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Netflix vs. The World (or, at least, Steven Spielberg)

Some of the funniest moments of any Oscars broadcast is randomly cutting to celebrities in the audience responding to a joke, a heartfelt awards speech, or a shocking victory. With the exception of maybe sneaking a peek at a disgruntled Spike Lee post-Green Book winning something, you don’t really see cutaways to pure disgust.

So I would have paid money to see the camera cut to Steven Spielberg when the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject went to Period. End of Sentence. The Netflix produced documentary focusing on menstruation in India was one of two Netflix films to win an Oscar that night and Mr. Spielberg, whose film Ready Player One was represented just once in the Visual Effects category, must have been pretty miffed.

Steven Spielberg is not impressed with Netflix Films

But I doubt it was really Period. End of Sentence winning the award that really bugged him (nor was it Icarus winning Best Documentary for Netflix the previous year, or The White Helmets winning Best Documentary Short Subject in 2017)— it was all about Roma, arguably Netflix’s most critically acclaimed film. The intimate drama from Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron was dominating the narrative pre-ceremony and, for the first time, Netflix was competing in the big boy categories, including Best Picture, despite not having a traditional release structure compared to the bigger studios (or any non-streaming studio really). The bad blood, of which some must run through Spielberg’s veins, was boiling.

As first reported by IndieWire, it appears Spielberg is more than just fuming about the theatrical experience vs. the streaming one: he intends to bring up potential rule changes to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences directly, taking action against many of his fellow filmmakers in the name of film purity, even if that purity defies the natural evolution of the medium.

Per a spokesman at Amblin Entertainment: “Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation. He’ll be happy if the others will join [his campaign] when that comes up [at the Academy Board of Governors meeting]. He will see what happens.”

Some of the rule changes may reflect on how the films are distributed. It appears the traditional structure is to be released in the theater and then released much later on streaming/physical media. Obviously, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon (which also had a three-time Oscar nominee in Cold War this year) primarily use the streaming as their selling point with limited theatrical distribution, if at all.

Other possible issues, according to the same IndieWire article, could be how streaming services affect foreign language distributors, their lack of box office data, and their seemingly endless ability to be seen at any time anywhere, without respect to a seemingly unwritten rule about release windows. However, as also noted by IndieWire, a lot of these “rules” don’t even exist for current theatrical films now and movies have been exploiting them for years. For example, in regards to distribution, studios “release” a film in limited venues before the end of the calendar year and then go wide outside the eligibility window.

Alfonso Cuaron winning one of his three Oscars in 2019

I understand the elder statesmen of the medium have a lot to say about the changing world of cinema but this argument of making streaming services conform to same-but-different rules reeks of fear;  to become obsolete to the next generation of revolutionaries that Spielberg and his ilk once were.

In a lot of ways, Spielberg’s take on Netflix, which includes excluding streaming films from Oscars entirely (though Emmys would be “allowed”), would have more weight if it was embraced by more, similarly powerful filmmakers. Because while, yes, Spielberg is still a Hollywood heavyweight, even if his truly great days as a zeitgeist-creating director are far behind him, so many of his contemporaries are not only unconcerned with Netflix slowly becoming a major studio, a lot of them are embracing it and joining them.

Martin Scorsese, who many would say is even more of a film purist than Spielberg, is set to release his massive, near-$200 million crime epic The Irishman via Netflix in 2019. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a three-time Academy Award nominee this year, was not only a Netflix original but directed by the auteur duo Joel and Ethan Cohen. Other notable directors have previously released Netflix Originals as well, including Noah Baumbach, David Ayer, Duncan Jones, Jeremy Saulnier, David Mackenzie, Dan Gilroy, and Steven Soderbergh. As you can see, there is a mixture of the old and new guard in the bunch.

Martin Scorsese directs Robert De Niro on the set of The Irishman

And, as the Los Angeles Times noted, acclaimed director (and Oscar nominee for a Netflix produced documentary) Ana DuVernay voiced her fear of someone like Spielberg trying to dictate terms by stating, via Twitter, “But I hope if this is true, that you’ll have filmmakers in the room or read statements from directors like me who feel differently”.

ETCanada also found a collection of tweets against the idea, including film writer Scott Weinberg’s “Ugh. When your heroes become the crybabies”, and journalist Roland Martin’s “FACT: Netflix is providing opportunities for a diverse group of filmmakers, far more than the traditional studios. They have disrupted the old system, and for Black folks, that’s a good thing”.

It might be easy to paint this as some sort of hubris regarding critical acclaim and award recognition. Netflix films have received a total of twenty-nine Academy Award nominations since 2014 but even the four-time nominated Mudbound didn’t seem to cause that much of a rule-changing stir, at least so publicly, despite the fact that film was nominated in more “serious” categories like Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actress.

No, it was Roma, with ten nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, that seemed to have brought out the knives in a more serious manner. It appears the also-ran is now a contender.

The Cannes Film Festival was the first to actively ban Netflix films from competing for prizes in last year’s ceremony (which included Roma) and their arguments were similar to Spielberg’s. Will the Academy follow suit? Does Spielberg have the power to change the fate of multiple studios in regard to their award recognition and independence of content?

We shall see in April when the Academy meets to discuss potential rule changes.


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Written by Will Johnson

Will is the author of the little read book Secure Immaturity: A Nostalgia-Crushing Journey Through Film. Seriously, I think only his mom read it. Will contributes articles to 25YL on horror films, pop culture, books and comics. Will loves his hometown Buccaneers, the MCU, and his two nerdy daughters. He lives in Phoenix, AZ, USA.

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