Steven Spielberg has seen the future, and he doesn’t like it one bit.
At the 91stAcademy Awards, Netflix took home four Oscars including three for Roma, which had been nominated for Best Picture. In addition, Amazon Studios and Hulu both achieved Oscar nominations. Spielberg dislikes the notion of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominating movies from companies that stream movies in homes. So he reportedly wants to change the rules to block Netflix and its streaming competitors from nominating movies for the Oscars.
And Steven Spielberg is dead wrong.
Spielberg believes in the purity of the big screen and the joy of experiencing a movie in a theater. He wants to keep a sharp distinction between movies shown in theaters and movies made by streaming services. As he told British TV network ITV News in 2018, “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”
With Amazon Studios, Hulu, and Netflix landing multiple nominations at the 91stAcademy Awards, apparently he’s feeling threated. A spokesperson for Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment told IndieWire’s Anne Thompson, “Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation. He’ll be happy if the others will join [his campaign] when that comes up [at the Academy Board of Governors meeting]. He will see what happens.”
Defenders of Old Hollywood believe the Academy’s nomination rules are too lax. A movie need not be distributed exclusively in a movie theater to qualify; a movie simply needs to appear in theaters. In addition, Hollywood studios follow an unwritten rule that movies should appear in theaters for at least 90 days before becoming available on video or streaming. Netflix doesn’t play be those rules. For instance, Netflix’s Roma appeared exclusively in theaters for only three weeks. A rule change could, say, require Oscar nominees to make movies available for a minimum period of time.
Reports of Spielberg wanting to change the Oscar nomination rules have been disputed, but the controversy has drawn attention to his opposition of streaming services – an opposition is on the wrong side of history for a number of reasons, including:
Viewing Habits Are Changing
There’s a reason Netflix has become one of the biggest brands in the world. Audiences want the flexibility of seeing movies on their own terms: at home, on the go, and in theaters. Streaming services are accommodating them. When recently I moderated a discussion about Old Hollywood versus Netflix on my Facebook page, Facebooker Brian Schultz summed one of the reasons why viewers want choice:
The theatrical experience isn’t what it used to be. Projection quality differs from theatre to theatre, too many previews, rude ass moviegoers, and high ticket prices make staying at home a better option.
You can see some movies from streaming companies in theaters, too. You could have seen Amazon Studios’ Cold War (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film) and Roma in theaters, on a TV screen, or on a device. (I prefer seeing movies on big screens. But I don’t always have the time and money to go to the movies. I saw Roma at home and Cold War in a theater. Both experiences were equally satisfying.)
And streaming is becoming even bigger. Disney will soon launch its own service, Disney+. AT&T will launch its own streaming service, capitalizing on its ownership of Time Warner to feature content from WarnerMedia, a newly formed entity that includes HBO and Turner Broadcasting.
Old Hollywood’s war against streaming is going to be harder to fight, especially with Disney putting its muscle behind streaming. You don’t mess with the Mouse.
Streaming Services Offer Alternatives for Artists
Roma is an intensely personal movie from Alfonso Cuarón, who previously won multiple Oscars for directing Gravity. When Roma won multiple Golden Globe Awards in January, Cuarón was asked to comment on a perception that Netflix is threatening independent cinema. He replied:
My question to you is, how many theaters did you think that a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, that is a drama without stars — how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release? I just hope the discussion between Netflix and platforms in general should be over. I think those guys, platforms and theatrical, should go together . . . They both together can elevate cinema, and more important, they can create a diversity in cinema.
Anne Thompson of IndieWire recently provided some inside baseball on how Netflix ended up with Roma:
The studios could have acquired “Roma.” Participant showed ten minutes of footage to seven companies with global distribution. There were no passes and three offers. Four companies explained that because a black-and-white film in Spanish would not qualify for their Pay-TV output deals, they needed to see the film (which was still in post and not available to screen). Once they could see the film they’d be able to seek a waiver from their Pay-TV output partners, as The Weinstein Co. did on “The Artist.”
Participant explored the three offers and after a month-long negotiation landed on Netflix, which gave the most persuasive (and financially viable) marketing, distribution, and awards commitment. The studios weren’t willing to step up to Netflix’s bid for worldwide rights (a bit more than $20 million), which included a commitment for a substantial global theatrical release (excluding China — which Participant kept and will open in theaters, having just passed the censors).
Alfonso Cuarón is not the only big-name director working with Netflix. Even an Old Hollywood stalwart like Martin Scorsese is leaping into the arms of Netflix. Scorsese’s forthcoming movie, The Irishman, will be distributed by Netflix in theaters and via streaming. The movie is reportedly a long-time passion project of Scorsese’s. Commenting on Netflix’s involvement in the film, he said, “People such as Netflix are taking risks. ‘The Irishman’ is a risky film. No one else wanted to fund the pic for five to seven years. And of course we’re all getting older. Netflix took the risk.”
An Interesting Turn
The debate could take an interesting turn if a major streaming service such as Netflix cracks into the movie business. The idea is not far-fetched. In 2018, Netflix was rumored to be a potential buyer for Landmark Theaters but reportedly backed out due to the cost. Nevertheless, speculation remains that Netflix may crack into theaters in 2019. Rationale:
- Theaters give Netflix a way to distribute more movies eligible for the Oscars (Netflix aired Roma in theaters so that it would qualify for an Oscar, but its relationship with theater chains is uneasy.)
- Theaters also give Netflix another revenue stream for branded merchandise and concessions. Netflix already licenses Stranger Things merchandise through retailers. Theaters would give Netflix a channel to sell merch by itself.
Given the enormous cost of developing content, Netflix may stay firmly rooted in streaming for the near term, making Amazon a more likely candidate to buy a movie theater chain (also not a far-fetched notion with Amazon expanding into the brick-and-mortar grocery and retail industries).
Something Is Happening Here
Meanwhile, Netflix addressed the Old Hollywood-versus-Netflix story with a thoughtful Tweet:
Which evoked replies such as these:
Instead of trying to move the goal line for streaming companies, the defenders of Old Hollywood need to ask why exciting directors such as Alfonso Cuarón are turning to streaming companies and why businesses such as Disney are changing with the times, too. Old Hollywood can change just as record labels eventually adapted their business models for music streaming. Meanwhile, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Spielberg?