Spielberg To Take A Stand Against Netflix At The Academy (AWARDS / ANALYSIS)


Streaming is TV.

You can distill Steven Spielberg‘s opposition to Netflix competing for Academy Awards down to those three words. (Full disclosure: I’m #TeamSpielberg on this one.)

Spielberg is about to make an official argument to the board of the Academy, the film industry org that produces the Oscars, that rules of eligibility should change. Right now, in essence, rules only require a one-week theatrical run in the U.S., with no disqualifier if the film airs simultaneously on an at-home format.

Spielberg wants those rules to change.

Instead, he will argue to the Academy board that streamers like Netflix — which currently debut day-and-date releases on their streaming service in conjunction with a limited number of theaters — has to commit to some form of theater-only exclusive window in order to qualify for Oscar competition. (IndieWire further breaks down anti-Netflix complaints in this article that broke the Spielberg story.)

It should be noted that Netflix is the only at-home service that has demanded these boundaries between theatrical and streaming to be ignored. Other servives, like Amazon Prime (which voluntarily has commited to traditional theatrical windows) and premium channels like HBO, Showtime, etc. have not contested the clear deliniation between at-home and theatrical platforms.

In congenial comments that were considered controversial (even outdated) last fall, Spielberg articulated his view that films debuting and playing almost exclusively on at-home services should only be eligible for Emmys, not Oscars.

This position (which seems self-evident and far from contentious) received an aggressive backlash from younger film fans, drawing a stark line between generations, largely pitting Gen-X-and-older against Millennials-and-younger. People who grew up with streaming at home (and on smart devices) think that the convenience helps reach a mass audience more effectively and, thus, is better for filmmakers and viewers alike. (I’ve argued against that reasoning before.)

Meanwhile, people who share Spielberg’s view (*raises hand*) firmly believe that allowing non-theatrical films to compete for Oscars against theatrical releases essentially undercuts the entire theatrical model. And they’d be right.

No one is saying that TV movies aren’t legitimate movies or are somehow a lesser art; not even Spielberg, who praised the ongoing TV renaissance. The argument, simply, is that the Oscars should remain committed to preserving the theatrical model, which means honoring films that are also committed to that model. Awarding at-home releases betrays that.

Some major filmmakers, like Ava DuVernay, support the “younger” view of the argument, believing that Netflix helps fund and elevate minority voices and filmmakers. And she’d be right. That’s wonderful. Bravo Netflix. But that work should then be eligible for Emmys (which is a legitimate honor in its own right), not Oscars.

Furthermore, those films that Duvernay rightly champions will all eventually get a home release anyway, and within mere months at that. It’s not as if these theatrical releases for minority films are the only venues in which they’ll ever screen or be available. If that were the case then we’d have something to legitimately debate.

Movies that debut on cable or streaming services don’t gain the same cultural traction that theatrical exclusives can achieve. Without exclusivity, there’s no urgency. With no urgency, there’s no focused cultural conversation. And without that, small movies just instantly disappear into the streamer’s cloud.

Once you make a film ubiquitously accessible rather than a special event, it’s no longer special.

Some find an irony that Spielberg will be fighting against Netflix just as one of his best friends and peers, Martin Scorsese, is having his current film (and Oscar hopeful) being produced by Netflix. Some even think that this puts Spielberg and Scorsese at odds, but I don’t think it does.

If anything, I’d wager that Scorsese is on Spielberg’s side and probably hopes that Steven is successful in making converts on the Academy board. If he is, then the debate is over about the fate of Scorsese’s The Irishman and if it will get a proper theatrical release. It will. That would be a huge relief for serious movie fans, because a limited qualifying run would keep most people from even having the option of seeing the Scorsese mob epic on the big screen.

Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment released this statement:

  • “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].”

So here’s to hoping that Spielberg succeeds. The very future of the theatrical experience may depend on it.

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