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.
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.