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Steven Spielberg vs. Netflix: How Oscars Voters Are Reacting

Steven Spielberg wants the Oscars to stem the tide against the streaming revolution upending Hollywood. The director behind “Schindler’s List” and “Jaws” is putting his considerable weight behind the effort to prevent Netflix from cleaning up at future awards shows. His stance puts him in opposition with many members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the group that hands out the awards for film excellence.

“As much as I respect Steven and revere him as a filmmaker, he’s not reading the tea leaves,” said Stu Zakim, an Academy member and veteran publicist who worked on previous Spielberg releases. “That ship has sailed.”

Nevertheless, Spielberg firmly believes that Netflix and other companies that release their movies on streaming platforms at the same time they show in theaters should be barred from Academy Awards consideration. He’s reportedly looking to use his position on the Academy’s board of governors to push for rules change. Spielberg hasn’t publicly explained his position, but his past remarks provide a window into his thinking.

“Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” Spielberg said during an interview with ITV last March. “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.”

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That puts him at odds with other filmmakers and talent who maintain that Netflix has become a vital force in moviemaking, providing a platform and resources for directors and talent that big studios aren’t offering. The business has changed since Spielberg came of age as a director in the 1970s. The major studios are making fewer films — preferring to devote resources to comic book movies and franchise fare at the expense of the adult dramas that the Oscars typically rewards.

“Netflix does so much for filmmakers in terms of enabling them to make their movies and get them out to the world,” said one Academy member. “It’s so hard to make independent films these days. I just can’t imagine that he’s a guy who’s worried about finding backing for his movies or getting them distribution. I’m not sure he knows what that’s like.”

If Netflix hadn’t entered the fray, some members believe those films would cease to be made.

“As an Academy member I am concerned about the Academy staying relevant and understanding the seismic shifts that are happening in how people consume entertainment, and a small theatrical release followed up by a global streaming release is the future of viewing for my daughters’ generation,” said Joe Berlinger, the director of “Paradise Lost.”

“More importantly, as traditional Hollywood continues to focus on big, blockbuster global event films and comic book sequels, the edgy adult-themed ‘indie’ dramas that until recently were a flourishing category of cinema are in danger of extinction. The entry of players like Netflix gives these kinds of very cinematic movies a new lease on life, and as a filmmaker and an Academy member, I want to give these kinds of movies every opportunity they deserve to survive, regardless of how many traditional theaters they play in.”

One of those films is Berlinger’s upcoming drama about Ted Bundy, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” which Netflix bought for $9 million at Sundance. The filmmaker acknowledged his own potential bias. But Berlinger isn’t alone. Netflix has become a major employer in Hollywood. As the studio has moved aggressively into producing its own movies and shows, it has spent heavily. Netflix is estimated to have shelled out as much as $13 billion on content in 2018 alone — the kind of investment thats wins allies in all corners of the business.

Not everyone is a fan, however. Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos has been dismissive of the theater business in the past and the exhibition community views him with the kind of enthusiasm that’s typically reserved for an outbreak of avian flu.

Even as he’s challenged conventional business models, Sarandos has shown an eagerness to become a major awards player. Last year, Netflix hired veteran consultant Lisa Taback to oversee its Emmys and Oscars push and spent more than $25 million to garner votes for “Roma,” a black-and-white coming-of-age film. That investment resulted in four Oscar wins at last month’s ceremony, including a best director statue for “Roma’s” Alfonso Cuaron.

Netflix’s willingness to break out the checkbook was on full display last weekend at the New York City premiere of “Triple Frontier,” where stars Ben Affleck and Oscar Isaac mingled with media and executives at a lavish bash at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The event, replete with mojitos, elaborate topiary, and a buffet that offered up chimichurri skirt steak and spinach fritters, was a moment of validation after a bruising slog to bring the film to life. “Triple Frontier” was in development for nearly a decade, as cast members such as Tom Hanks and Will Smith entered and exited the project and funding got raised and collapsed at various points along a tortured gestation. No studio, it seemed, would greenlight the picture.

