The Battle Over Streaming and Cinema’s Future That Wasn’t

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (source: Netflix)

It’s kaput already. The clash of the titans that was shaping up, with streaming services, represented by Netflix, on one side and theatrical exhibition, represented by filmmaking mogul Steven Spielberg, on the other, never happened.

On April 21, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their rules for next year’s Oscars and, despite a few minor tweaks (the Foreign Language Picture category will now be designated as the Best International Feature Film category), the rules regarding what makes a movie eligible for consideration, went unchanged. (Spielberg, who’d indicated that he would attend the Academy’s meeting to push for stricter standards for Oscars consideration, turned out to be a no-show, supposedly too busy with his upcoming remake of West Side Story.)

The tension between the two sides heated up in late February of this year when it looked like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (which was produced by Netflix) might sweep the Academy Awards with its 10 nominations, including Best Picture. To the surprise of very few people, however, that coveted Oscar went to the much safer and more conventional choice, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book. (Roma did win Oscars for Best Director, Best Foreign Language Picture, and Best Cinematography, though). But for Spielberg (whose company DreamWorks financed Green Book) and the theater chains, Roma‘s chances of walking off with the Best Picture prize came too close for comfort.

At the heart of the controversy was the Academy allowing pictures made by streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon to be eligible for awards if the films in question are shown theatrically “in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County… for a qualifying run of at least seven consecutive days,” thus bypassing the theatrical distributors’ preferred 90-day minimum window before a picture is made available on alternate platforms like streaming or home video.

In actuality, Netflix had tried to expand theatrical distribution for three of their most prestigious upcoming films in October of 2018. They offered Roma, the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Susanne Bier’s Bird Box to theater chains for a period of one to three weeks, but although a few independent chains were willing, AMC and Regal, the two biggest chains, refused to budge from the traditional three month window.

Spielberg had fired his opening salvo against the streaming services in March 2018 during an interview with ITV News. “I don’t believe that films that are just given token qualifications, in a couple of theaters for less than a week, should qualify for the Academy Award nominations,” Spielberg stated. “Fewer and fewer filmmakers are going to struggle to raise money, or to compete at Sundance and possibly get one of the specialty labels to release their films theatrically. And more of them are going to let the SVOD [Streaming Video On-Demand] businesses finance their films, maybe with the promise of a slight one-week theatrical window to qualify for awards. But, in fact, once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie.” (A rather ironic comment considering that Spielberg’s first theatrical release Duel was originally a 1971 episode of The ABC Movie of the Week, expanded with 15 minutes of additional footage.)

Spielberg doubled-down on these sentiments a week before the 2019 Oscars ceremony in his acceptance speech for the Filmmaker Award at the Cinema Audio Society’s CAS Awards. “I hope all of us really continue to believe that the greatest contributions we can make as filmmakers is to give audiences the motion picture theatrical experience. I’m a firm believer that movie theaters need to be around forever,” Spielberg told the gathering. “I love television. I love the opportunity. Some of the greatest writing being done today is for television, some of the best directing for television, some of the best performances [are] on television today. The sound is better in homes more than it ever has been in history, but there’s nothing like going to a big dark theater with people you’ve never met before and having the experience wash over you. That’s something we all truly believe in.”

A week after the Oscars, Netflix stepped into the fray, defending itself with a March 3 Twitter that read as follows: “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.”

On the same day, writer-director Paul Schrader also weighed in on his Facebook page. “Distribution models evolve. The notion of squeezing 200+ people into a dark unventilated space to see a flickering image was created by exhibition economics not any notion of the ‘theatrical experience’…  My proposal: For club cinemas (Alamo Draft House, Metrograph, Burns Center, Film Forum) to form an alliance with a two tiered streaming system (first tier: Criterion/Mubi, second tier: Netflix/Amazon). Distribution models are in flux. It’s not as simple as theatrical versus streaming.”

Predictably, the conflict resulted in a typical internet backlash against Spielberg, with various parties accusing the filmmaker of being an out-of-touch old dinosaur. Those retorts were mild, however, compared with the Onion’s March 5 take on the controversy, which went straight for the jugular with this wicked bit of satiric fiction: “Arguing that the streaming service has severely hamstrung the ability of directors to create saccharine, artistically meritless garbage, Steven Spielberg criticized Netflix Tuesday for ruining the golden age of pandering big-budget films produced by media conglomerates. ‘We were living in a wonderful era of insipid franchise-driven blockbusters when, suddenly, Netflix comes along and screws everything up by giving a platform to underrepresented directors and helping connect audiences across the globe to risk-taking, idiosyncratic films that would never be made by a major studio,’ said the director of Ready Player One and Jurassic Park, blasting the streaming service for sabotaging the halcyon days of lowest-common-denominator cinema that gave viewers absolutely no credit and merely indulged their basest instincts.”

Then, as if things couldn’t get more convoluted, the US Department of Justice, decided to get in on the act. In a March 21 e-mail to Academy CEO Dawn Hudson, chief of the DOJ’s antitrust division Makan Delrahim warned: “In the event that the Academy¾an association that includes multiple competitors in its membership¾establishes certain eligibility requirements for the Oscars that eliminate competition without procompetitive justification, such conduct may raise antitrust concerns… If the Academy adopts a new rule to exclude certain types of films, such as films distributed via on-line streaming services, from eligibility for the Oscars… that rule could therefore violate Section 1 [of the Sherman Act].”

Two days after the Academy announced their decision, Spielberg appeared to be walking back some of his antistreaming rhetoric. In an article in the New York Times, “two people close to [Spielberg], who spoke on the condition of anonymity to maintain their relationship” claimed that the filmmaker’s remarks on the subject had been mischaracterized and that he had no animus towards Netflix. His real problem was supposedly with the inflexibility of the theater chains. In fact, according to the article, a month before the Oscars, Spielberg asked AMC and Regal to consider booking Roma, despite its availability on-line, but they gave the filmmaker the same refusal they had given Netflix the year before.

The same article quoted Spielberg as saying, “I want people to find their entertainment in any form or fashion that suits them. Big screen, small screen¾what really matters to me is a great story and everyone should have access to great stories. However, I feel people need to have the opportunity  to leave the safe and familiar of their lives and go to a place where they can sit in the company of others and have a shared experience—cry together, laugh together, be afraid together—that when it’s over, they might feel a little less than strangers. I want to see the survival of movie theaters. I want the theatrical experience to remain relevant in our culture.”

So the kafuffle has settled down… for now. In the meantime, all of the various parties’ attention will be focused on Martin Scorsese’s next two pictures, both of which have been bankrolled by Netflix. The first one, a documentary titled Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese will be given a limited theatrical release this June. The second picture The Irishman, Scorsese’s return to the gangster genre along the lines of his previous epics Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed, is already garnering anticipation of being Netflix’s next Oscar-worthy offering. At an April 29 50th anniversary celebration of the Film Society at Lincoln Center, Scorsese spoke about the situation. “You gotta give [the Academy] a break, because it’s a new world,” the veteran filmmaker told Vanity Fair. “They’re gonna work it out. I want people to be patient with them, because they need to try different things…argue it out, because it makes you think, ‘What is a film? And how should a film be presented, especially in a new world?’ I think the cards are stacked for the big budget, and that’s a problem.” (For the record, Netflix has indicated that it will give The Irishman a wider theatrical release than it had given Roma.)

Writer at Broadcast Beat
Doug Krentzlin is an actor, writer, and film & TV historian who lives in Silver Spring, MD with his cats Panther and Miss Kitty.
Doug Krentzlin
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