here's how Netflix's $15 billion bet on original content paid off at the Oscars

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Joker emerged as an unlikely Oscar superhero when the nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced Monday morning. Todd Phillips’s dark and divisive origin story for Batman’s number one nemesis led the field with 11 nominations, putting it ahead of frontrunners like Sony’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Universal’s 1917 and Netflix’s The Irishman. But even as Warner Bros. is no doubt dancing about Joker’s success, Netflix emerged as the big winner overall. The streaming service scored 24 nominations for its various movies, surpassing Hollywood’s traditional studios for the first time.

That record came with a significant price tag, though: Netflix confirmed in October that it spent $15 billion on original film and TV content in 2019, the largest budget in its still-young history. Just for comparison’s sake, the company reportedly spent $7.9 billion in 2018, behind NBCUniversal’s $11.4 billion, Disney’s $9.4 billion and Time Warner and 21st Century Fox with $8.7 billion and $8.6 billion respectively. This year, they’ve already spent more than any other streaming service, including Amazon Prime and Apple TV+.

Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Ray Romano star in Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, which helped make Oscar history for Netflix (Photo: Netflix)

The Irishman alone represents a significant portion of 2019’s $15 billion total. Martin Scorsese’s long-in-the-works crime drama reportedly cost $159 million to make — plus many millions more to market to audiences and awards voters — due to its large cast and the extensive digital post-production work required to de-age veteran actors like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino to play younger versions of their characters. Denied a traditional theatrical release thanks to ongoing disputes between Netflix and theater owners, the film wasn’t a box-office behemoth (although Netflix makes a point of not disclosing financial returns for any of its features), but it has been worth its weight in awards statues. The Irishman received 10 Oscar nominations on top of five Golden Globe nods and multiple nods in the various guild awards like the SAG Awards and the DGA.

Netflix’s Marriage Story has also been a solid statue-generator during awards season, at a fraction of The Irishman’s budget. Noah Baumbach’s divorce-themed marital drama reportedly cost $18 million and picked up 6 Oscar nominations, including nods for stars Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson and Laura Dern, as well as Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Further contributing to Netflix’s 24 nominations were modestly-budgeted movies like The Two Popes, starring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins (both of whom received acting nods), the documentary American Factory and the animated features, I Lost My Body and Klaus. (The one miss? Dolemite Is My Name, which failed to score a single nomination despite Eddie Murphy’s high-profile star turn.) That’s the kind of diverse slate that a major movie studio would have been able to boast about 20 years ago: in 2020, the bragging rights belong to Netflix.

Of course, nominations are one thing: Netflix would like to brag about winning some statues as well, especially if the company winds up spending another $15 billion on original content in 2020. Heading into the Golden Globes, for example, the streaming service had 34 nods and only took home two awards. Still, that’s two more Golden Globes than Apple TV+, which famously spent $6 billion to launch TV shows like The Morning Show, For All Mankind and Dickinson. The pricey Morning Show bounced back from mixed critical response to score three Golden Globe nominations but ultimately went home empty-handed. (The series has another chance at the SAG Awards where it also is nominated in three categories.)

So far, Amazon Prime has perhaps had the best return on investment when it comes to awards. The company also spent a reported $6 billion on original content in 2019 and dominated the Emmys and Golden Globes with the second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, as well as Season 3 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. On the other hand, Amazon has yet to find its equivalent of The Irishman — or even The Two Popes — on the feature film side. The company’s 2019 slate included Late Night, The Report and The Aeronauts, which were largely ignored throughout awards season. Memo to Amazon: all you need to chase Oscar in 2020 is another $9 billion... and Martin Scorsese.

The 92nd Academy Awards air Sunday, Feb. 9 at 8 p.m. on ABC.

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