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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 March 2019

What is Steven Spielberg's beef with Netflix? Why we think his streaming stance is outdated

The movie industry seems to be going through a similar process as the music industry at the turn of the century, with Spielberg taking the Metallica role of the old-world monolith trying to halt the march of progress

Steven Spielberg is due to present a proposal to the Academy that would prevent Netflix films being eligible for Oscar nominations. AFP
Steven Spielberg is due to present a proposal to the Academy that would prevent Netflix films being eligible for Oscar nominations. AFP

Steven Spielberg is set to bring his long-simmering feud with Netflix to the Academy’s Board of Governors – and he's attracting plenty of criticism in the process.

The legendary director of Jaws and ET has long been of the opinion that films produced by streaming services such as Netflix should not qualify for Oscars consideration due to their lack of, or minimal, theatre release.

“Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” he told the United Kingdom’s ITV News last March. “You certainly, if it’s a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar. I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theatres for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”

Now, seemingly enraged by the Oscars success of Netflix's three-prize-winning Roma (Spielberg was a fervent supporter of Green Book, which did pick up the Best Picture prize despite concerns over its racial politics), Spielberg plans to bring a proposal to the Academy which would see Netflix films banned from the awards, or at the very least bring in rule changes that would make it harder for them to qualify.

TOPSHOT - Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Cinematography winner for "Roma" Alfonso Cuaron poses in the press room with his Oscars during the 91st Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on February 24, 2019. / AFP / FREDERIC J. BROWN
'Roma' director Alfonso Cuaron with his Oscars during the 91st Annual Academy Award. AFP

A spokesman for Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment said: “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.”

The Academy also confirmed in a statement that discussions are likely to take place: “Awards rules discussions are ongoing with the branches. And the Board will likely consider the topic at the April meeting.”

What is Spielberg's issue with Netflix?

Spielberg’s main two issues with Netflix, and Roma in particular, is the short, three-week, exclusive theatrical release, and its immediate transfer to streaming following the three-week period with no window, and the amount of money Netflix spent on the film’s Oscars campaign.

Under the current rules, Netflix has done nothing wrong - a film is only required to release in at least one cinema in New York and LA for a week for qualification, and there is no requirement for a window before moving to other platforms. Roma released exclusively in cinemas for three weeks, while some cinemas kept the film on screens for at least 13 weeks after the exclusive period ended and the film moved to Netflix.

Spielberg's campaign won't just affect Netflix films - indie outings could be hit too

Spielberg might want to change these rules, but he might also like to consider the possible knock-on effects of doing so. If he wants the Academy to change this rule and demand a longer release, so be it, but he should consider that many indie films, and especially foreign language films, only receive a week’s release window, Oscar hopefuls or not.

By extending the release requirement, Spielberg could find himself excluding multiple films, not just those that Netflix releases, from Oscars qualification. As for the desire to introduce a "window" requirement between cinema release and streaming, it's frankly hard to see what this would achieve, or why it really matters how long a studio waits after a film's theatrical run before it makes it available on other platforms. Furthermore, with both Disney and Warner Bros about to launch their own streaming services, Spielberg is likely to find little support from the major studios for blocking access to their own content.

Moving on to the promotional spend issue, it’s hard to see what the Academy could do here. This is America, after all, where politicians proudly show off their bulging campaign funds and mock their opponents with smaller pots, and the Oscars run-in is fairly similar.

All the studios spend a fortune plugging their hopefuls, from taking out "for your consideration" ads in the trade press to hosting lavish screenings and junkets for voters. If Netflix spent more than the others this year, well, the others could have upped their budget.

This image released by Netflix shows Yalitza Aparicio in a scene from the film "Roma," by filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron. The film is nominated for an Oscar for best picture and best foreign film. The 91st Academy Awards will be held on Feb. 24. (Alfonso Cuarón/Netflix via AP)
Yalitza Aparicio in 'Roma'. AP

The Academy could, in theory, try to impose a cap on promotional spend, much like the one that exists for political campaigns in most of Europe, as a means of levelling the playing field, but it seems unlikely. Level playing fields simply aren’t the Hollywood way.

Aside from all that, to suggest Roma won solely because of marketing spend seems hugely erroneous – it was a masterpiece, and thoroughly deserved every award it received.

Spielberg's industry ideals work for... men like Spielberg

Spielberg is not without his supporters – The Dark Knight’s Christopher Nolan has called Netflix “mindless” and “bizarre”, while Cannes director Thierry Fremaux told Variety last year: “In order for a film to become part of history, it must go through theatres, box office, the critics, the passion of cinephiles, awards campaigns, books, directories, filmographies. All this is part of a tradition on which the history of film is based.” Cannes bans Netflix films from screening in competition.

There does seem to be a distinct demographic leaning among Spielberg’s supporters, however, as the Twittersphere was quick to note. Screenwriter Jessica Ellis said: “I understand that Spielberg, who I love, had a career path that worked for Spielberg. Guess who it didn't work for? Most promising directors in his generation that were not the same gender or race as Spielberg.”

Film critic Candice Frederick agreed, and felt it was time to have some new blood among the winners.

Oscar-nominated Selma director Ava DuVernay was among the higher-profile industry figures to oppose Spielberg’s plans. She tweeted: “This is a Board of Governors meeting. And regular branch members can’t be there. 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.”

Netflix certainly has a strong track record for giving opportunities to filmmakers from outside the usual white, middle-aged, male grouping, in part thanks to its global nature and policy of releasing original content in local languages.

It wasn’t all about the race or gender politics of the Netflix v Spielberg clash, however. Other industry figures clearly felt that a film should be judged on its merits, not what platform it could be watched on. The Relic writer and producer Michelle Lovretta was pleased that Netflix was shaking up outdated assumptions:

The Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell was full of praise for Roma too:

Times are changing: why Spielberg is like Metallica

The row doesn’t look likely to go away any time soon. Netflix is already teaming Martin Scorsese up with Oscar-winning Schindler’s List screenwriter Steve Zaillaian for the mob epic The Irishman, starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel. The film will be Scorsese's highest-budgeted ever, with an estimated $200 million (Dh734.6m), and that’s just one of a slew of high-profile upcoming Netflix movies that are already being touted as potential Oscar nominees.

The movie industry seems to be going through a similar process as the music industry at the turn of the century, with Spielberg taking the Metallica role of the old-world monolith seemingly trying to halt the march of progress.

Metallica (and others) did indeed succeed in having their music removed from filesharing site Napster, and ultimately closing the service down in an attempt to shore up album sales. Fast forward to today, however, and streaming now accounts for 75 per cent of music consumption, according to Statista, with digital sales accounting for a further 14 per cent. Indeed, one of the most popular memes doing the rounds seemed to capture the prevailing mood perfectly:

As a final thought, perhaps Spielberg would care to cast his mind back to his own feature debut, Duel – a TV movie that eventually transferred to cinemas following unexpected success on the box. That film picked up Golden Globes and Emmys on its release in 1971. There were no Oscar nominations, but would a young Spielberg have declined on principal?

Updated: March 3, 2019 03:38 PM

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