I am a big Steven Spielberg fan. Always have been. Not just of his filmmaking skills, but also of his philanthropy, and just the generally classy way he has always carried and conducted himself. Not only is he one of my personal favorites, but he is also, without question, one of the best and most influential directors in history, and even if his recent work has been a little uneven, he is to be revered for the singular career he has had.
But that doesn’t mean he’s always right.
Over the weekend, Spielberg spoke on the record about Netflix and how its movies shouldn’t be eligible for Oscars because the streaming service should be considered TV, and it’s actually a big threat to the film industry. Specifically, he said, “once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. You certainly, if it’s a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar. I don’t believe the films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”
In the words of my therapist, “there’s a lot to unpack here,” so let’s dive in. For starters, I will also quote John McClane and say to Mr. Spielberg, “Welcome to the party, pal!” No kidding, Netflix is a major force. It’s something we’ve been talking about for literally years now, and it’s nice that Spielberg has finally shown up to acknowledge this, even if it’s a bit late. But that’s a trifle in the grand scheme of things, not to mention amidst all the conflicts and contradictions inherent in his statement and attitude.
For one thing, it feels like Spielberg wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He doesn’t like what Netflix is doing, but it is completely clear that Netflix is filling a void created by the studios by making the kind of content that no longer interests those studios. Netflix is operating like a distributor that’s somewhere between an indie company that either makes smaller movies or buys them in order to stream them (more about that below), and the kind of major studio entity that would make something like Bright. The studios, meanwhile, are making fewer films than ever, and most of those are of the tentpole variety. The studios are, and continue to be, their own worst enemies in this area, something that Spielberg seems to have forgotten is one of his own complaints.
You’ll recall, please, that he and George Lucas decried the studios’ current tentpole strategy five years ago, and said that their model is doomed to fail. The two men more responsible than anyone else for the creation of the blockbuster mentality called shenanigans on how the studios do business. I happened to agree then, and still do, but I also recognize that, with the studios doing less, that gap has to be filled somehow. Now, Spielberg wants to have it both ways, criticizing Netflix for the deleterious effect it’s having on the movie industry as a whole, even as it does more to employ filmmakers, actors, and craftspeople than perhaps any other company else in town. That’s not an insignificant fact, and can’t easily be dismissed.
Something else that can’t easily be dismissed is the notion that Netflix movies should be considered TV films. While this is certainly not wrong in theory, it doesn’t really take into account several other factors, not least of which is the new paradigm of how people are consuming content. While I love going to the movies as much as I ever did, more and more people are consuming content on their computers/phones/tablets, and that’s where a service like Netflix thrives. I, personally, would never consider watching, say, Avengers: Infinity War for the first time on anything but the big screen, but I’m not a younger viewer who grew up watching things on much smaller ones.
There’s also this: not all movies that appear on Netflix are meant to be shown on Netflix when they are made. Exhibit A is Dee Rees’ Mudbound, which was shot independently with a theatrical release in mind. The film’s producers have a responsibility to make their investors whole again, so they sold it to the deep-pocketed streaming service, with a “token theatrical release” included in the deal in order to allow the film to, in fact, qualify for the Oscars. Good thing it did, too, because Mudbound became Netflix’s most successful feature film so far in terms of awards, earning four Oscar nominations, including the first one ever for a female cinematographer. Would such an enormous supporter of the #MeToo movement like Spielberg begrudge Rachel Morrison her history-making achievement? Even if one were to do that, it would be hard to justify that the filmmakers had done something like “commit to a television format,” since that wasn’t decided until after the film was finished and screened at a festival.
And don’t forget this: While Spielberg probably isn’t going to make a Netflix movie any time soon, his buddy Martin Scorsese is in post on one, a little $150 million movie called The Irishman that stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel, and considering its pedigree, pretty much defines the term “highly anticipated.” Is Spielberg going to deny Scorsese’s potential Oscar chances because it only played on a couple of screens so as to qualify for the Academy’s arcane rules about eligibility (and help recoup some of its swollen budget, of course)? This feels like a real slap in the face to Scorsese, his friend diminishing his project like this. I may not know Scorsese personally, but I doubt that he and De Niro and Pacino were working under the mindset that they were making a TV movie, y’know? Regardless of what kind of a Television Golden Age we might be seeing in real time, the barbed term “TV movie” still holds a certain stigma to it that essentially ghettoizes the genre, whether that’s the intention or not.
I don’t want to skip over this “token theatrical release” thing, either, because this is still an incredibly important thing to independent films. It has nothing to do with Netflix, and to suggest that this is a bad thing also suggests that only studio movies or major indies should be able to win awards, which is tone deaf, if nothing else. It’s not “less than a week,” it’s a week. Minimum. That’s an important distinction, because it covers all movies that might want to qualify for an Academy Award.
I understand Spielberg’s issue here, because I get that he has existed in the studio system for the entirety of his career and doesn’t necessarily understand the logistical issues of smaller, non-studio films, nor the new reality in which we are living. For him, if he wants to make a big studio movie, he can just go do it. He’s one of very few people on the planet who can get a project off the ground simply by adding his name to it. That’s a privilege that is becoming more and more rare with each passing year, so of course his experience is limited to the big screen and his specific understanding of the film business.
I’m not for one second going to try to claim that I know more about anything Hollywood related than Spielberg does, but I will clearly cop to having a vastly different perspective about this particular issue. With that in mind, and after going through all of this, what I most want to know from him is what, precisely, his problem really is. Is it the “only playing in limited theater for a limited time” problem? Or is it “the film’s availability on screens besides theaters” problem?
Honestly, I’m not sure he comes out looking too great in either case.
Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @NeilTuritz. He’ll more than likely respond. You can also listen to his weekly podcast, Unduly Noted with Neil Turitz and Ryan Beeman, which is available on iTunes.