Musings on the Spielberg VS Netflix Debate

Hello readers! Today is the fifth and up until a couple of years ago, it’s customary that I post five random movie news/tidbits/query under the Five for the Fifth series. Well, this topic would certainly be part of that series today!

I had thought about this quite a bit since I heard about Steven Spielberg’s plan to push for the Academy to ban Netflix from Oscars at its annual post-Oscars meeting. Spielberg is the Academy Governor of the directors branch and this is what his company Amblin spokesperson is quoted as saying:

“Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation… He’ll be happy if the others will join [his campaign] when that comes up [at the Academy Board of Governors meeting]. He will see what happens.” (per Variety)

I didn’t know this but apparently Spielberg has said in the past that Netflix films should only be eligible for Emmys rather than Oscars. Again per Variety, this is what he said back in 2018: “You certainly, if it’s a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar. I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”

This news was first reported by Indiewire, and it lists some of the complaints from Hollywood studios against the streaming service. Among others, the fact that Netflix doesn’t report box office and that it doesn’t respect the 90-day theatrical window. ROMA only spent spent 3 weeks in the theatre before it’s shown on Netflix.

Now, this is what Netflix responded with on Twitter a couple of days later, without mentioning Spielberg by name…


Now, when I first read Spielberg’s comment, I was already unnerved by it. My initial reaction is that he’s just a big Hollywood elite who does not like change, especially one that threatens his own status and tradition he holds dear. No doubt that ‘threat’ got bigger when Netflix’s ROMA got no less than 10 nominations at the Oscars this year AND won three, including Best Foreign Language film.

Now, I don’t have to be a filmmaker to realize how tough it is not only to get a film made, but to get it distributed. An indie filmmaker would be lucky to get even a limited theatrical release, and few could expect to get a wide release the way a standard legacy (studio) system would. The title of the IndieWire article alone says it all about what this ‘battle’ means for the underdogs, aka indie filmmakers…

The Spielberg vs. Netflix Battle Could Mean Collateral Damage for Indies at the Oscars

I recognize that many of the films Netflix campaign aggressively for Oscars were about people of color AND were made by people of color who are still very much a minority under the Hollywood legacy system… Beasts of No Nation (Cary Joji Fukunaga), 13th (Ava Duvernay), Mudbound (Dee Rees), and Roma (Alfonso Cuarón).

So naturally, as a filmmaker of color myself who’s trying to get a feature made, I experience it firsthand how arduous it is to get the chance to make a film. Indie filmmakers don’t get the privilege to expect ANY theatrical release, and many consider getting even a streaming release as a huge accomplishment. Thus I see Netflix as an ally to independent filmmakers, and also filmmakers of color. Based on the films they’ve made/distributed, they seem committed to inclusive storytelling which can only be a good thing for film fans everywhere. But of course that’s still somehow seen as a challenge to the ‘status quo’ who only says they support ‘diversity’ if it aligns with their own success and pocketbooks.

As a film fan, I have increasingly choose to see films on my TV rather than going to the theater. Yes, as a press member I do get invited to advanced screenings, but if I miss some of those films, I often choose to wait until it’s available on VOD. Now, when I know it’s a Netflix film or an Amazon Studio film, I’m glad to know that I can see it sooner and without paying extra because I already have subscriptions to both streaming services. So to me, the quality of a film and its legitimacy to be regarded as a motion picture (read: its Oscars-eligibility) has no bearing on where it’s presented. Spielberg seems to say that there is one way to see a movie and that is on the big screen. I think that communal way of film viewing will never go away, and I still do enjoy seeing some films on the big screen (even in IMAX if it’s made specifically for that giant screen), but there is really no wrong way to see a movie.

Many Hollywood studios don’t like the fact that Netflix doesn’t report theatrical grosses. They are starting to share some metrics of audience viewerships (per BGR.com) so perhaps they’d do the same with theatrical release numbers in the future? Not that it matters to me, the audience member, nor should it have any bearing in the quality of a film.

Even before the Spielberg news came out, Alfonso Cuarón already weighed in on this subject to Variety:

There needs to be greater diversity in how we release our films. Distribution models need to be more flexible, depending on the film. You cannot impose the release strategy of a tentpole film on a smaller film. You may need fewer theaters and longer runs or models in which the so-called window is shorter. We’re thinking in one single paradigm. It’s a moment to start opening up paradigms. Right now it’s a confrontation between economic models. It’s not like one model benefits cinema, and the other does not.


Now, I’m NOT writing this because I’m on the side of a multi-billion dollar streaming company. In fact, I’ve been a longtime fan of Spielberg, but his comments shows him as being out of touch and elitist who wants to maintain his status quo. He’s a product of the studio system where minorities (women, people of color, disabled, etc) struggle to get in and tell their story.

I came across this thread from Franklin Leonard, the founder of The Black List (an annual survey of Hollywood’s executives’ favorite unproduced screenplays), and it’s hard to argue with his points…


Yes I realize some of you might argue that Netflix is not an ‘underdog’ company that deserves our sympathy. After all it spent about $50 million for Roma‘s Oscar campaign alone. So perhaps the argument should be about limiting spending on Oscar campaigns? I personally can’t stand studio’s award campaign, that’s one of the worst things about award season for me. But if the film Netflix or other streaming service is promoting is a worthy one, who’s to say it’s not eligible to be included in the Oscar race??

As I have just seen a Netflix Original Film last night, TRIPLE FRONTIER. It’s the first time I saw a Netflix film on the big screen, surely the first of many. At the film premiere, no doubt this topic was all the buzz. One of the film’s star who’s also a filmmaker, Ben Affleck, is naturally supportive of Netflix, saying that “they’re helping define the future of cinema and distribution” (per Deadline).

Per Cinema Blend, Affleck spoke of his rationale why he wouldn’t be in Spielberg’s camp in trying to disqualify streaming films (even those that has limited theatrical release) from competing at Oscars…

We certainly approached [Triple Frontier] as any other movie. There’s no difference when you’re making it between what the platform is that it’s going to be seen on. I do think Netflix is doing more interesting stuff in creating a more cinematic experience for the home. More people, more viewers, bigger TVs, bigger sound. They’re doing Dolby Cinema color correction, they do Dolby Atmos sound mixes. So they’re sort of synthesizing the theatrical with the home viewing experience in a kind of interesting way. It’s all changing very fast.


Netflix continues to work with big names in filmmaking, (One of Triple Frontier‘s executive producers is Kathryn Bigelow) and they’ve got Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman with its all-star cast (DeNiro, Pacino, Harvey Keitel) which will likely get an even wider release than ROMA. I personally think it’s an exciting time as a film fan as we have more options for content and how we want to see them.

So in conclusion, I’m glad there are streaming services like Netflix exists. I’m lucky that I live in a city where there are plenty of cinemas. But even so, there are always smaller films that I want to see that don’t get shown or they’re shown only in 1-2 theaters in Minneapolis for 2 weeks tops. I’d imagine people in rural or remote areas don’t even get that same privilege, but it’d be easier for them to subscribe to streaming services like Netflix.

In the end, I believe in options… I like to be able to see movies wherever and whenever I want. In the ideal world, the theatrical and streaming model should co-exist. Just because something has been done one way for so long doesn’t mean it has to be the ONLY way.


So what do you think of this Spielberg VS Netflix debate? Let’s hear it!