Last week, Steven Spielberg ignited a debate on Twitter (the worst place for debates!) about whether or not Netflix movies should be considered for Oscars. Spielberg plans to voice his concerns at an upcoming Academy meeting. Because Twitter doesn’t do nuance, people felt that they had to either side completely with Spielberg or completely with Netflix, missing the value of the Oscars, the value of Netflix, and asking what qualifies as cinema in the streaming age.
For Spielberg’s part, his argument is that Netflix hurts theatrical distribution. It’s an argument that’s easy to counter because theatrical distribution has been damaged for a while due to rising ticket prices, subpar exhibition, and the unwillingness of major studios to fund anything outside of prestige indies and massive blockbusters. If a major studio isn’t going to distribute a movie like Roma—a black and white film in Spanish with no movie stars—you can’t really fault Netflix for stepping up. If you think that the Oscars should only reward movie that receive theatrical distribution and uphold the theatrical experience, then shouldn’t Spielberg be campaigning against DVD screeners for Academy members as well?
Netflix isn’t the biggest threat to theatrical distribution; it’s just the new thing. Hollywood railed against television when TV came along, and then discovered they could make more money by selling TV rights. Hollywood railed against VHS rentals when it came along, claiming it would encourage piracy. And then Hollywood wised up and realized VHS rentals were a new revenue stream and happily partnered with Blockbuster. Every “threat” to Hollywood eventually just becomes a new source of income, and streaming will be no different. Whether those movies deserve Oscar consideration is a different issue.
Netflix took to Twitter to respond to the claim that they’re against cinema, saying:
In some ways, they’re right. Adam Chitwood wrote about how it was great that even though he lives in a small city like Tulsa, Oklahoma, he had the same access to Roma as everyone else. And Netflix is the studio that’s giving out money to filmmakers no questions asked. Spielberg isn’t going to have any trouble getting Indiana Jones 5 financed and distributed, but clearly there was a hurdle for Martin Scorsese in getting the money he needed for his upcoming gangster movie, The Irishman. You will never find a bigger defender of cinema and film preservation than Martin Scorsese, but even he is aware of the changing business model.
But let’s be clear: Netflix isn’t without its faults. Netflix doesn’t care about cinema as much as it cares about being your one-stop destination for all entertainment. It wants to become synonymous with entertainment in the same way that Kleenex is synonymous with tissue paper or Oreos are synonymous with sandwich cookies. That means amassing a wide and diverse array of films, but also making sure you watch them on streaming. Theatrical distribution doesn’t really help Netflix because it doesn’t do anything for subscriptions. If you go to a movie theater to watch Roma and you aren’t a Netflix subscriber, that’s bad for Netflix. You can say you “love cinema”, but theatrical distribution matters to some people. That has nothing to do with Oscars; it has to do with immersion and appreciating that theaters are different from your home.
If we’re going to get into the question of the Oscars, then we have to acknowledge that Netflix wants the same rewards as the rest of Hollywood but doesn’t want to play by the same rules. Yes, there are movies they get limited releases at the end of the year, but those movies eventually go wide and play in thousands of theaters and you can measure the success of those films by their box office. By comparison, Netflix releases few of its films in theaters, and doesn’t provide any data on how their films perform unless that data is favorable to Netflix.
I think Netflix should be more open with its data and let people know what’s performing and what’s not, and if they’re going to be a black box, then they shouldn’t try a take a victory lap when they say something like Bird Box is a hit. But I also believe that the purpose of the Oscars is to expose people to good movies they wouldn’t normally see because they’re not blockbusters. If the Oscars can guide people to seeing Roma or The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, so be it. However, just because Spielberg is in the wrong on this particular issue, that doesn’t mean Netflix is beyond reproach.