Spielberg VS Netflix: What He’s Fighting For – And Isn’t (ANALYSIS)


Steven Spielberg hasn’t even addressed the Academy yet, but Film Twitter isn’t waiting to render its own verdict. Things have gotten so heated, it’s even garnered its own trending hashtag: #SpielbergVSNetflix.

Ever since it was reported that the iconic director of enduring blockbusters and Oscar-winning classics was going to speak to the Academy board about changing Oscar eligibility rules – in response to Netflix’s unwillingness to embrace traditional three-month theatrical-exclusive windows – the internet film world has been in meltdown, mostly in opposition to Spielberg.

The protesting essentially follows the same track: Spielberg is a dinosaur, he’s an elitist prick, Netflix is the future, no one can stop it (not even him), just because a movie is on Netflix doesn’t make it any less of a film, and Spielberg is fighting a losing battle against an inescapable tide and embarrassing himself while doing it.

And that’s the nice version.

Essentially, people think Steven Spielberg is an out-of-touch, holding-onto-the-past geezer dolt for wanting to take down Netflix, and is only fooling himself if he thinks he can turn back time to curb streaming.

Except that’s not what Spielberg is doing. Or wanting. At all.

It’s no surprise that nuance is quickly lost on social media groupthink (and group-gripe), so I wanted to cut through the noise to make plain what Spielberg is – and isn’t – fighting for.

Just to be clear:

  • Spielberg isn’t fighting the Netflix business model or trying to destroy it. He’s not on the war path to make streaming disappear. (Notice he’s not complaining about Amazon, Hulu, Premium Cable, etc.) He’s simply arguing about Oscar eligibility. That’s it.

Not that that’s stopped people from putting words in his mouth for about a year now (which I first addressed in March of 2018).

As I’ve also written about more recently, Spielberg’s specific pitch to the Academy is that they should change their current rule of eligibility – that a movie must play for one week in a theater in NY or LA – to something stricter, one that would require Netflix to honor a theatrical-exclusive run (and he’s even willing to suggest just one month, not three.)

Right now, by meeting the Academy minimum but then playing their films exclusively on Netflix everywhere else, Netflix is effectively “abusing the system”, a.k.a. using Oscar nominations as a marketing springboard to keep people at home to watch Netflix movies rather than in theaters. (I’ll explain why and how this is “abusing the system” more in another upcoming article where I’ll tackle three points that anti-Spielberg people always seem to bring up.)

For the Academy to allow this to continue, they are honoring a business model that undercuts theatrical distribution and the theatrical experience. Spielberg’s argument to the Academy is that the Oscars should uphold and honor the theatrical experience, not help undercut it. (Plus, there are Emmys for films that are distributed primarily through the TV platform.)

If Netflix would honor a traditional theatrical window, like Amazon Prime has and does, Spielberg wouldn’t be saying boo.

It really is that simple.

Yes, it’s fair to disagree with him *on that point*, but let’s stop muddling the issue or blowing it up beyond what Spielberg is saying, advocating, or trying to do – and why.

The belief, ultimately, isn’t an “either / or” between theatrical and streaming. It’s both / and.

While Spielberg is fighting to preserve the theatrical experience (as he should), we also need creative ideas on how to nurture both. Theatrical and streaming (and TV, VOD, Premium Cable, etc.) should be working together, like pillars, to keep lifting cinema higher.

Take this three-tweet suggestion, for example, from Sean Baker, the writer/director of the Oscar-nominated The Florida Project. It’s the nugget of an idea, not a detailed plan, but it has a core philosophy and approach to it. We need more like it in the conversation. (Click on it to read all three points.)

sean baker on Twitter

1/3 Wouldn’t it be great if @netflix offered a “theatrical tier” to their pricing plans? For a nominal fee, Netflix members could see Netflix films in theaters for free. I know I’d spend an extra 2 dollars a month to see films like Roma or Buster Scruggs on the big screen.

For its part, Netflix tweeted out – through its new Twitter account Netflix Film – this not-so-veiled response to Spielberg’s intention with the Academy:

Netflix Film on Twitter

We love cinema. Here are some things we also love: -Access for people who can’t always afford, or live in towns without, theaters -Letting everyone, everywhere enjoy releases at the same time -Giving filmmakers more ways to share art These things are not mutually exclusive.

To which I say: Bravo. Good on you. You’re noble and altruistic. Run with that model. No one’s trying to stop you. Everyone hopes you succeed, including Spielberg. But you’re not entitled to Oscars for doing it.

The existence of healthy Theatrical and Streaming models benefits the art form and its viewers. Both are vital platforms. One should not be undercutting the other. Preserving both and nurturing both should be an industry partnership. Sacrificing one for the other ultimately hurts both, and the art form.

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