K&M Commentary: Spielberg vs. Netflix

IMG_1001-0For movie fans it has been hard to miss the buzz surrounding Steven Spielberg and his crusade to keep streaming movies, most notably Netflix, out of consideration for the Oscars. Spielberg hasn’t spoken publicly since the announcement of his upcoming meeting with fellow members of the Academy’s board of governors, but past comments more than reveal his position.

Spielberg wants to preserve the movie theater experience, something I completely understand. I love going to the theater. It’s one of my favorite forms of entertainment and it allows me to see movies on the best screen and in the best setting. I can get behind filmmakers working to hold onto what many of us believe is the ideal way to view a movie.

But that’s about as far as I can go in defending Spielberg’s crusade. As well-intended as he may be, he seems to be overlooking the realities of the current movie watching landscape. It may hurt to admit it, but fewer and fewer people have or are developing the same deep affection for the theater experience that many of us have. But the benefits to having Netflix around go beyond that.

Filmmakers, specifically those who make independent movies, have been vocal in expressing how difficult it can be not only to get their films made but to get them to an audience. Netflix not only provides them creative freedoms and in some cases financial support. It also provides them a platform to reach people who otherwise would have a tough time seeing their movie. Obviously this isn’t a huge deal for the big budget pictures that Spielberg is known for.

But this isn’t just good for the filmmakers. Spielberg should know that not everyone lives in a big market. Not everyone has a slew of movie theater options. Personally speaking, I live in a state that either has to wait months before certain movies arrive or misses out on these films altogether. This is particularly true for indies and foreign films which eventually are made available on (ironically) streaming platforms.

There are several points where Spielberg’s position falls apart. Take this shot he took at Netflix: “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“. This is funny considering how many movies pop up for a week on select big city screens at the end of year just to qualify for the Oscars.

Also, you would be tempted to think Spielberg judges movies by the size of the screen they appear on rather than the actual quality of the film. Obviously this is problematic for him. Let’s say a movie premieres at a festival and is picked up by A24. Everyone is fine. There is no outcry that the film should be disqualified from the Academy Awards. Now let’s say Netflix outbids A24 and lands the very same movie. Suddenly it’s treated as a different film simply because of the screen it’s viewed on.

Again, Spielberg has a genuine concern and preserving the movie theater experience is something many of us care about. At the same time you have to be realistic and forward-thinking. And as more celebrated filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuaron tap into the benefits of Netflix, guys like Spielberg can either be open-minded or die fighting on that hill. And as I’ve said elsewhere, wouldn’t you love to be a fly on the wall when Spielberg tells Cuaron (“Roma”) or Scorsese (“The Irishman”) that their movies belong at the Emmys and not the Oscars?

As for the Academy, if they want to find a way to be even more irrelevant as some already perceive them to be, just ram through Spielberg’s proposal and tell filmmakers and viewers they aren’t making or watching Oscar-worthy movies. Watching the backlash would be far more entertaining than any Academy Awards broadcast of the last decade.

I would love to see these efforts put towards coexisting instead of separating. My biggest hope is that we can find a way to preserve the big screen experience while embracing the opportunities Netflix provides filmmakers and movie lovers. Sounds great doesn’t it? But is it even remotely realistic? I guess we’ll find out.

32 thoughts on “K&M Commentary: Spielberg vs. Netflix

  1. It seems that Steven doesn’t know the difference between a movie produced by Netflix and a movie distributed by Netflix. Movies in the former group are listed in many websites as made-for-TV movies (which is one of Steven’s arguements) and I’m sure Netflix would never give them short theatrical runs. ROMA and MUDBOUND are in the latter group. They were allowed to compete against theatrical releases because they were cinematic productions that just happened to be bought by a streaming service. Where I live, ROMA is still being shown in a couple of theatres. It’s not just about playing by the Academy’s rules; it’s about recognizing when a movie deserves to be experienced on the big screen.

    BEHIND THE CANDELABRA and last year’s THE TALE premiered on HBO, making them made-for-TV movies, right? Yet, they were nominated for the BAFTAs and the Spirit Awards respectively. To stay on topic with the Oscars, THE HUNTING GROUND was nominated for one and it won an Emmy (both for Best Song). Why hasn’t Steven said something about that?

