This weekend headlines across the internet declared that Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg had attacked Netflix, calling it “a clear and present danger to filmgoers” and that Netflix movies don’t “deserve” Oscars. And would you believe that his much more nuanced point got totally lost in the headline hype machine?
The actual articles focused on a couple of pulled quotes from a video interview with ITV News, which you can watch at the bottom of this post. But they failed to give the full context to Spielberg’s involved answer. Below is a full rundown of what Spielberg had to say about Netflix and other SVOD (streaming video On Demand) platforms.
Asked about Netflix, Spielberg agreed with the interviewer, ITV News Arts Editor Nina Nannar, that the streaming service “is a challenge to cinema.” He added, “(It’s) the same way TV pulled people away in the 1950s from movie theaters, and everybody stayed home because it was more fun to stay home and watch a comedy on television in the 1950s than it was to go out and see a movie.”
“Hollywood is used to that,” Spielberg continued. “We are accustomed to being highly competitive with television. The difference today is that a lot of studios would rather just make branded tent-pole, guaranteed box office hits from their inventory of branded successful movies than take chances on smaller films. Those smaller films that studios used to make routinely are now going to Amazon and Hulu and Netflix.”
“By the way, television is better today than it ever has been in the history of television,” Speilberg said, “There’s better writing, better directing, better performances, better stories are being told. Television is really thriving with quality and art. But it is posed as a clear and present danger to filmgoers.”
The interviewer asked if Spielberg is “concerned” about Netflix and the like. “I am,” Spielberg replied, “but I’ll still make The Post for audiences, asking them to please go out to the theater and go see The Post, and not make it directly for Netflix.”
“I’m saying fewer and fewer filmmakers are going to struggle to raise money or in order to compete in Sundance to possibly get one of the specialty labels to release their films publicly,” he went on, “And more of them are going to let the SVOD (streaming video on demand) businesses finance their films. Maybe with the promise of a slight, one-week theatrical window to qualify them for awards for the movie. But in fact, once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. You certainly—if it’s a good show—deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar.”
Asked directly if SVOD movies should be eligible for Oscars, Spielberg said, “I don’t believe that films that are given token qualifications, in a couple of theaters for less than a week, should qualify for Academy Award nominations.”
Okay. Now, that you’ve read everything he said, let’s address his arguments.
First off, comparing Netflix and Amazons models is unfair. Netflix has had short theatrical runs for movies like Mudbound and Okja so they can qualify for awards like the Oscars. Films less likely to garner Oscar notice go right to Netflix. And so Bright, Mute and The Cloverfield Paradox are barred from Oscar consideration. By contrast, Amazon has traditional theatrical runs that can span for weeks or months depending on their success. The Big Sick ran for 18 weeks. Manchester By the Sea ran for 23. Not all SVOD platforms are alike, which might be why Netflix gets more open hostility and scorn than Amazon.
Spielberg does recognize why filmmakers would take to SVOD. Studios are shying away from riskier fare, and betting on big productions like recognizable properties and big names, for instance the Steven Spielberg directed Ready Player One, which is based on the popular Ernest Cline novel that folds in allusions to a ton of beloved movies from John Hughes comedies to Back To The Future. But Spielberg shows how he’s a bit out of touch with the struggle of up-and-coming filmmakers when he seems to suggest The Post was a risk. Maybe for him it was a tougher sell than his recent projects. But it was a feel-good biopic that was absolute Oscar bait, starring two of America’s most beloved actors: Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.
By contrast, consider black, lesbian, female filmmaker Dee Rees, who made a wildly praised debut with Pariah in 2011. Her follow-up was a TV-movie for HBO. Then her next theatrical release came because Netflix took a risk on the acclaimed filmmaker, and distributed Mudbound. Now, entertainment journalists have criticized Netflix’s handling of this release and its underwhelming Oscar campaign, feeling the streaming service bungled both. However, despite all that, Mudbound was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Achievement in Cinematography for Rachel Morrison, the first woman ever nominated in that category. Netflix’s distribution/marketing may have been flawed. But it nonetheless made Mudbound accessible, and in doing so boosted the career of women and a filmmaker of color, groups that traditionally face much fiercer obstacles when it comes to financing and job opportunities in this industry.
And Mudbound brings me to another chink in Spielberg’s argument. Essentially, he argues that if a film is conceived for TV, it should qualify as TV, meaning for Emmy honors but not Academy Awards. This overlooks that Netflix doesn’t produce all the movies it distributes. Netflix bought Mudbound out of Sundance, meaning Rees didn’t make or intend the film for TV audiences. And it’s worth noting that when it comes to voting for Oscars, untold Academy members rely on DVD screeners to watch the eligible movies. So it’s a bit disingenuous to act like all Oscar movies are being regarded in a theater’s context. Maybe they should be! But that’s not a rule of the Academy.
Lastly, Spielberg himself recognizes that Studios are less willing to take risks with unknown properties and unknown filmmakers, yet suggests that Netflix movies shouldn’t be elevated to the status of Oscar-qualifying films. That’s flat-out elitism and gatekeeping he’s promoting there. Do it his way, or it’s not the right way, the real way. And as much as Spielberg may sing the praises of the television medium, he’s ultimately demeaning Netflix movies by insisting their content be considered separate, even if it’s great.
I’m with Spielberg in believing it’s best to see movies in the theater. But there’s also a level of elitism and privilege there, which Netflix has been breaking down. Ava DuVernay famously said that she had Netflix release her documentary 13th, so it would be accessible to more people. Because when she made Selma, people in Selma couldn’t see it, as they had no access to an art house theater.
While Netflix has its faults, it is an inexpensive platform that is bringing niche, “risky” cinema to people all around the world with an incomparable ease. And risky can mean weird genre stuff, intimate indie dramas, or banking on filmmakers who aren’t white, straight men. Meaning filmgoing is being democratized. No longer do film-loving kids need to depend on that one theater that shows art films, or dive through their Blockbuster bins for an obscure French film, or risk downloading malware to find that acclaimed anime that didn’t open in the US. And that’s amazing for film-lovers! But not so much for the traditional studio distribution model, which feels threatened when any given tentpole fails to stick.
Spielberg isn’t as hellfire and brimstone against SVOD as splashy headlines might want you to believe. But he’s still on the wrong side of history. Yes, box office numbers have been slumping, and SVOD is part of why. Yes, it’s harder now to pull movie-lovers away from the ease of home viewing and into a theater. But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. And by trying to push Netflix’s movies out of the Oscar conversation or major film festivals (talking about you Cannes), gatekeepers are trying to stop the shifting sands of filmmaking to preserve the one they know and understand. But the upcoming generation of film-lovers doesn’t see watching movies on their TV—or even laptops or phones—as an inferior experience, just a different one. And just as a generation who grew up watching television made the some of the best TV the world has ever seen, it seems likely that a generation who begins using camera phones as toddlers is going to churn out cinema that doesn’t demand a traditional theatrical setting to be outstanding.
Film has always been about change and evolution, moving from silent to sound, black-and-white to color, analog to digital. Now, it seems theater to SVOD is the new frontier. We can’t predict what this will mean for cinema. But considering the medium’s history, “death” seems unlikely.
Here’s the video. The discussion of SVOD begins at 4:25.