Steven Spielberg Isn’t Right About Netflix but He’s Not Wrong Either
I really hate anything that makes me side with multi-billion dollar corporate behemoths. It’s one of my pet peeves. It happens every time some misogynistic hate campaign tries to rally against Star Wars or Marvel and I’m forced to defend the kind of capitalistic titans that would sell me out as soon as they look at me because the other side are so irredeemably stupid. Now it’s happening with Netflix, as none other than Steven Spielberg has emerged as the leader of the opposition to the streaming giant in Hollywood’s latest bust-up. The beloved director, one who has arguably done more to shape the pop culture consciousness of the past 40 years than anyone else, has been vocal for a while now on his insistence that Netflix films are TV movies, not cinematic ones. Now, he and others in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are banding together to lobby for changes in the rules that seem designed to directly hinder Netflix. It’s no coincidence that this is happening a mere week after Netflix’s Roma won three awards.
Instead of the one week minimum theatrical release required for a title to qualify for the Oscars, Spielberg and company want it increased to four weeks. They also want the streaming service to be transparent in its box office numbers for the releases it does. All in all, these aren’t necessarily bad choices. The latter in particular feels like a necessity in this business as Netflix’s refusal to give hard data on their viewership numbers presents one of the industry’s more curious conundrums. However, it’s tough to ignore the optics at play by one of the business’s biggest stalwarts pushing back against progress.
We’ve been through this spiel before, most notably during last year’s Cannes Film Festival when Netflix films were banned from playing in the main competition due to the service’s lack of commitment to a traditional theatrical release. The usual arguments broke out but that issue was somewhat more cut-and-dry than the Oscars one because French law played a part in Cannes’s decision. In France, there must be a gap of at least 36 months between theatrical release and streaming release. This rule, as rigid as it is, protects French cinemas in a way that the American theatrical experience doesn’t have, for better or worse. That seems to be what has stuck in Spielberg’s throat about this past awards season, although this is also a battle he’s been fighting for most of his career. He fought hard against releasing E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial on home video for years until it became unfeasible to do so (and he also needed to avoid piracy cashing in on his work). He’s not alone in such battles. Plenty of people thought home video would destroy cinemas, but they said the same thing about T.V. in the fifties, and even though theatrical attendance did dip significantly during that period, Hollywood kept going.
That’s not to say that the Academy’s fears are wholly unfounded, but the myriad problems within the film industry today extend far beyond Netflix. Indeed, much of what Spielberg complains about in terms of how Netflix have supposedly ‘gamed the system’ of awards season is old hat by now. Really, Netflix learned it from watching everyone else. The streaming service certainly outspent the studios for marketing their big Oscar favorite (The Hollywood Reporter claims they spent about $50m, which is easily ten times more than the average). The people who needed to be aware of Roma - mainly those Academy members - were and saw it with enough enthusiasm to nominate it so much. Contrary to popular belief, Roma was in cinemas for longer than a week. Granted, it never came close to a wide release and Netflix’s priority was not in that theatrical run, but they did go beyond the one week eligibility requirement. They played the game and did pretty well out of it but the game itself was long established before Netflix was a glint in Hollywood’s eye. How do you think Harvey Weinstein got so powerful? Plenty of people figured out that using the Oscars to their advantage was the perfect way to break into the elite of the business.
Netflix are not the underdogs here. They are as major a player in film and entertainment as any of the decades old studio stalwarts, one whose image is built around the unprovable illusion that they have limitless ambition and the revenue streams to match. They may position themselves as the beleaguered new kids on the block, but they wield their might with startling effectiveness. Look at how quickly they came to dominate the world of television and, by extension, the Emmys. Part of what makes them seem so overbearing to the world of film is the sheer amount of cash they’re throwing around, but who could resist that? In an industry where the mid-budget film is slowly dying out and directors who aren’t cishet white dudes still have a near impossible time getting a foothold with the major studios, why wouldn’t you go to the shiny new streaming service who keep adding zeroes to the end of that cheque? Ava DuVernay did it, and so did Dee Rees. And Cary Joji Fukunaga. And Bong Joon-ho. Even the beloved auteurs who should be easy sells to most executives have taken the plunge. The Coen Brothers went to Netflix alongside Noah Baumbach, and none other than Martin freaking Scorsese has a film coming out this year via Netflix. It’s allegedly the most expensive film he’s ever made. Nobody else is giving him that kind of money, and that’s saying something. Because if even Scorsese can’t play that game anymore, who can?
This developing media monopoly has its obvious problems. It feels like one day we’ll be left with just Disney or Netflix, and everyone will be forced to choose a side and define their cinematic and economic philosophies by that. It would be easy, in that situation, to side with Netflix if you prize the cinematic experience, but that studio are notoriously greedy with theatrical revenues and implement wildly restrictive rules to cinemas that crush locally owned businesses. Besides, it’s not like the cinematic experience has been great these days. Ticket prices have skyrocketed and care for the customers plummeted. I’ve lost count of the number of screenings I’ve gone to where the aspect ratio was off and nobody came to fix it, or some jackass got out their phone on full brightness during a crucial scene, or people brought screaming infants along. I love going to the cinema, but often it feels like the cinemas don’t care all that much if I do.
Netflix should disclose their box office numbers if they want to be Oscar contenders. Everyone else does it and they should play by that most basic of rules if they desire the legitimacy of Hollywood. Increasing the minimum theatrical release period will probably hurt indie studios more than Netflix, who will put up then get on with business as usual. Indie films are having a tough enough time staying afloat in an industry where blockbusters rule all, and for better or worse, the awards season hoopla remains a potent and often highly profitable means of promoting one’s film. Netflix have the cash. Others don’t. Not by a long shot.
But the problems Spielberg and company have with Netflix extend far beyond them and are merely representative of issues that have been brewing in Hollywood for a long time. Cinema attendance is falling. Everyone is trying to copy the Marvel mould even though it’s only ever worked for Marvel. One studio is about to have around 40% control of the box office. Even Spielberg, the guy who helped to create the blockbuster as we know it, lamented the current system’s unwillingness to deviate from those big-budget tent-poles. Netflix have changed people’s viewing attitudes dramatically but it’s not like the old ways were fighting hard to hold onto those audiences. They’re not fighting to keep those creators on board either, unless you’re Steven Spielberg.
Boiling this debate down to ‘Netflix Versus Spielberg/The Oscars’ feels reductive of what truly amounts to decades of build-up and no tangible solutions that will satisfy all. However, on the most basic level, it would be foolish of the Academy to deny the way the industry is going. As much as Spielberg loved it, the future of Hollywood is not Green Book. Netflix won’t save the industry but they really should be doing more to make themselves worth saving.
Header Image Source: Gage Skidmore @ Flickr
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