    • Brilliant points. It seems Spielberg certainly doesn’t want to differentiate between the two. But as you clearly define, there is definitely a difference. It will be interesting to see how this whole thing plays out. I’m curious if Spielberg still has the clout that he certainly believes he does. And I say that as an admirer, although a disappointed one.

      • Netflix goes out of their way to hide the difference. Movies and shows have the logo and are listed as “originals” regardless of whether Netflix produced them or just distributes them. I guess it’s so people think that they’re able to produce cinematic-quality movies? If so, it’s a good marketing strategy, but also a reason to partly blame them for causing this debate.

        There’s also the confusion on how exclusive their distribution is. Some shows like BETTER CALL SAUL are released on Netflix in many countries at the same time they air on American TV… and are still listed as “originals.” And shows produced by Netflix can apparently still be shown on TV. I recently visited my country and I saw a promo about DAREDEVIL “premiering its brand new *second* season” on cable.

      • It is confusing. Netflix definitely could be a little clearer are transparent. But my biggest gripe with them is their poor interface. It’s too hard to find new things.

  2. The movie experience for me just isn’t the same as it used to be. I remember going to the picture show and sitting down and watching on the big silver screen. Now days you got these super hero pictures getting out of hand. Now you tell me they got a picture coming out titled Steven Speilburg vs Netflix. That is way too much.

  3. I truly admire Steven Spielberg. I really do. He’s a pioneer of film-making in the same breath as Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola. I think he’s that damn good. As much as I dump on award shows, the reason for their existence is to celebrate the art of film-making regardless of how the medium is consumed. What Mr. Spielberg forgets is the economics of going to see a movie in theaters. With rising ticket prices, it’s actually more difficult for the average audience member to go and see a movie in theaters. Not only that, the movie-going experience has drastically changed over the past 30 years, and not necessarily for the better. The last few times I’ve been to the theaters I’ve seen people just talk and use their smartphones throughout the entire movie, missing the entire point of going to the movies. I get distracted from that, so my experience is not as good as it could be. Netflix provides an alternative method of seeing movies so you don’t have to deal with the issues of going to theaters.

    Are there movies that are worth seeing on the big screen? Oh, hell yes! Star Wars, The Avengers, and A Star Is Born are just prime examples. Movie theaters will still be there. There is definitely room for both. For me, watching movies is less about the theater experience and more about appreciating the art form, which is what I thought these award shows should be about. Netflix should not be excluded from the Oscars because their movies aren’t going to the theaters. Look at movies like Outlaw King and The Beast of No Nation, these are incredible films that have every right to be considered for an Oscar or Academy Award.

    • Great comments. Funny you should mention obnoxious people at the theater. While watching Greta last week I had two of the most annoying people in front of me. Two women in their thirties who should have known better.. they gabbed and made noises the entire time.

      I also love that you mentioned “Beasts of No Nation”. I love that film. They do indeed have every right to be considered for the Oscars. Here’s something else – it’s also a movie that would have never made it to a theater anywhere near me. Netflix made seeing it possible for others like me in smaller markets.

  4. Yeah I have to say, much as I like Spielberg’s product he is looking a little bit of a sourpuss elitist over this. As much as I like tripping out to the theater, I am always drawn to movies that I think I will enjoy (maybe that is an obvious statement), and that mindset doesn’t discriminate against venue. I’d rather watch something great at home honestly than something naff at the theater (where I’d also be spending gas money). However there are those things that just have to be seen in theaters (First Man; Dunkirk) and that’s never going away. Spielberg is just getting too preoccupied with who deserves what award. Shut up already and make another movie, man.

    • Can’t argue with you one bit. I adore going to the theater. But realistically speaking, I like 60 miles away from a truly great theater. That’s gas money plus a lot of miles on my vehicles. And then there is the reality of what Netflix offers both to viewers but also filmmakers. Instead of targeting Netflix maybe Spielberg should be working towards opening doors for smaller films and foreign language pictures to get more exposure. That’s a cause I think all cinephiles would get behind.

  5. I understand Spielberg’s need to preserve the theatrical experience and I would love for films from Netflix to be shown in theaters. While I admit to have issues with Netflix over their exclusivity, some of the changes they made on films (recently with The Notebook), and the guy who runs Netflix as he comes across as a real asshole.

    The idea of films from Netflix not being able to be in consideration for the Oscars is just Fascist in my opinion. Yes, we live in a world where not a films will be available for theaters as they will be here one week and gone in the next but if they’re at least available at your home. That’s cool. I would still at least give those films a chance to at least be seen in the multiplexes for maybe a week or 2 just so that people who aren’t Netflix subscribers (such as myself) can at least see this films and maybe consider subscribing to Netflix or don’t have to.

