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 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!


17 thoughts on “Musings on the Spielberg VS Netflix Debate

  1. I can understand where Spielberg is coming from as someone who is used to having his films be shown in theaters and to an audience as the idea of not being able to see a film in the big screen is something I don’t want to imagine. However, I do think Netflix is providing a great platform for filmmakers to get their films out although I wish these films would be given a proper theatrical showing like a month before it would be on Netflix. Sean Baker and Paul Schrader recently came up with ideas that I think would help both theaters and Netflix but I don’t remember what their ideas are.

    I do however have issues with Netflix as far as their exclusivity as I don’t subscribe to Netflix or any streaming service. Plus, I heard they make changes to films as there was complaints over the ending of The Notebook in the U.K. or something.

    1. Well the thing is, I don’t think Netflix is threatening to shut down theaters. Heck I mean they now have theatrical press screenings AND their original movies will be shown in limited theatrical releases before it gets to streaming. I think Sean Baker suggests some kind of a Theatrical Tier so people with that subscription can watch on the big screen free before it gets to Netflix.

      As far as making changes to films, well if the original filmmakers agree to it then I guess I don’t mind having TWO versions of the same movie. Again, it’s all about options.

      1. Yeah but I don’t buy what the CEO Netflix is claiming about his love for cinema. How can you love cinema if you make films exclusive to your streaming service if there’s people that don’t want to be part of Netflix?

        1. Well the business STARTED out as a streaming model for tv shows but their 3-week theater exclusive for their original movies (albeit in limited service) are available for subscribers and non-subscribers alike before they arrive on Netflix. Again, I don’t think you can say someone does not love cinema (as in movies) if they prefer to see it in the comfort of their home.

  2. I’m a huge fan of Spielberg even though I haven’t enjoyed or seen some of his recent films. But his crusade to exclude Netflix from Oscar contentions is pretty idiotic to me. I’m all for seeing films on the biggest screen available but not many people have access or need to see movies on the big screen. Like Affleck said, Netflix now offers their original films and shows in Dolby Color Grading and some in Dolby Atmos. Which means I don’t have to go see Triple Frontier at a Dolby Atmos theater, I can watch it on my home theater Atmos system. Also, I doubt that some of Spielberg’s recent films like The Post or Bridge of Spies would ever have been green-lit by the big studios if someone other than him had pitched those stories.

    Look at Scorsese’s The Irishman, he pitched the script to every big studios and they all turned it down. He’s been trying to get it made for over 10 years and the only it got made is because Netflix decided to fund it. I can guarantee you that no big studios in Hollywood wanted to make Roma and that’s why Curon went to them. Seems to me only few directors get can get their scripts to the big screen with no problem, Nolan, Spielberg, Tarantino and Cameron are probably the only filmmakers in Hollywood that studios won’t say no to. Just recently World War Z part 2 was cancelled even though David Fincher had worked on it for months.

    I just think Spielberg is still living in the past, time’s changing and he has to accept that newer generation of film goers/viewers won’t or need to see movies on the big screen.

    1. Yep indeed Ted, Netflix now offers their original films and shows in Dolby Color Grading and some in Dolby Atmos. Triple Frontier looks and sounds good.

      I can’t believe no studio is interested in The Irishman even with THAT cast?? But yeah, I think there’s only a tiny handful of filmmakers who can get studio backing these days and that is a travesty.

      Spielberg just needs to get w/ the program, the future of film consumption has obviously evolved years ago. He sounds like a petulant child who didn’t get his way.

      1. I was hoping Triple Frontier would stream this weekend but I have to wait till next Wednesday, oh well.

        I think the reason for Scorsese having trouble securing money for The Irishman is that most of his films weren’t box office hits, many of them were well received critically but the box numbers doesn’t impress studios folks. He tried to make Gangs of New York for like 20 years and only got it made because he cast DiCaprio. As usual, big studios only look at box office numbers and Spielberg, Nolan, QT and Cameron tends to have good tracks when it comes to making money for those studio big shots.

  3. I can understand Spielberg holding onto traditional paths of film making because he was successful and it’s comfortable. I like the side of Netflix, however. I just want to watch excellent movies and I don’t care who makes them. Three cheers to indie filmmakers for pressing on and finding a way for their films to reach an audience. The studio paradigm is falling apart. I’m glad for Amazon and Netflix studios. They are supplanting Hollywood.

    1. Hi Cindy! Spielberg is holding on tradition that has served him very well but there are SO many filmmakers out there still struggling to get stuff made, even Scorsese with The Irishman! As an indie filmmaker TRYING to get my film made, I can only wish the likes of Netflix would back me, I don’t have the privilege of expecting theatrical releases for my films. So yeah, I like change if that means more options for the underdogs and minority filmmakers who have been shut out by the big studios.

  4. I absolutely adore the theater experience, but Spielberg’s mindset really irks me. I’m with you, theater and streaming should and could absolutely co-exist. Talk a film like Roma. I like in a small market. If not for Netflix I would still be waiting for an opportunity to see it. So many indies and foreign films never even land in my state. I think Spielberg is intentionally blinded to these truths. Oh, and would love for him to personally tell Alfonso Cuaron that Roma wasn’t a “real movie” and that it belonged at the Emmys.

    1. Hi Keith! Yeah I do like theatrical experience but we both live in a state OUTSIDE of the scope of limited releases. So yeah, streaming services allow us to see things much sooner, if at all.

      “…would love for him to personally tell Alfonso Cuaron that Roma wasn’t a “real movie” and that it belonged at the Emmys.” Mwahahaha!! So true!! See how Cuaron and his fellow ‘Three Amigos’ Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro feel about that too 😉

  5. Sure there is an aspect to it that the big screen format for many large scale films is best suited and you MIGHT sell yourself short by resorting to watching it on your marginally smaller TV screen at home.

    For instance, I would not want to have my first experience seeing Black Panther any other visual spectacle of a film be on the small(er) screen.

    However, for me as a consumer it is about access and options. For instance, the fact that Roma was on Netflix (and also in the theaters mind you) meant that people who do not live in NY or LA had the ability to see it and did not have to forego seeing it during the fall film season. As a NYer myself, I get it. I always took for granted the proximity I have to all these films. But this is a great opportunity for people to access stories as well for creators to get their stories seen by a wider and selective audience.

    It also seems like the film industry is headed into the same uncharted territory that music and TV are currently dealing with.

    At the end of the day it really comes down to choice, innit? You can choose to go to the multiplex where needed but then you can choose to see a current release in the comfort of your home. I think people will not totally opt for one or the other.

    1. Hi Iba, great to hear from you!

      There are films I reserve for the big screens, even IMAX. Black Panther, Blade Runner 2049, most Nolan movies, etc. but for many indie films, they don’t even get to my state. You are fortunate living in NY as smaller films would always get shown there. But for indie filmmakers, even getting limited releases is such a huge privilege, so for a big honcho like Spielberg to prevent their stories to be eligible for Oscars seems callous to me.

      “At the end of the day it really comes down to choice, innit?” Yep exactly. That’s what I said at the end, theatrical and streaming model ought to co-exist.

  6. For me the more platforms there are the more audiences can be catered for and the wider variety of entertainment we get. Also as the working parent of a young child with very limited time and flexibility, going to the theatre is very challenging. I do most of my movie viewing on my phone on the train during my commute. Netflix is perfect for this.

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