Netflix “disrupting” the Oscars — Is Spielberg right?


Netflix has responded to Steven Spielberg’s reported efforts to ensure that the Academy Awards, for over 90 years the showcase for honoring the best THEATRICAL motion pictures the world experiences in MOVIE THEATERS, makes Netflix play by the same rules as everybody else.

With nominated films such as “Mudbound,” “Beasts of No Nation” (produced elsewhere and purchased for release by Netflix) and Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar-winning “Roma,”  reaching viewers under the Netflix banner, it’s the right time to have this conversation.

Steven Spielberg started it — when word got out that he was preparing to throw his weight around at the upcoming Academy (AMPAS) Board of Governors meeting to ensure that cash-rich streaming services whose product is almost entirely experienced on TVs and mobile devices don’t get to compete for Academy Awards.

Go for the Emmy, which is where you belong, is his argument.

He has gotten the expected pushback. It’s spread far and wide.

Which is fine, but there’s not a lot of discussion of this idea on its general merits.

Movie watching is evolving, something the whole dustup brings to the fore. Theatrical attendance is generally flat to falling in North America, and yet people are still watching movies — Redbox and Netflix, Hulu, Crackle and too many other streaming services to name are proof of that.

But whatever the future of movies, I have been arguing all Oscar season that the minute the Academy gives Best Picture to “Roma,” the game is up for the Oscars. Giving Cuaron the Best Director prize for an indulgent, interesting but far from fascinating or well-acted bore, was bad enough. Hollywood has long shown a willingness to throw theatrical under the bus — home video, shrinking video release windows, etc — but this would underscore that tendency with a slap in the face that would hasten the demise of the magic of seeing a film as a shared experience, with other true believers.

Netflix is changing the rules, and throwing a LOT of money to elbow their way into the spot at the head of the table. They shoved a mediocre melodrama into the Oscar conversation with the muddy-lensed “Mudbound.” “Beasts of No Nation” was a natural Indie Spirit Award contender, had it been a real “theatrical movie.”

“Roma,” with staggering, laughable hype backing it and Cuaron fanatics (normally, I am one) pushing it to the front of awards season conversations, utterly upset the applecart.

If the nominations for “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a lesser Coen Brothers effort, were all we were arguing over here, that’d be cause for alarm. Blank check financing from Netflix, the “Nobody else will make this” script gathering dust in a drawer, which this film and “Roma” have in common, and Netflix’s indulging Big Names and then spending Big Bucks to get them Oscar attention, is changing the rules.

These films wouldn’t have stood a chance in the theatrical marketplace, for a lot of reasons. Overlong and myopic and indulgent top that list. And really, not a lot of people are actually watching the movies — even though Netflix won’t provide streaming numbers — is backed up by the fact that the Academy turned its nose up at them.

Back when cinema was going digital, Spielberg famously came out to me and others declaring he’d cling to celluloid to the end, “even if I’m the last guy shooting on film.” So yes, the Wunderkind is showing his age with this high-handed move.

But Spielberg’s core argument, “They’re not REAL movies” has merit. These movies ARE a part of the cultural conversation, but they’re not part of the Hollywood traditional model, which includes Big Screen showings, movies experienced communally.

Another argument that Hollywood should take VERY seriously is “It is Netflix’s BUSINESS MODEL to KILL THEATRICAL and swallow Hollywood.”

They started out as another revenue stream for other studios, now they want to replace them. Letting them money muscle and bully their way to legitimizing this creation of a monopoly is a mistake.

But as I said, moviegoing is changing, and Oscar needs to adapt to that. The question remains, “How do you do that and not utterly blur the difference between cinema and Teevee?” Because the Emmys, whatever their value, aren’t remotely as prestigious as the Oscars in the EGOT realm.

I’m with Spielberg, mainly because I think this is a conversation that filmdom needs to have. It’s one thing when a documentary earns a token release in theaters to qualify for an Oscar. It’s quite another when a “studio” that turns out more product than most of the rest of Hollywood put together tries to Weinstein/bulldoze its way to prestige that its pictures — ALL of the ones I’ve mentioned looked and felt “small screen” to me, especially the flatly lit and shot, dull “Roma” (a critic friend who saw it in a cinema said he felt he was being “held hostage,” NOT a problem a home TV viewer would experience) — don’t deserve.


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4 Responses to Netflix “disrupting” the Oscars — Is Spielberg right?

  1. Keith says:

    I actual push back on Spielberg and see his position as a bit snobbish and blind to the very real benefits to Netflix. But I’m speaking as one who saw Roma and even Buster Scruggs as considerably better than the vast number of full theater released films from last year. I adore the theater experience while also loving the chance to actually see films upon their release that I would otherwise not see for months and months if not for streaming. I would tell Spielberg that not everyone lives in a big market and not everyone has access to theaters who show independent and foreign pictures. And if he wants to find a way to make the Oscars actually feel even less relevant than they already are, just go ahead and ram this through. The backlash will be more fun to watch than anything Spielberg has directed in nearly 20 years.

    • OK, that last line — read it back to yourself — is ridic. “Lincoln” was stately and lovely, “The Post” pretty good if esoteric, “Ready Player One” has its adherents ($600 million worldwide) even if I’m not one of them.

      • Keith says:

        Lincoln is the one and only potential exception (for me) although much more due to DDL. Ready Player One has nice eye candy but otherwise a slog. I agree The Post was “pretty good” but not much more IMO. I’d personally take Roma and Scruggs to any of those.

      • Not me. I found “Roma” a genuine slog, and thought “Scruggs” peaked with Tim Blake and kind of withered away after that. It’s like a musical opening act grafted onto an inferior “The Sisters Brothers” Western. Because “The Sisters Brothers” was better. By a fer piece.

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