    There’s just a bunch of shit happening from both sides as I was mad at Netflix for their exclusivity over what happened at Cannes a few years ago and why they may not come back to the festival. Now I think people are being a bit unfair to Netflix as I think they need the chance to at least do something for the industry but also realize that not everyone has an art house theater in their small town and don’t have the means to drive an hour away to go see an art house film.

    • Good words! And here’s something I haven’t mentioned. The studios and their crappy release schedules are a bigger frustration for me than Netflix. They open in select theaters on this day and then a few more a month later. Some open here in the States some six months before landing overseas and vice-versa. These types of things makes a Netflix option look great for some of us.

      • That is true as we wait for a film to come out and then there’s all of this other bullshit. I can see why Netflix is an option though I still won’t take that plunge into subscribing into a screening service. Mainly due to money.

      • I understand that. What’s bad is when everyone wants their own streaming service. Disney, Warner Bros, etc. Who could afford all of that?

  6. I actually read a pretty good analysis of Netflix and streaming by Paul Schrader (posted below).

    _____________________________________________________________

    THE NETFLIX DEBATE. I have no animus against Netflix. Ted Sarandos is as smart about film as any studio exec I’ve ever met. Distribution models evolve. The notion of squeezing 200+ people into a dark unventilated space to see a flickering image was created by exhibition economics not any notion of the “theatrical experience.” Netflix allows many financially marginal films to have a platform and that’s a good thing. But here’s my query: it involves FIRST REFORMED. First Reformed was sold at a bargain price to A24 out of the Toronto FF. Netflix, which could have snapped it up as easily as it swats a fly on its ass, passed. As did Amazon. As did Sony Classics and Focus. But A24 saw a commercial path for this austere aesthetic film. As a result First Reformed found a life. A24 rolled it out through festivals and screenings from 2017 to 2018. And it survived. Not a big money maker but profitable for A24 and a jewel in their crown. Would First Reformed have found this public acceptance if Netflix and scooped it up (at say twice the price A24 payed) and dumped it into its larder? Perhaps Bird Box and Kissing Booth can fight their way through the vast sea of Netflix product to find popular acceptance, but First Reformed? Unlikely. Relegated to film esoterica. A different path? My proposal: For club cinemas (Alamo Draft House, Metrograph, Burns Center, Film Forum) to form an alliance with a two tiered streaming system (first tier: Criterion/Mubi, second tier: Netflix/Amazon).Distribution models are in flux. It’s not as simple as theatrical versus streaming.

    _____________________________________________________________

    Although the movie theater is and will always be the optimal place for cinema, streaming is not a bad thing. It can help really spread movies nationwide that audiences couldn’t find in theaters nearby (albeit for those who have a strong and steady enough Internet connection). How many people would have seen a movie like Roma, a black and white foreign language period piece centering on a Mexican housekeeper, if it wasn’t on Netflix? That’s not even mentioning how its backlog library of “syndicated” films and tv series really helped push them into the public; without Netflix, it’s hard to imagine Breaking Bad to become as big as it did.

    On the other hand, Netflix is very unwilling to put their films in theaters beyond the bare minimum (Amazon, in juxtaposition, didn’t oppose the traditional 90-day theatrical release window), and they won’t release any box office info for the movies that do. And the movies they tend to heavily promote and give bigger releases to (like Roma and almost certainly The Irishman) are the ones with big household names attached (Alfonso Cuaron and Martin Scorsese respectively). If Netflix had acquired say Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, another black and white foreign language period piece, would it have gotten the same big publicity push Cuaron had?

    Ultimately, I do side with Netflix on this issue, despite that they are not perfect. Even though they mostly acquire distribution rights instead of producing content in-house, Netflix is what movie studios were like before the United States v. Paramount case; a film company that owns and controls its own means of distribution (streaming service rather than theaters).

    • Very interesting read. Several title you mentioned tie in perfectly with my argument. I mentioned Roma in my piece. Netflix made it possible for me to see that film. Now take a movie like Cold War. I still haven’t seen that movie! To my knowledge it hasn’t opened anywhere in my smaller market area. This is a significant strength for the streaming argument. I get really frustrated at the inability to see so many movies.

