A Brief History of Steven Spielberg and Netflix

Steven Spielberg has signed a new multi-film deal with Netflix, but the two weren't always friends.
Steven Spielberg At Cannes

Brief History is a column that tells you all you need to know about your favorite — and not so favorite — pop culture topics. This entry looks at the now-former feud between Steven Spielberg and Netflix.

Another titan of New Hollywood has succumbed to the streaming Sirens. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Steven Spielberg and his production company, Amblin Partners, have agreed to produce “multiple new films” for Netflix as part of a multiyear deal.

In a world where filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Alfonso Cuarón, and Ava DuVernay have all directed films for Netflix, it seems only natural that Spielberg would also partner with the streaming giant. But if you scrolled through Film Twitter following the announcement, these are the kinds of reactions you saw:

Wondering what the now-buried hatchet is between Spielberg and Netflix? Here’s a brief history:

The Tea

In 2018, Spielberg made headlines after he said that movies released on streaming platforms like Netflix should not be eligible for Academy Awards.

“Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” he told ITV News (as we covered here). “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 theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”

A year later, Spielberg, while accepting an award at the Cinema Audio Society’s CAS Awards, made headlines again when he defended the theatrical viewing experience, or what Variety called a “veiled shot at streamers.”

“I hope all of us really continue to believe that the greatest contributions we can make as filmmakers is to give audiences the motion picture theatrical experience,” Spielberg said. “I’m a firm believer that movie theaters need to be around forever.”

Two weeks later, Netflix’s Roma, directed by Cuarón, would win three of the ten Academy Awards for which it was nominated. Roma lost the “Best Picture” Oscar to Green Book, a film championed by Spielberg and backed by Amblin.

Then, in March of 2019, Netflix seemingly responded to Spielberg without naming the director:

Two days later, Variety reported that Spielberg planned “to propose a rules change that would bar films that debut on streaming services or have only a limited exclusive run in theaters from contention for awards.”

The clash between the two cultural institutions prompted others to weigh in. Fellow New Hollywood icon Paul Schrader posted a nuanced response on his now-infamous Facebook page entitled “THE NETFLIX DEBATE.” The writer/directorwrote that he had “no animus against Netflix” and that “the notion of squeezing two-hundred-plus people into a dark unventilated space to see a flickering image was created by exhibition economics, not any notion of the ‘theatrical experience.’”

But, Schrader wrote, many smaller films, including his own First Reformed, may not have survived had they been bought and released by a streaming platform like Netflix: “A24 rolled it out through festivals and screenings from 2017 to 2018. And it survived. Not a big money maker but profitable for A24 and a jewel in their crown. Would First Reformed have found this public acceptance if Netflix [had] scooped it up (at say twice the price A24 [paid]) and dumped it into its larder?”

As NBC reported at the time, others were more overtly critical of Spielberg, including DuVernay, who tweeted at The Academy, “I hope if this is true, that you’ll have filmmakers in the room or read statements from directors like me who feel differently.”

And Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List, tweeted, “It’s possible that Steven Spielberg doesn’t know how difficult it is to get movies made in the legacy system as a woman or a person of color. In his extraordinary career, he hasn’t exactly produced or executive produced many films directed by them.”

More from Leonard:

At that point, we recapped Spielberg’s history of opposing streaming. But by April, he seemed to be in retreat. The New York Times, citing “two people close to [Spielberg],” reported that “Mr. Spielberg has expressed frustration with the way his views about streaming have recently been characterized in the news media.”

More from that NYT article:

“His primary beef is not with Netflix, according to the people close to him. Rather, he is frustrated that exhibitors have been unwilling to compromise. The multiplex chains have fought off any effort to shorten the exclusive period they get to play films of any genre, which is currently about 90 days. In January, after ‘Roma’ was nominated for the best picture Oscar, Mr. Spielberg even called AMC and Regal, the largest theater companies, and implored them to play the Netflix film even though it was already available online. They refused.”

Seems like your classic “having your cake and eating it to” moment, right? How are the theaters the ones to blame? Either way, the feud from that point on began to fade (meanwhile, Netflix further committed to their Academy Awards pursuits by venturing into theatrical distribution for Oscar hopefuls). And thus with Monday’s news comes the end of one of the most famous, if not perhaps slightly over-exaggerated, film feuds of the last few years.

Is it the equivalent of Scorsese changing his tune and suddenly making a Marvel movie? Not quite. But it does feel like the end of an era, and it certainly is another big win for the streaming giants.

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.