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Spielberg v. Netflix

Filmmaker raises challenges to nontraditional film distribution and its role in the changing industry

March 11, 2019

It’s a rough time to be a theater-loving cinephile lately. The theater experience is a cultural commodity that seems to be fading year after year, especially with the massive surge in streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Studios making their own buzz-worthy original content – though the latter has maintained a strong and respectful relationship with the traditional theatrical release model.

Netflix is leading a radical movement in the cinematic release model. They’re dedicated to sticking to their mainstreaming guns, but in order to acquire some great awards season hype last year, they took on giving their films special limited theatrical engagements, such as releasing Alfonso Cuaron’s smash hit masterpiece “Roma.” This strategy was obviously a success for Netflix, as “Roma” garnered 10 Oscar nominations and three significant wins, including Best Foreign Language Film.

Steven Spielberg in 2019.

However, not everyone in Hollywood was happy about this, and most openly among those people is the superstar blockbuster director himself, Steven Spielberg. About two weeks after the Oscars, it was announced that Spielberg was starting his own personal crusade against Netflix, starting with holding a formal meeting with Academy heads to negotiate rules surrounding streaming services belonging in the Oscars. The reaction to this news has been divisive but has also sparked a great conversation about the future of cinema.

We find ourselves in the transition period of a new era in cinema where the theatrical experience will no longer be what is considered the norm. Speaking as a cinephile who is particularly dedicated to the theatrical experience (I’ve driven out of my way numerous times to see a film of theirs on a big screen), I understand mostly where Spielberg comes from with this decision, but as a realist, I understand that this is simply where the platform is headed. And this seems to be the notion with many other cinephiles.

Eric Marsh, a film professor at DePaul, summed up the streaming vs. theatrical revolution perfectly. “It’s like that quote from Malick[‘s film ‘The Tree of Life’], ‘Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me,’” he said.

That quote rings true to the difficulty in embracing the future of a medium and wanting to preserve its finer qualities for ourselves. Netflix has brought a lot of positives to the film world, not only big budgets to films that would have never been made without them, but also granting wide, admirable platforms to ambitious, low-budget films that would be largely inaccessible otherwise.

The majority of the problem with Netflix is its lack of transparency regarding its theatrical releases. They have released upwards of a dozen films in theaters nationwide and have yet to deliver solid numbers regarding how many theaters their films play in and how much money they make. There doesn’t seem to be much of a clear- cut relationship between Netflix and its exhibitors.

Netflix lends another special problem with their main-page programming being based around an algorithm that will only let certain films through to the limelight, which is how “Bird Box” became the phenomenon it is. Indie films are granted big platforms by Netflix, but only on the condition that they generate enough social media buzz to remain on the main page long enough.

Academy Award-nominated writer/ director Paul Schrader made an interesting anecdote about this very problem with Netflix relating it to the release of his most recent film “First Reformed.”

“Would First Reformed have found this public acceptance if Netflix had scooped it up (at say twice the price A24 payed) and dumped it into its larder?” he said on his Facebook page. “Perhaps ‘Bird Box’ and ‘Kissing Booth’ can fight their way through the vast sea of Netflix product to find popular acceptance, but ‘First Reformed’? Unlikely.”

He then went on to suggest a solution where art house “club cinemas” (think theaters like Chicago’s Music Box) make deals with streamers to screen their more specialized releases.

After Spielberg went public about his plans to meet with the Academy, several other industry icons made some statements on social media. One of the post popular pitches came from “The Florida Project” director Sean Baker’s Twitter page, where he made the point that “we need to find solutions like this in which everybody bends a it in order to keep the film community (which includes theater owners, film festivals and competitive distributors) alive and kicking.”

And that to me is what this is all about: simply making sure that we can keep the film industry thriving. This war between old and new Hollywood is far from over, especially if Spielberg’s meeting with the Academy goes his way, but all we can do is hope it smoothes itself out and we can continue to enjoy quality films the way we want to, but it’s something that all sides will have to work into. Because if there is one thing I know for a fact that Spielberg and Netflix have in common, it’s that they both want people to keep watching and loving movies.

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