Some Oscar-nominated films will not be available to those who rely on libraries to access culture for the first time this year.
For 93 years, the Academy Awards have been the film industry’s most important award. From It Happened One Night to Moonlight, Oscar nominated films are some of the most important cultural products of the past century. Since VHS tapes democratized access to these films, many library users have enjoyed the opportunity to view them in the comfort of their own homes, regardless of their ability to pay.
Unfortunately, times are changing again. Streaming video continues to rise, and with it, libraries and their patrons are being cut out. In many cases, movies and shows produced for streaming are only available to those who have disposable income and a high speed internet connection. This inequity in access disproportionately affects low income, rural, and inner city people. Public library film collections are traditionally selected by librarians and the community, but now streaming corporations are the gatekeepers of what library patrons are able to watch, and when.
This inequity is thrown into sharp relief this year as several Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Studios films are nominated for Academy Awards. Titles nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, as well as Lead Actress and Actor, will not be available for public libraries to purchase, or even license, for their collections. This excludes many communities from engaging with some of the most important films of 2020.
The films: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Sound of Metal, Pieces of a Woman, The Trial of the Chicago Seven, and the United States vs. Billie Holiday are crucial stories for this moment. Themes of social justice, racial equity, and political strife run through these films—yet people who rely on public libraries, or who otherwise cannot use streaming services, will never be able to see them.
During the last major financial crisis in 2008, libraries around the country were lauded for their ability to provide diverse resources like DVDs to patrons as people looked for entertainment in a crisis. Circulation shot up in nearly every community, with a wide variety of people flocking to the library for culture.
With the advent of streaming, libraries are either outright denied access to films such as these Academy Award nominees, or stuck paying higher “licensing fees” for films that quickly expire. There is little stability for libraries in the licensing fee structure, as the available titles constantly change based on what distributors like Kanopy or Hoopla can offer. Physical films are purchased at consumer prices and circulated freely, but Kanopy charges at least $2 per view, and counts any view of 30 seconds as a whole view. Unlike libraries, these companies also collect a lot of data on users and are subject to data and privacy leaks, including one in 2019 which exposed 20-40 million logs per day. These practices have caused many libraries to drop streaming services, citing unsustainable pricing, inconsistent access, and practices that leave patron’s private data vulnerable.
While Netflix used to be a video rental service and Amazon a seller of books, they are now major arbiters of culture and access. All of their films, not just those that are Oscar-worthy, should be available to everyone, no matter their socioeconomic status.
With our coalition partners at Fight for the Future, we’re asking you to tell Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu:
Commit to making your content available to public libraries, especially Academy Award nominated films! Libraries must be able to purchase and loan the most important films of the year on reasonable terms and without convoluted licensing schemes.
Spread the word! Sign our petition and support culture for everyone.