      Here is another example. I am a huge fan of Asghar Farhadi. His latest movie Everybody Knows still hasn’t shown anywhere close nor is it available for streaming. It sucks to really be hungry to see a film but be denied due to big screen release schedules and distribution models.

      Schrader offers some neat insight. All I would say in response is that the idea of a ‘theater experience’ has certainly evolved. It’s no longer just a flickering screen. High-end digital projections, surround sound, etc. And his question “Would First Reformed have found this public acceptance if Netflix and scooped it up (at say twice the price A24 payed) and dumped it into its larder?”. I honestly don’t have an answer. But I do know you have the same amount of uncertainty releasing to theaters. How many truly great smaller movies like First Reformed release and never find the audience it deserves.

      It’s a fascinating discussion and I’m not sure if it has a bruise-free answer.

      • That’s the major problem with theatrical releases: many of the big theater chains are unwilling to screen foreign language or small indies, meaning specialty arthouse places are pretty much the only outlet for movies like Shoplifters and Burning. And those films tend to receive their initial or only runs in NY and LA (where all the industry people are) that even cities like Chicago and San Fransisco have to wait some time for them to come out.

        I’m lucky in having the chance to have seen Roma, The Other Side of the Wind, Buster Scruggs, and Hold the Dark in theaters (including Roma on 70mm). It’s hard for me to imagine watching Roma (let alone a new Orson Welles film) on their phone or laptop, but I like that Netflix gives a bigger outlet to these movies. I just wish they would champion smaller movies made by less prevalent directors as well, though I suppose that’s not an enriching business strategy for them.

        I’d fully support Schrader’s idea of an arthouse-focused streaming site that caters to film buffs like you and me, but sadly enough I’m not sure if it’s a sustainable business. You’d likely have a higher-than-typical monthly subscription tag (say $10-15) for a back catalog of original and syndicated releases that would only appeal to a very small audience. It’s why, sadly enough, that FilmStruck, my favorite of all the streaming services, didn’t last; hopefully the Criterion Channel is a big success.

        Also, I saw both Cold War and Everybody Knows at Cannes and enjoyed both. I am a big fan of Farhadi’s as well (him and Jafar Panahi are the torchbearers of Abbas Kiarostami), and although I read some mixed reviews for EK, I did really like it. A friend of mine even ran into him at the festival and got the chance to talk with him for a second.

      • What an awesome story about Farhadi. I’m insanely jealous! I hated to see Filmstruck go. I actually bought a Roku device solely to watch Filmstruck on my big TV. I’m with you, fingers crossed on Criterion Channel. I’m signed up already.

  7. I don’t think the point being made by Spielberg is about the quality of the material at all. I also don’t think the issue is primarily about preserving the theatrical experience. This is a technical issue about defining the rules under which a film can qualify for Academy Award consideration. The traditional criteria was that a film had to play in a theater in New York and Los Angeles in a run that started in the year for which the film is being considered. Those one week engagements that others are referring to in this thread were advance engagements for films that were scheduled to open early in the next year, they were not substitutes for a full theatrical release. Imagine a scenario where a film is played by Netflix to qualify in a one week run, It receives a nomination and then is never shown in a theater again but only on Netflix. Roma played in theaters that were rented out by Netflix, not shown by the exhibitors that are the traditional partners of motion pictures. Two theater chains that have Best Picture Showcases when the nominations are announced and the awards were upcoming (AMC and Regal) did not include Roma in their presentations because it was not made available to them for theatrical exhibition. Netflix does not release internal numbers about Box Office or streaming numbers, so there is a cloud of secrecy around the attractiveness of their productions. A Netflix film can be submitted to the Emmy’s without any requirement that it play anywhere else but on a streaming, broadcast, subscription service. So the difference between a TV film award and an Academy Award depends on theatrical performance. From what I see, Spielberg is just trying to make the rules clearer and more fair. Netflix , Amazon and others straddle two worlds , the rules are different in both business cultures. Under which set of rules are we going to live? Until the Motion Picture industry decides to forgo having their own culture and business, they need to be able to name the players.

  8. Interesting post! I think we’re all concerned about the movie theater experience going to disappear, but no one knows if that can be stopped and how! That should be the crucial point of the discussion, rather than the rules to qualify for the Academy awards…

  9. Pingback: YOUR VOICES: On the Movie Theater Experience | Keith & the Movies

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