Steven Spielberg's push against Netflix at Oscars hits nerve
After Roma's success, could Netflix be shut out of future Oscar contention?
When Steven Spielberg speaks about the business of Hollywood, everyone generally listens and few dissent. But reports that he intends to support rule changes that could block Netflix from Oscars-eligibility have provoked a heated, and unwieldy, debate online this weekend.
It has found the legendary filmmaker at odds with some industry heavyweights, who have pointed out that Netflix has been an important supporter of minority filmmakers and stories, especially in awards campaigns, while also reigniting the ongoing streaming versus theatrical debate.
Spielberg has weighed in before on whether streaming movies should compete for the film industry's most prestigious award (TV movies, he said last year, should compete for Emmys), but that was before Netflix nearly succeeded in getting its first best picture Oscar for Alfonso Cuaron's Roma at last week's Academy Awards.
Netflix, of course, did not win the top award — Green Book, which was produced partially by Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, did.
Still, Netflix was a legitimate contender, and this year, the streaming service is likely to step up its awards game even more with Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, which The Hollywood Reporter said may also be gunning for a wide-theatrical release. A teaser ad aired during the 91st Oscars for the gangster drama said "in theaters next fall," instead of the "in select theaters" phrasing that was used for Roma.
But Netflix also isn't playing by the same rules as other studios. The company doesn't report theatrical grosses, for one, and it's been vexing some more traditional Hollywood executives throughout this award season and there have been whispers in recent weeks that a reckoning is coming.
We love cinema. Here are some things we also love:<br><br>-Access for people who can't always afford, or live in towns without, theaters <br>-Letting everyone, everywhere enjoy releases at the same time<br>-Giving filmmakers more ways to share art <br><br>These things are not mutually exclusive.—@NetflixFilm
NETFLIX: <destroys home video market, overwhelms competition w sheer volume, has like 3 movies made before 1980, only releases impossibly good stats><br>ALSO NETFLIX: <tries to sever quality filmmaking from theaters><br>SPIELBERG: <complains><br>YOU: Crawl into your grave and die old man—@theseantcollins
Now, Spielberg and others are planning to do something about it by supporting a revised film academy regulation at an upcoming meeting of the organization's board of governors that would disqualify Netflix from the Oscars — or at least how the streaming giant currently operates during awards season.
This year Roma got a limited theatrical qualifying run and an expensive campaign with one of the industry's most successful awards publicists, Lisa Taback, leading the charge. But Netflix operates somewhat outside the industry while also infiltrating its most important institutions, like the Oscars and the Motion Picture Association of America. Some like Spielberg, are worried about what that will mean for the future of movies.
"Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation," an Amblin spokesperson told IndieWire's Anne Thompson late last week. "He'll be happy if the others will join [his campaign] when that comes up. He will see what happens."
An Amblin representative said Sunday there was nothing to add.
Wider film community chimes in
But some see Spielberg's position as wrong-minded, especially when it comes to the Academy Awards, which requires a theatrical run to be eligible for an award. Many online have pointed out the hypocrisy that the organization allows members to watch films on DVD screeners before voting.
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted at the film academy's handle in response to the news that the topic would be discussed at a board of governors meeting, which is comprised of only 54 people out of over 8,000 members.
"I hope if this is true, that you'll have filmmakers in the room or read statements from directors like me who feel differently," DuVernay wrote.
Dear <a href="https://twitter.com/TheAcademy?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TheAcademy</a>, This is a Board of Governors meeting. And regular branch members can’t be there. But I hope if this is true, that you’ll have filmmakers in the room or read statements from directors like me who feel differently. Thanks, Ava DuVernay. <a href="https://t.co/DFBLVWhiJj">https://t.co/DFBLVWhiJj</a>—@ava
One of the things I value about Netflix is that it distributes black work far/wide. 190 countries will get WHEN THEY SEE US. Here’s a promo for South Africa. I’ve had just one film distributed wide internationally. Not SELMA. Not WRINKLE. It was 13TH. By Netflix. That matters. <a href="https://t.co/lpn1FFSfgG">https://t.co/lpn1FFSfgG</a>—@ava
Some took a more direct approach, questioning whether Spielberg understands how important Netflix has been to minority filmmakers in recent years.
Franklin Leonard, who founded The BlackList, which surveys the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood, noted that Netflix's first four major Oscar campaigns were all by and about filmmakers of colour: Beasts of No Nation, The 13th, Mudbound and Roma.
By my count, Spielberg does one roughly every two decades.—@franklinleonard
The Academy is then faced with a choice between 1. finding another way to support the theatrical experience and 2. further excluding communities that have been historically excluded from its ranks, which has catastrophic consequences downwind in the industry.—@franklinleonard
"It's possible that Steven Spielberg doesn't know how difficult it is to get movies made in the legacy system as a woman or a person of colour. In his extraordinary career, he hasn't exactly produced or executive produced many films directed by them," Leonard tweeted Saturday.
"By my count, Spielberg does one roughly every two decades."
It's important to note that Netflix didn't produce Beasts of No Nation, Mudbound or Roma, but rather acquired them for distribution. But if Oscar campaigns are no longer part of the equation in a Netflix-partnership, top-tier filmmakers are likely to take their talents and films elsewhere.
Others, like First Reformed filmmaker Paul Schrader, had a slightly different take.
'Not as simple as theatrical vs. streaming'
"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,'" Schrader wrote in a Facebook post Saturday.
"Netflix allows many financially marginal films to have a platform and that's a good thing."
But his Academy Award-nominated film, he thinks, would have gotten lost on Netflix and possibly, "relegated to film esoterica." Netflix had the option to purchase the film out of the Toronto International Film Festival and didn't. A24 did and stuck with the provocative film through awards season.
"Distribution models are in flux," Schrader concluded. "It's not as simple as theatrical versus streaming."
One thing is certain, however: Netflix is not going away any time soon and how it integrates with the traditional structures of Hollywood, like the Oscars, is a story that's still being written.
Sean Baker, who directed The Florida Project, suggested a compromise: that Netflix offer a "theatrical tier" to pricing plans, which would allow members to see its films in theatres for free.
2/3 This would help keep theater owners and audience members who appreciate the theatrical experience satisfied.—@Lilfilm
3/3 Just an idea with no details ironed out. But we need to find solutions like this in which everybody bends a bit in order to keep the film community (which includes theater owners, film festivals and competitive distributors) alive and kicking.—@Lilfilm
"I know I'd spend an extra two dollars a month to see films like Roma or Buster Scruggs on the big screen," Baker tweeted.
"Just an idea with no details ironed out. But we need to find solutions like this in which everybody bends a bit in order to keep the film community (which includes theatre owners, film festivals and competitive distributors) alive and kicking."