Steven Spielberg, the blockbuster maestro, has been making the rounds hyping his latest film Ready Player One. While in the United Kingdom, he laid out some candid remarks in an interview with ITV. When the topic of Netflix and other SVOD (Streaming Video On Demand) businesses came up, he seized the opportunity to throw down the gauntlet. The kicker? Netflix movies will only ever be TV movies, irrespective of their qualifying theatrical runs.
The fireworks hit at 4:24.
Spielberg was careful to make the point that television “is greater today than it has ever been in the history of television. There’s better writing, better directing, better performances, and better stories being told.” The criticism isn’t about quality. Rather, his remarks seem to come from a place of genuine concern about the future of cinema.
However, the director went on to say that even though television is a thriving medium, “it poses a clear and present danger to filmgoers.”
And, sure. The more people that stay home rather than go to the movies, the more the cost of a single ticket will rise. That’s necessarily damaging to theater lovers. However, he goes on to make a much more aggressive point about the definition of a movie. One that, frankly, is an easy position for the instigator of the summertime blockbuster.
“In fact, once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. A good show deserves an Emmy, but not an Oscar. I don’t believe that films that are just given token qualifications, in a couple of theaters for less than a week, should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”
This remark lands a bit awkwardly. Especially so given Mr. Spielberg hasn’t had to hustle for theatrical distribution in four decades. That said, there’s quite a bit to unpack here.
Is it actually in the Academy’s best interest to shut out SVOD projects by closing the qualifying run loophole?
Well, it’s complicated. But, mostly, no. It isn’t in their best interest.
To be honest, the Academy has much bigger problems to address with diversity and representation.
Mudbound, directed by Dee Rees and shot by Rachel Morrison, earned four Oscar nominations. Rachel Morrison, in the ninetieth year of the Academy Awards, was the first woman ever nominated in that category for her work on this Netflix Original production.
I’m not clear on how denying filmmakers entry to prestige awards for the art of filmmaking over a definitional debate solves the underlying economics of an industry in the grips of massive disruption. Most filmmakers are offered VOD-only deals. Shutting them out shuts out their art and their voice. Limiting award eligibility to only filmmakers who have found favor with the traditional studios making traditional films with a traditional voice will make the Oscars less diverse instead of more.
Besides, the Academy is still struggling to figure out how best to enforce the current rules for qualifying runs. Back in 2016, they made some modest changes. They elected to enforce stricter rules about what would be considered a qualified showing within that time frame.
Streaming services aren’t the only ones gaming the qualifying run system. Spielberg mentioned The Post in the interview. He described the film as an example of a true movie. That is, the film was something he made for fans of the art with the intent of asking that they make their way to the theater to support it. That movie had a limited release over Christmas weekend to qualify for the 2018 Oscars.
As our own Matthew Monagle points out, maybe Hollywood needs to chill out a bit with the “December Contender Crunch.” There’s no need. People respond to quality. We talked about Get Out for a year straight before it started winning awards.
Spielberg’s film had its qualifying run and then didn’t go wide-release until right around the time of the Oscar nominations. The gentleman is a filmmaking master, in all regards. But, it must be nice to be able to control your theatrical distribution so finely.
Beyond that, the idea of freezing out SVOD to encourage filmmakers to pursue theatrical release is a bit wrong-headed. “Fewer and fewer filmmakers are going to struggle to raise money or to compete with Sundance and possibly get one of the specialty labels to release one of their films theatrically, publically. More of them are going to let the SVOD businesses finance their films.”
The whole industry is trying to wrap their brains around the implications of SVOD. It’s undeniably a huge shift. The big monied parties like Apple, Disney, Amazon, and Netflix, are throwing their megabucks at streaming on demand. The SVOD horses have left the stable, and groups like the Academy would not be the first try to close those stable doors too late.
And yes, those platforms have major bucks. That said, they aren’t shelling out megabucks to individual indie filmmakers. Most indie filmmakers who are seeking distribution by these platforms are getting one time, cash payments for their content. To my knowledge, there’s no revenue sharing – a feature which I’m certain makes a significant portion of Mr. Spielberg’s income.
He does identify this as a core challenge in his comments. Spielberg noted that “the difference today is that a lot of studios would rather just make branded, tent-pole, guaranteed box office hits from their inventory of branded, successful movies than take chances on smaller films. Those smaller films that studios used to make routinely are now going to Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix.”
And he’s right. SVOD platforms are disrupting the classic theatrical distribution model. That is damaging theaters. As a result, the medium to small budget film is practically extinct at most studios. So, how do we solve that problem?
I don’t think it’s by sharping awards ceremony rules. They’ll eventually make their own awards ceremonies. And, not only will people care more about them because they had a chance to see those films easily before the ceremonies, but all the cable cord cutters will have easier access to the actual ceremony.
However, ideas interest me. The problems Spielberg identifies are very real with lasting consequences for the future of filmmaking. Mr. Spielberg, if you’d like to chat further on the subject, give us a call.