filmmaking

Steven Spielberg Is Wrong About Netflix -- Here's Why by Keith LaFountaine

Steven Spielberg is a man who needs no introduction. As a legend of cinema, with a canon of masterpieces under his belt and a consistent output of quality films (ranging from period pieces to sci-fi epics), his opinion holds sway in Hollywood. It’s also not often that he uses that power; he is a good, humble man who often espouses his support of filmmaking and cinema in general.

This all took a strange turn when he came out gunning for Netflix after the 2019 Oscars. In addition to calling Green Book “…his favorite buddy movie since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, (something that requires its own blog post to unpack), he has taken steps to try and block Netflix films from being able to compete at the Oscars.

There’s a problem here, though: with all due respect to Spielberg, his creative genius, and his important legacy in the film world, he’s wrong on this issue. Not only that, his antiquated views about Netflix are going to hurt cinema more than Netflix ever would.


I. What’s the Big Deal With Netflix?


Steven Spielberg’s focus on Netflix is not because he has some personal vendetta against the streaming service. It’s because he considers Netflix Original films to be “TV Movies” — entertainment that belongs at the Emmys, not the Oscars. His main concern is how long these films are released in theaters just to become eligible for an Academy Award. He’s held these views for a while now. In fact, he’s been quoted in interviews discussing his disagreement with this release strategy.

Fewer and fewer filmmakers are going to struggle to raise money, or to compete at Sundance and possibly get one of the specialty labels to release their films theatrically...I don’t believe that films that are just given token qualifications, in a couple of theaters for less than a week, should qualify for the Academy Award nominations.
— Steven Spielberg, Indiewire Interview

There is some merit to his criticisms here, too. Roma, which was nominated for 10 Oscars (and won 3) this year was only in theaters for three weeks, which satisfied the Academy’s requirement that a film play for at least a week in theaters in LA. Furthermore, this is a criticism a lot of people (myself included) have had.

There is obviously merit to Netflix’s strategy: some folks in rural communities may not have access to theaters, and those who do may not have the financial flexibility to go see movies all the time. Netflix’s streaming platform allows them to see original filmmaking for an affordable price (even the highest tiers of Netflix’ plan cost less than it would to see two or more movies a month at the theater).

However, there is also something to be said for the importance of the theater experience, which is what Spielberg wants to preserve. I would love to see Netflix open up more to theater releases and Blu-Ray investments (one of which the streaming giant has budged on — Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman will receive a theater release upon its arrival).


II. Where Spielberg Went Wrong


As I’ve said, these criticism are not inherently wrong. While I may disagree with him about Netflix Original films being equivalent to TV movies, I do understand his concerns about films sneaking their way into the Oscars by satisfying the Academy’s guidelines with the bare minimum.

There’s just a couple of problems:

1) There are theatrically released films that squeak by the Oscar guidelines with the same kind of tactics Netflix has used. In fact, the majority of Best Picture winners since 2006 (84%) were released in October or November — just a few months before the Oscars ceremony. Furthermore some films, like the recent winner Green Book, go on to use their Best Picture win to fuel further box office revenue.

2) His proposed rule changes would require films to play in theaters for a month before becoming eligible for the Oscars. Furthermore, the Academy has a rule that eligible films must released the year before the awards (so films released January 1st, 2019 can’t compete for the 2019 Oscars, while films released in LA on December 23rd, 2018 can). In essence, his proposed changes would affect the time period when most Best Picture winners — including Green Book — are released.

It’s also important to point out that Spielberg’s film The Post would have been ineligible by his own proposed rules. It premiered in Washington D.C. on December 14 and started a limited run on December 22, giving it just enough time - 10 days - to satiate the Academy’s requirements and earn a Best Picture and Best Actress nomination.


III. The Irony of Spielberg’s Position


Spielberg honestly believes he is fighting for the good of cinema, and I don’t see him being the kind of person to do so with malice. He honestly believes that he is protecting the integrity of filmmaking. The irony of this entire debacle is that Spielberg’s actions would hurt cinema more than Netflix would.

Netflix’s release strategy could certainly be better. I would love to be able to see films like Roma, 13th, and the upcoming Triple Frontier in theaters. I would also love to own a Blu-Ray copy of them to add to my collection. My inability to do so does not mean that films like Roma are not films, though. That does not mean their inclusion at the Oscars is a degradation to the medium itself.

