Spielberg, Netflix, and Hollywood’s Shifting Battlegrounds

Continuing an already contentious year in the film industry after a disastrous fever dream of an awards’ season, it seems that some in Hollywood aren’t happy to let Los Angeles lie in peace. Earlier this week, Steven Spielberg took to the stage to voice his concerns and quarrels with the direction of the industry.

Namely, Spielberg is acting in response to this year’s Academy Awards, and the ever-growing presence of films produced and distributed by streaming giants like Netflix, arguing that films premiering on streaming platforms and in theatres at the same time should be banned from the competition. Somewhat of a stalwart of ‘old’ Hollywood, it seems that Spielberg is pushing back against the ‘revolution’ brought forth by Netflix and its peers, insisting on a more traditional theatrical setting for the year’s ‘prestige’ cinema.

For a man who still insists on shooting on film and in many ways lives in the ‘past’ cinematically, it’s not surprising to see Spielberg speak out against a challenge to the established norms of Hollywood, but his justifications for his lobbying against Netflix are difficult to discern. Spielberg’s announcement, in all officiality, comes from his production company Amblin Entertainment’s PR team, only noting that “Steven feels strongly about the difference between streaming and theatrical situation” — not exactly the most impassioned plea to support his motion, to be brought up at the Academy Board of Governors meeting. Digging a little further back into Spielberg’s comments though, interviews in years gone by put it as bluntly as “once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie.”

It seems as though his quarrels don’t come down to issues of merit or quality, but just with semantics and technicalities. It seems on the surface that Spielberg is taking a stance out of sheer stubbornness, but it’s worth digging into whether there could potentially be any merit to his attack on Netflix. Netflix, after all, is no longer the ‘little guy’ in the room. This isn’t an underdog story anymore; it’s a $150 billion corporation through and through. One glance at Netflix’s interface and back catalogue will show you that they’re not exactly noble wardens of the art of cinema. They’re a company putting out commercial, corporatised programming, which is as frequent and varied as possible to maximise profits. Even finishing a film feels somehow less ‘pure’ when watching it on Netflix, as every time the credits roll, the accomplishments of the people behind the film are minimised to a tiny window, just to force an advertisement for one of Netflix’s own productions. It’s unsettling to reach the end of Spielberg’s own Schindler’s List (1993) just to have John Williams’s sweeping credits suite almost instantly drowned out by a trailer hoping to convince you to turn your viewing into a certified ‘binge’ of Holocaust dramas.

Netflix is not a celebration of ‘Old Hollywood’ and for a video streaming service that could potentially serve to archive and digitise an unlimited source of classic films, they have remarkably few films from before even the turn of the century. As of June 2017, just 97 of the 1,350 dramas on the US Netflix catalogue were released before 2000, a staggeringly low number. For a company whose rebuttal to Spielberg’s attack was that they ‘love cinema,’ it seems like their love doesn’t extend beyond the average age of their subscribers.

Of course, there is likely one problem that rears its head above all else for stalwarts of cinema like Spielberg: the movie-going experience. For men like him, films were enjoyed exclusively in hushed, darkened cinemas, in the ‘purest’ possible representation of the artist’s intentions. With Netflix’s almost universal compatibility, that sanctity can now be broken, be it on a cramped laptop screen in a coffee shop or on a 4-inch phone display at a train station. It’s not hard to imagine that as a filmmaker, Spielberg wants his artistic expression to be viewed as intended, and that view has some merit. ROMA was one of the most breathtaking experiences of the year, but even on a sizeable TV at home, I wished I’d been able to make it to the extremely limited theatrical screenings; I can’t imagine how much less engrossing the film would’ve been had I been cradling my phone on a bus.

What Spielberg is pushing for is a wider theatrical release, a chance to further extend that narrow period of screenings he sees as nothing more than a token window to qualify for awards. He wants a four-week period of theatrical exclusivity to be eligible for the Academy Awards, which on paper doesn’t seem all that unreasonable, allowing more people to experience the magic of films like ROMA or The Ballad of Buster Scruggs on the big screen.

This demand ignores however, that Netflix still needs to operate like a regular studio when it comes to theatrical releases. Its uniqueness as a platform allows more films to be made and widely distributed to millions of people online who otherwise wouldn’t have encountered them, without the risk of ‘losing’ money. Netflix is a seemingly bottomless pit of investments into cinematic ideas both good and bad, but when it comes to something like the reported $60 million distribution cost for ROMA’s theatrical release and awards campaign, profit is suddenly something that needs to be considered. If Netflix needs to shell out for a costly distribution run for relatively low-budget films, they begin to stop choosing the recipients of their patronage for their potential or uniqueness and start assessing them for profitability. No longer would the ‘hidden gems’ of their library be eligible for awards, but only those few they deliberately and at great expense force through theatre doors.

Other filmmakers like Ava DuVernay have come out in support of Netflix in this ‘war’ between Hollywood old and new, praising the company for its distribution to those without local theatres or those who find theatres inaccessible, and in its funding of bold, original projects. Surely Spielberg, a man who struggled himself to find distribution for his films, empathises with the unique opportunity Netflix offers many filmmakers? If even someone as accomplished as Alfonso Cuarón opted for the service as his film’s distributor, and screen legend Martin Scorsese partnered with them for his next film, would a young, down-on-his-luck Spielberg really have turned down Netflix’s offer if they’d offered to distribute Jaws (1975)?

Spielberg might be getting at something with his pushback against Netflix, but his way of going about it is not ideal. Nobody is marching to Cuarón’s house to forcibly remove his incredibly well-deserved Oscars for ROMA, nor does Spielberg seem to be arguing for any inherent inferiority in Netflix films; he simply wants to see films as they were intended. Whilst it’s a noble idea, it ignores the complications and politics of the Hollywood system that would see the smaller, understated masterpieces buried in some obscure genre grouping on Netflix, swept under the rug and forgotten like so many others.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr. 

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