“I think that Netflix is being really, really daring in their willingness to take a gamble on original adult programming,” actor Charlie Hunnam told Variety on Sunday night at the premiere, applauding his employers for telling “original stories.”

“Eighty percent of everything I watch, I watch on Netflix,” Hunnam added.

Neal Dodson, the film’s producer, said he was loathe to disagree with Spielberg, but argued that there was no need for the Academy to respond rashly to the situation.

“I have an instinct that it will kind of sort itself out,” he said. “I don’t think the idea right now that we are in some sort of crisis and that we have to make a decision right now is necessarily true…Storytelling is storytelling in my view.”

However, many of the more than 7,000 members who make up the Academy grew up watching stories flicker across the big screen. For them, it’s anathema that people would prefer to watch their films on phones or iPads. They worry that Netflix and other streaming players are being too dismissive of the cinematic experience.

“There are two sides to the story,” Julianne Moore told Variety at the premiere of her new film “Gloria Bell.” “On the one hand change happens all the time and we adapt. On the other hand there are valid and beautiful ways to view films that are disappearing. I don’t like conflict… I think, don’t we all want an opportunity to make beautiful things and celebrate them.”

Netflix isn’t averse to showing its movies in theaters. The company gave “Roma” an exclusive three-week run in theaters, but that was after it was heavily pressured to do so by Cuaron. The film continued to play for months in scattered engagements. Going forward, it is also planning some sort of exclusive engagement for “The Irishman,” its upcoming crime thriller from Martin Scorsese, which is expected to be an Oscars contender when it debuts next fall.

Even Netflix’s supporters think that the Academy has to provide clear guidelines. Berlinger, for instance, said that the organization shouldn’t allow movies to also compete for TV awards.

“I do think it’s fair to draw a line between eligibility for Academy and Emmy awards, and I say that as someone who benefited from this loophole — my ‘Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory’ was nominated for both an Academy Award and was nominated for three Emmy Awards,” he said. “I think filmmakers need to choose which awards they want to be eligible for and not enter both… that would be a much more fair method to sharpen the line between Television and Cinema.”

Berlinger noted that Spielberg’s plans still haven’t been fully articulated, and like, others interviewed for this piece, expressed admiration for the director’s commitment to the medium. He added, however, “I don’t think we should try to create some artificial line about what is ‘cinematic’ by how many theaters the movie has played in, especially when many people have better viewing systems at home than some of the theaters out there and many great pieces of cinema, both scripted and unscripted, enjoy robust film festival life but limited theatrical life because of the subject matter they dare to take on and the absurdly high [marketing and distribution] cost that an average movie must take on now for a pure theatrical release.”

Other distributors note that current rules allow movies to qualify for awards consideration by having a token run in a handful of theaters — even if those movies have their widest release in a following calendar year or also debut on television platforms such as Showtime and HBO. They think that the process could be improved by more clarity, and they worry that the situation will only grow murkier as players such as Disney and WarnerMedia launch their own streaming services in the coming months.

“There needs to be more consistency in the guidelines and the rules,” said one film distributor. “I think the Academy may need to be a little more rigid in deciding what constitutes a real theatrical release.”

Ultimately, many of the Academy’s members may not get any say in the decision. As one of roughly 50 governors, Spielberg will be in a privileged position to change things. On Twitter, director Ava DuVernay, who worked with Netflix on her documentary “13th,” expressed concern that opponents of the move may not be heard.

“Dear @TheAcademy, This is a Board of Governors meeting. And regular branch members can’t be there,” she wrote. “But I hope if this is true, that you’ll have filmmakers in the room or read statements from directors like me who feel differently.”

A spokesperson for Netflix did not immediately respond to a request for comment and a spokesperson for Spielberg declined to comment.

Elizabeth Taylor and Matt Donnelly contributed to this report.

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