If Spielberg is successful in his attempt to change these rules, it is going to hurt more than just Netflix — it is going to hurt all sorts of filmmakers, further saturate 10 months of the year with tons of releases — too many for most people to see — and remove films like Spielberg’s The Post from eligibility.

Aside from the elitism of the idea that Netflix is beneath the Oscars, the impact Spielberg’s new rules would have on the filmmaker world would be a greater detriment than to allow films like Roma to compete, and win, Oscars.

While nobody really knows whether Spielberg’s efforts will be successful, Netflix has its supporters, including filmmaker Ava DuVernay and The Blacklist creator Franklin Leonard.

Furthermore, whether Spielberg likes it or not, streaming is a glimpse into the future of cinematic releases. It’s only natural that Netflix films are going to win Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, and other awards. Soon enough, the coveted Best Picture award will go to a Netflix Original — it’s only a matter of when.

Modern Horror Films Are Missing This One Crucial Element by Keith LaFountaine

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre  (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper)

This is one of the most iconic images in horror film history. Our protagonist, who we have seen struggle through horrific circumstances, is bathed in blood, sitting in the back of a pickup truck, looking back at Leatherface as he chases her with his chainsaw.

This film came out during one of the most innovative decades for filmmaking (both in general and in terms of horror). Independent productions, like Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and John Carpenter's Halloween, became hugely influential and popular. Horror, as a genre, was changing. 

There are a few things that differentiate the horror of the 70s and modern horror (mainly the integration of PG-13 horror films and the reliance on jump-scares to sell tension) but there is one thing you may not have noticed.

Film grain.

If you watch horror movies nowadays they are crisp, polished, and slick. They have the "digital" look (which makes sense, since a large portion of Hollywood has switched from film to digital in the past two decades). But, except in certain circumstance with certain directors, the digital look doesn't lend itself to horror in quite the same way.

The grainy film look of the 1970s -- seen in films like The Exorcist, Alien, Carrie, Jaws, Suspiria, and so many other horror films -- was an aesthetic in and of itself. It took away the polish of Hollywood and put horror in the dirt of middle-class America. It became more real because of this.

The other difference between the film and digital look is that lighting these two mediums is very different. Just look at these shots from The Exorcist and The Conjuring.

The Exorcist  (1973) Shot on Panavision

The Exorcist (1973) Shot on Panavision

 
The Conjuring  (2013), Shot on ARRI Alexa

The Conjuring (2013), Shot on ARRI Alexa

Now, the difference here isn't necessarily in the lighting setups themselves (though I have tried to find stills that are similar to each other) but in how the light affects the image (both in terms of quality and clarity).

The lighting in The Exorcist feels dramatic -- the shadows are large and powerful; the light is harsh on the left side of the frame while the priests are bathed in darkness; the contrast between light and dark could not be harsher.

The lighting in The Conjuring still evokes a dramatic mood, but the contrast between the lights and the darks are much smaller. Its frame is more elegant, more refined, and more polished.

You may not care about this difference in the slightest and that's okay. However, I prefer the visual style of The Exorcist over The Conjuring. The film grain just as much of a tool for the horror genre as anything else. It adds this indescribable aura to the film that no other genre has. It grounds everything, whether that's a supernatural menace or a rogue killer.

You can see it in remakes especially. Just check out these two stills of Carrie from the 1976 original and the 2013 remake.

Carrie ( 1976) 

Carrie (1976) 

 
Carrie  (2013)

Carrie (2013)

The first image is just more striking. The way the light hits Carrie, and the way the camera registers that image, is much more grounded than the polished, shiny Carrie in the 2013 film. Something feels fake about the latter image.

Now, this is not to say that shooting on film or digital is a defining feature in "good" and "bad" horror films. There were plenty of bad horror films made the in 70s that used this aesthetic and there have been a few good horror films (mainly indie projects) made in the past 20 years that have shot on digital.

However, there is something to be said about the differences these visual styles bring to the table. The aesthetic of 70s horror helped enhance the fear and terror in a particular film while digital doesn't necessarily do that.

