The debate over streaming services and theatrical releases was reignited last week when IndieWire reported director Steven Spielberg would bring the issue up at an upcoming Academy Board of Governors meeting. Spielberg, who represents the director’s branch, intends to propose a ban on Netflix releases and other films distributed through streaming services that would bar them from Oscar contention. The news has naturally prompted both support and criticism from filmmakers and film lovers alike, as it was one of the most contentious issues of the 2018 awards season.
This isn’t the first time the director has vocalized his distaste for the streaming model. A year ago, Spielberg told ITV News, “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 nominations.” He doubled down on this stance at the Cinema Audio Society Awards last May, stressing to his peers that “the greatest contributions we can make as filmmakers is to give audiences the motion picture theatrical experience.” Instead, he leveled, these films should qualify for Emmy Awards, as the streaming format makes them more akin to a TV movie.
“Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation,” a spokesperson said last week in response to IndieWire’s report. He’s certainly not alone; a number of other high-profile filmmakers have recently pushed back against the streaming model popularized by Netflix. Widows and 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen said earlier this year that there is “[n]o point looking at a movie on your laptop on your own at home. The thrill of cinema is to be in an audience with 200 people, 500 people, or a thousand people and watching something.” Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan and actress Helen Mirren have expressed similar dismay.
Of course, there are two sides to this debate, and both have reasonable concerns and arguments. Spielberg has received blowback from other distinguished filmmakers, including Ava DuVernay and Alfonso Cuarón, whose film Roma, some have alleged, ultimately lost Best Picture to Green Book because voters were reluctant to reward a Netflix film. Writer and director Paul Schrader recently wrote an insightful post on his Facebook page about the debate, acknowledging that platforms such as Netflix often take chances that other major studios do not. Although the theatrical experience is worth preserving as much as possible, there are a number of reasons why Netflix and other streaming platforms are an essential part of a healthy, thriving filmmaking landscape too.
As Schrader briefly pointed out, Netflix has often been the first to pick up films made by women and minorities where other distributors wouldn’t. Quite a few of its original releases are films starring or made by women and minorities, including Beasts of No Nation, DuVernay’s 13th, Okja, and Private Life. As Cuarón said of the decision to distribute Roma through Netflix (in conjunction with an abbreviated theatrical release), “How many theaters did you think that a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, that is a drama without stars — how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release?” The truth is that Netflix is willing to take risks that a lot of other major distributors aren’t; one example is Brie Larson’s film debut Unicorn Store, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017 and went a year and a half without a distributor until Netflix picked it up this past January.
The idea that a film released through a streaming platform should be disqualified from major awards contention puts minority filmmakers at a disadvantage. That’s why Spielberg’s hardline stance is seen as narrow-sighted by many — in a studio system that favors big, reliable names like his, where do marginalized voices fit in? Platforms like Netflix and Amazon have filled a vacuum by including those voices. Penalizing filmmakers who work through a streaming service ultimately shuts them out of an esteemed position that is already nearly unattainable.
The other upside to streaming services is that it gives audiences access to arthouse and independent cinema when many don’t have the privilege of seeing those films in theaters. This is especially true of limited releases, which are usually contained to Los Angeles and New York, a regional bubble that simply doesn’t reflect the geographic scope of film lovers. More frequently, we see Netflix and Amazon releasing work from auteur directors like Noah Baumbach, the Coen Brothers, and even Martin Scorsese, whose highly anticipated The Irishman is set for a Netflix release as well as a limited theatrical run. Netflix clearly understands the advantages it can offer to filmmakers, as they released this statement in response to the news about Spielberg:
It will be interesting to see whether Spielberg’s appeal for a ban will garner support from the rest of the Board of Governors, as this could drastically change the awards season dynamic. As he is one of Hollywood’s most powerful and prolific figures, some have questioned whether this is an issue that Spielberg should be pressing further when he could instead address the disparity of minority filmmakers in this industry. Others believe that the streaming takeover is ultimately inevitable. Only time will tell.