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Steven Spielberg’s Hypocritical Crusade Against Netflix

The legendary director once known for leading ‘New Hollywood’ can’t seem to see how old he’s beginning to look.

by Noel Ransome
Mar 8 2019, 4:13pm

Images via Chelsea Lauren, Shutterstock / Wikipedia Commons 

It’s 1992, and a scruffy bearded, less wrinkly Steven Spielberg is slouched across from the late, stone toned Ed Bradley from 60 Minutes. By this time, he has eight blockbuster films under his belt and is considered one of Hollywood’s best directors. But he wouldn’t believe that.

“I have doubts about myself, in both worlds [film and life],” he says to Bradley. “The same feeling I get going to work every morning is the same feeling I got going to school everyday. Being a bit of an outsider, and not being normal and not quite getting the grades, and not being able to compete.”

In his mind—mounting evidence aside—Spielberg is a foreigner in a strange old land called Hollywood; the same place, where earlier in 1982, a skinnier, cross-legged Spielberg is describing an industry like a street kid with dreams of attending prep school. “They reject people like myself, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. We’re not really a part of the Hollywood party circuit as it were.”

While Spielberg’s early professional and social years prove that he’s embraced the outsider mythology—the self-reflections, jokes, interviews, films, and nerdy presentation—it’s a stark contrast from today, where an older, even richer Spielberg yells from his damn lawn.

Spielberg has thrown his considerable weight behind a campaign to change the rules for who is eligible for the Oscars, specifically making streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon play by the same rules as traditional studios. That could mean a film like Netflix’s Roma, which won Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón, wouldn’t be eligible. (And furthermore, if it’s not Oscar eligible, would Netflix even make a movie like that?)

“Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” the 72-year-old told ITV news last year. “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.”

It’s a stance rooted in the fear of streaming replacing traditional theatrical cinema that he’s staked his entire “New Hollywood” rep on.

At this moment, he’s gone so far as to propose added rules to force streaming services into a state of traditional distribution for Academy consideration. Reportedly, he wants films to have a four-week exclusive run in theatres before they are eligible for an Oscar.

For that, he’s been labelled “old-Hollywood” by onlookers who are fans, by Netflix partners without his fortune, and by a corporation looking for a way in. As a man who once called himself a nerd who just enjoyed making movies, he’s perhaps become the very thing he’s always hated.

Now let’s be clear, Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas have one trait in common: they’ll rarely need the help of Netflix for distribution. For Scorsese, it was a convenient option, as he’s found peace with the streaming giant, with his $140 million gangster epic, The Irishman, set for a Netflix debut this year. (The Irishman will reportedly also have a theatrical run, similar to Roma.) Unlike so many of the established directors like Spielberg, finding ways to get your film out to the masses isn’t so much an issue of acquiring money (they’re wealthy and connected), or possibility (Hollywood adores them), but choice. Since the 70s, Spielberg has rarely had an issue with either.

In the late 60s, Hollywood was drunk on themes around feeling and belief. Psycho unearthed the limits of a broken mind, and 2001: A Space Odyssey explored the mysteries of space. An industry of “finer” and less bankable tastes considered a $50 million box office take the standard. Hollywood was content, at least until 70s Spielberg—shaggy and uncultured—finessed his way through the door. Resume-wise, he began filming at the age of 12. At 17, his father rented out a local movie theatre, where he aired a feature-length science fiction flick called Firelight. It screened to 500 people and had a budget of $500 (that’s $4,059.87 adjusted for inflation).

In 1975, his second feature-length film , Jaws, earned $470 million.

Without falling deeper into tired history lessons, Spielberg undoubtedly created the modern day summer blockbuster from a foundation that never starved for green. In the same 1992 60 Minutes interview, Ed Bradley read back quotes competing directors accusing him of escalating the cost of film-making. Spielberg brushed off the charge. “It’s not my cross to bare. I can only make my movies, little movie, big movies, whatever I made. I’m not responsible for the acceptance of those films.” He later in 2018, recognized that Netflix excelled because of a financial shift within the film industry. “A lot of studios would rather make branded, tent-pole, guaranteed box office hits from their inventory of branded, successful movies, than take chances on smaller films,” he said un-ironically. “Those films that they used to make routinely are now going to Amazon, Hulu and Netflix.”

According to defenders of Spielberg’s argument—particularly related to Roma—the issues are as follows:

  • Netflix spends too much. It’s estimated they put $50 million into Oscar campaigning
  • Roma overwhelmed over foreign-language distributors by absorbing the Oscar spotlight due to the nature of its 24/7 platform
  • Netflix doesn’t report box office numbers
  • Netflix is streamable in 190 countries around the world
  • Roma spent only three weeks in most theaters (and only appeared in about 150 theatres in total)

For Spielberg, the doomsday scenario is in the way Netflix can disrupt the traditional theatre experience, and it’s an argument I can sympathize with being a film buff. If films can be recognized that easily—as if $50 million in campaign funds were easy—it could persuade other studios to halt on standard theatrical releases. Granted, it’s a fair anxiety on paper, but a movie regardless of how you watch it is still a movie. For many like myself, the true value is in the art itself, rather than how it’s presented. Whether it’s the transition from TV to VOD, or analogue to digital, progress in the interest of convenience/access comes at a cost. The case of Netflix paying out absurd sums of money for Oscar guest passes is the direct result of gatekeepers like Spielberg who make the bar for entry that much higher in the Academy.

Netflix/Amazon aren’t just massive corporations who just benefit a few. They’re the gateway for less privileged artists like Ava Duvernay and Tarell Alvin McCraney. Like Spielberg already said, corporations like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix are hunger for content, and have provided massive audiences for indie filmmakers with niche stories to tell; absent the theatrical demands (what can sell)— Nappily Ever After, Beasts of No Nation, Roma, What Happened to Miss Simone, and Mudbound being just a few examples.

This is industry already coming to grips with its high separations between class, race and genre. To legends like Steven Spielberg, these barriers—some literal, some existential—are not as apparent to him for obvious reason. He's now the welcomed regular, VIP seating and all, with say over the guestlist. It’s almost predictable how he can’t see the paradox in that.

In the 1982 60 Minutes interview, Spielberg was asked about whether or not he was different from old-Hollywood, and he was clear about his distinction. “Yeah, we’re motivated by work and the films we make, less about what the films can earn for us and how we’re going to spend our leisure time.”

I wish in the case of Spielberg, that was still true.

Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.

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