Granted, there are reasons filmmakers shoot on digital over film nowadays -- film is expensive, digital is cheap. You have a specific amount of time per roll of film that you can shoot on, whereas you can shoot forever with digital. Plus, there are now filters where you can put grain onto your film to get that aesthetic. But it's not quite the same. Pasting film grain over a polished image does not make that image look like it was shot on film.

Nowadays the film vs. digital argument is largely up to personal preference. The industry is moving away from film, while some filmmakers (like Christopher Nolan) refuse to shoot on anything other than 35mm. When you go to a horror movie next, consider this small difference. Go back and watch those classic horror films from the 70s. I think you'll find that film grain enhances the horror in a small, very subtle way.

The MPAA Needs to Go. Here's Why. by Keith LaFountaine

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We have all seen this image before. It begins before the vast majority of trailers released in the United States. Most of us take it for granted -- it doesn't mean much to us when we are in the theater. Even the rating system itself is taken for granted. Every now and then we may scratch our heads at it, but the average moviegoer doesn't analyze the rating system.

And yet, this private company (this will be important later) is the keyholder for a film's success in theaters.

I think it's time we drastically re-invent our rating system in the United States and do away with the MPAA once and for all.

 

Firstly, it's important to understand that I am not saying we shouldn't rate films. Quite the contrary. We have always had rating systems and censorship boards in place since film's inception.

In 1909, the New York Board of Censorship was created to dictate specific standards of morality for films being released. This spread to other states, who did the same thing, eventually becoming known as the National Board of Censorship. However, its name was changed to the National Board of Review to avoid the term 'censorship.' They still acted as a censorship board, though, as producers would submit films for review and adhere to the changes the Board requested.

The Board's goals ultimately changed, though, around 1930. They began focusing more on championing art and reviewing films than dictating what sort of moral fiber should be present in filmmaking standards. The National Board of Review still functions to this day, but its film commentary and awards (as seen in Screen Magazine) became its primary goal.

The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was created in 1922. It quickly took responsibility for creating industry standards for ethics and guidelines, ultimately coming up with the Motion Picture Production Code.

The Motion Picture Production Code was implemented from 1930 to 1968. There were a strict set of guidelines filmmakers had to follow in order to be in good standing with the MPPDA. They included the following:

"Don'ts & Be Carefuls":

  • profanity (including words like God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, hell, damn, and other curses)
  • Suggestive nudity (including on-screen nudity and silhouettes)
  • drug trafficking
  • inferences of sex perversion
  • white slavery
  • sexual relationships between white and black folks
  • mention of venereal diseases
  • scenes of childbirth (on-screen or silhouetted)
  • children's genitalia
  • ridiculing the clergy
  • offending any race, creed, or country

Also in the code was a list of things where "...special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized."

This included:

  • using the flag
  • avoiding any unfavorable mentions of other countries' religion, history, institutions, etc.
  • arson
  • using firearms
  • theft, robbery, safe-cracking & the dynamiting of trains and buildings
  • brutality and gruesomeness
  • committing murder
  • smuggling
  • actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishments of crime
  • sympathy for criminals
  • attitude towards public people and institutions
  • sedition
  • cruelty to children and animals
  • branding people or animals
  • the sale of women, or a woman selling herself
  • rape, or attempted rape
  • one night stands
  • men and women in bed together
  • deliberate seduction of girls
  • the institution of marriage
  • surgical operations
  • the use of drugs
  • titles or scenes dealing with police
  • excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one is a criminal.

Seem ridiculous? That's because many of the things in the Motion Picture Production Code were ridiculous. Films had rules where kisses could only last for three seconds, and the act of flushing a toilet could not be filmed. Things that seem excessively trivial today (one night stands, drug use, interracial relationships, nudity, profanity, etc.) were strictly enforced for over thirty years!

The Production Code eventually stopped being enforced, but only because a rating system was being formulated. Unsurprisingly the MPPDA renamed itself the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) and created a new rating system. And here we are today.

 

So what's so wrong with the rating system? It seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, it is and it isn't.

Let's start with the things that make sense. Firstly, it makes sense to categorize films that are okay for children (G & PG) and films that are not (PG-13 & R). It also makes sense to divide these films by their content -- things like blood, sex, profanity, etc. would not be expected in a film marketed for five-year-olds, while it would be expected in a film marketed for adults.

