The clash between Steven Spielberg, the Academy, and Netflix raises questions about the future of streaming


Steven Spielberg has jumped into the industry battle between traditional theatrical distribution and streaming platforms. According to a spokesperson from Spielberg’s production company Amblin, Spielberg believes that films distributed by Netflix should only be in contention for the Emmys, not the Oscars. As we previously reported, he thinks of Netflix movies as TV movies rather than theatrical films. Spielberg intends to bring this up at the post-Oscars meetings of the Academy Board of Governors, in an attempt to block Netflix films from subsequent Academy Awards ceremonies.

In other words, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma is just a TV movie. Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody, by contrast, are pure cinema. (Olivia-Colman-blowing-raspberry.gif)

There are numerous factors at play in this debate, and while Spielberg comes across as a gatekeeping member of the old guard, Netflix isn’t necessarily a pure saint of cinematic access and democratization.

Spielberg is not alone in his feelings. Last year, Cannes banned movies without a French theatrical release schedule, targeting Netflix and forcing the company to pull out of the film festival. The previous year, Netflix screened Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories at Cannes.

Anne Thompson at IndieWire provided a summary of studio, festival, and award committee complaints about Netflix this recent awards season:

  • Netflix movies do not observe a 90-day exclusivity window for theatrical release before films are available for streaming (e.g., Roma was in theaters for only three weeks before streaming; other Netflix films have had no exclusivity window whatsoever)
  • Netflix does not report their box office numbers
  • Netflix movies are available in 190 countries
  • Netflix spent between $25 to $50 million to push Roma at the Oscars, compared to just $5 million in Oscars spending for Green Book
  • The expensive push behind Roma hurt other companies that distribute foreign language films, such as Sony Pictures Classics

Yet as Thompson points out about the above grievances, box office numbers should have no bearing on awards contention, some movies qualify for Oscars with just a week-long theatrical run, and there are no rules at the moment that require theatrical exclusivity. Thompson also notes that altering the above rules to hobble Netflix may also wind up harming foreign films, documentaries, and indie movies. For smaller films, requiring a month-long theater run and a 90-day exclusivity window could keep foreign and independent filmmakers out of Oscar contention.

There’s also a question of whose stories get told and what stories get seen. Ava DuVernay tweeted last Friday to let the Academy Board of Governors know that not all filmmakers feel the same way about Netflix that Spielberg does. DuVernay’s mass incarceration documentary The 13th was distributed by Netflix in 2016. Dee Rees’ Mudbound was distributed by Netflix in 2017, and was one of that year’s best films despite not being that successful during awards season. Also consider Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life, Hannah Gadsby’s critically acclaimed special Nanette, and the completed version of Orson Welles’ once-unfinished The Other Side of the Wind, all of which were released through Netflix last year.

As the summer blockbuster cycle now stretches each year from February to December (sorry, January), studios tend to invest more in surefire hits, adaptations of popular IPs, and sequels. Smaller and more personal movies may get pushed to the side. Platforms like Netflix offer filmmakers—including women, people of color, LGBTQ artists, and members of other marginalized communities whose works aren’t represented in the big studio system—the ability and freedom to do the project that they want to do, without necessarily focusing on profitability, market research, or test audience reactions.

It makes me wonder if Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which comes out on Netflix this fall, will wind up a late-career success from a director unfettered from studios or Netflix’s first major boondoggle in its quest for cinematic respectability. We will have to wait and see about that de-aging CGI.

Following the premiere and release of Roma, Cuaron has said that he adores going to the movies, but that issues of cost and limited distribution have essentially gentrified the theatrical experience. For all the handwringing from studio heads and old guard filmmakers, they have not considered audiences and their ability to see movies. Streaming platforms make movies available to audiences who may not have otherwise been able to see them.

If you live in New York or Los Angeles and have disposable income, you have a lot of choice when it comes to your moviegoing options. There are the multiplexes and there are the arthouse theaters, and all films will eventually pass through. If you live in a rural area, the nearest movie theater showing a film you want to see could be an hour or two away. If you do not have disposable income for movies, why pay to see a movie in a theater when you can just wait to see it at home for less? This is the way most people choose to view movies these days.

Streaming services like Netflix may be a godsend for some people who want to watch movies but may be unable to do so because of location or lack of disposable income. It’s great for budding cinephiles or people who may be curious about what the world of film has to offer. Can’t afford to go to the theater? Just spend the cost of a movie ticket to watch whatever you want for a month on your own schedule.

Well, at least in theory.

Netflix does some things well, and I am on their side in terms of being considered for Oscar contention, but they are still a big corporation that wants to make money. Even when they espouse their love for cinema, a cynical part of me thinks that their investment in Roma, Mudbound, Private Life, and The Irishman are just feathers in their cap that they can use to increase their bottom line while engaging in the disruption ethos of so many tech companies. And I say this as a Netflix customer since the early 2000s.

For a company that loves cinema so much, Netflix has a limited and often lousy selection of classics. For a company espousing access for audiences who can’t afford going to movie theaters, their resistance to producing physical media means that their original programs and distributed films are not available for free on DVD or Blu-ray at local libraries. And while Netflix may have spent tens of millions of dollars promoting Roma, most of their other films are simply dumped onto the platform and left there to languish without any sort of promotional support.

We also have to consider the inevitable platform wars when it comes to streaming, which may explain some of the current limitations on the Netflix streaming library. Netflix isn’t the only player in this game. Amazon and Hulu are both available, and the Criterion Channel (RIP FilmStruck) will be launching soon for your classic fix. Disney+ is forthcoming as well. The future of streaming media is going to get more complicated, more competitive, and more expensive.

People will need to pick and choose their platform or platforms based on the company that owns the content that they want to see. It happens already, and it will be exacerbated as more companies want to monetize their media libraries. Want to watch Star Wars or the MCU? That might mean picking Disney+ over Netflix. While it won’t be as expensive as going to the movies every week, people will need to map their own course in the streaming war. In a household with a family of four with a wide variety of tastes, that could mean multiple streaming platforms a month rather than just one. Access comes at a cost, even if it is the price of a movie ticket (or maybe a bucket of popcorn, nachos, a pack of Sour Patch Kids, and two large sodas).

As the Academy meets and discusses their issues with streaming, we are only now getting a taste of what’s to come, with no answers readily available. Just over the weekend Sean Baker, director of The Florida Project, suggested some sort of “theatrical tier” for Netflix users that would allow free access to Netflix movies in theaters if the company’s customers paid a little bit more. The model is just a suggestion, and a way to keep all parties in this bigger debate happy, or perhaps all equally unhappy.

I think Maddie Whittle at The Film Society of Lincoln Center summed up our current moment nicely:

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.