For films that only adults should see (meaning a kid can't see them with a parent/guardian), the MPAA created an NC-17 rating.

So far so good.

Now here's where things get weird. The MPAA is a private organization. It claims that it does not censor films because the rating system is strictly voluntary -- films can be screened without being rating, or with extremely adult ratings 

However, the vast majority of theaters refuse to screen unrated films and films with NC-17 ratings. This means that if you submit your film for review by the MPAA and you receive an NC-17 rating, your film will not get sold in theaters. Additionally, if you reject the rating and submit the film as unrated, your film will not get sold in theaters.

So you end up with two choices: either you re-submit your film to be rated again, or you cut out the things the MPAA mentions and re-submit your film to be rated again hoping they will lower the rating.

A very famous example of this, as was seen in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (which I highly recommend) is Kimberly Pierce's film Boys Don't Cry. When Pierce submitted the film to the MPAA for a rating they returned it with an NC-17 rating in part due to a female orgasm that "lasts too long." When Pierce called the MPAA to ask what was wrong with that particular scene she says the MPAA responded: "well, we don't really know but that's offensive."

Another famous example is Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1. During the fight at the House of Blue Leaves, the reason why the film becomes black & white halfway through is that the MPAA wanted to give it an NC-17 rating when the entire scene was in color. By changing it to black & white the MPAA re-evaluated their decision and gave it an R rating.

So what you have with the MPAA is, like with the National Board of Censorship, a de-facto censorship organization. They have a team of screeners who decide the ratings every film gets. Without those ratings, filmmakers don't have a chance to end up in theaters nationwide. So while they claim the entire process is voluntary, and therefore not censorship, they have created a system where filmmakers and production companies can't function without them.

And (unsurprisingly) the MPAA is just as ridiculous with their standards as they were when they were the MPPDA and were enforcing the production code. Female sexuality (ranging from explicit nudity to showing a female orgasm) often gets an NC-17 rating right away while violence, blood, and torture will get R ratings. If you say fuck more than once in a film you automatically go from PG-13 to R. In fact, there are some films that are rated R only because of their curse words (words, I should add, teenagers are already using on a daily basis in their personal lives).

 

So what do we do? Well, while I suppose it's not practical, what we should do is scrap the MPAA.

Firstly, as has already been detailed, it acts as a de-facto censorship board with ridiculous standards. It is not a voluntary system for directors who want their work to be seen (which is everyone) and it tampers with creative vision. In other words, the system is already so corrupt that trying to alter it would be just like the MPPDA changing its name and creating a new system.

Secondly, the ratings do not protect kids. This is their main goal, and yet more parents are bringing their kids to rated-R films every day. I remember sitting in the theater when Logan was playing and seeing parents file in with their six to ten-year-old daughters and sons. So if the system isn't "protecting children" what is it good for?

Finally, the MPAA rating system has often revealed itself to be sexist and homophobic, often giving films that deal with female sexuality and same-sex relationships much harsher ratings than films dealing with male sexuality and heterosexual relationships.

If you need a clear example of this, just look to Ghostbusters where Dan Akroyd's character gets oral sex from a ghost. That was rated PG. Boys Don't Cry had to fight against an NC-17 rating in part because of a female orgasm that went on longer than the MPAA liked.

 

Now we can't have total anarchy, either. I don't subscribe to an "anything goes" style system. But a new system needs to be built from the ground up. Maybe by directors; maybe by filmgoers. Regardless of where it comes from, though, it should not be shrouded in secrecy and held to complete privacy like the MPAA is. People have the right to know what is in the films coming out -- it can help them decide whether or not they want to see it. But the focus should not be to deter people from going to see films. It should be to excite them.

Just ask yourself this question: would you still have gone to see Kill Bill Vol. 1 if it had an NC-17 rating? If the House of Blue Leaves sequence had been fully in color? An NC-17 rating, or the lack of a rating, shouldn't bar someone from participating in the theater experience. The MPAA makes it so those filmmakers cannot have that experience, though, unless they bend the knee and obey their (often) ridiculous wishes.

That is why the MPAA needs to go.