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Steven Spielberg vs. Netflix: A Preview of the War for Cinema’s Future (Column)

“We love cinema.” That’s how Netflix began a statement it issued on Twitter in response to Steven Spielberg’s reported effort to push for new guidelines regarding the eligibility of movies to compete in the Academy Awards. (Though the connection was obvious, the Netflix statement never mentioned Spielberg by name.)

Spielberg, a member of the Academy’s board of governors, has yet to publicly articulate any proposal. But based on statements he has made (“Once you commit to a television format you’re a TV movie”), and based on the fact that Netflix has already proved its willingness to exhibit an Oscar contender in more than a few movie theaters, it seems likely that Spielberg would push for the Academy to require something like a three-month window between a film’s theatrical release and its availability on streaming services. Any movie that streamed before that wouldn’t be eligible for Oscars. The potential guidelines would be aimed directly at Netflix, with its short-to-nonexistent window. But is that fair to a company that loves cinema?

We no longer have to watch a movie, even a great one, in a movie theater; that hasn’t been necessary for close to 70 years. Before streaming we had DVDs, and before DVDs we had VHS, and before VHS we had the Sunday Night Movie (or the 4:30 matinee), and before any of that you could watch the Late Show on television any night of the week. So watching a movie at home, and chilling with it, is neither a big deal nor a new thing.

But watching a movie at home the day it comes out is very new. Taken to its logical extreme (or even halfway there), it undermines the basic economic engine that has driven Hollywood for the last 100 years, or as long as there has been a Hollywood. Put in practical and specific terms: If you knew, this weekend, that you could watch “Captain Marvel” in your living room just two weeks from now, for a charge of, say, $75, would you go out and see it in a movie theater? Or would you wait to see it at home? Different people will have different responses. And everyone can craft their own example (would you have waited to see “A Star Is Born”? “Sorry to Bother You”? “The Favourite”? “Bumblebee”?), based on their own viewing habits and priorities. But it’s obvious, when you think about it, where this all goes. It’s potentially the biggest paradigm shift in movies since the introduction of VHS, and maybe bigger.

Netflix, at various points, has given token theatrical releases to movies like “Mudbound” and “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).” Those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical runs are the new “For Your Consideration” ads. And during the last four months the company went through the highly unusual step of twisting itself in knots to pretend that it actually relished the experience. It didn’t merely give “Roma” a token release; the film played in more than 100 independent theaters, and was kept there for months, with Netflix actually paying the theaters for the privilege of doing so. If that isn’t love, the company seems to be saying, then what is it?

Other evidence: The fact that Netflix took on “Roma” in the first place — though it’s worth noting that Netflix didn’t actually make the film, and the idea that it did has become a common misperception nudged along, in part, by the Netflix PR machine, which has inspired many voices in the media to parrot the line that they make the movies the big studios now won’t. I can’t send us into an alternate universe to prove this, but I persist in thinking that if Netflix had never existed, an Oscar-winning director named Alfonso Cuarón would still have made “Roma,” and it would still have been an award-winning phenomenon.

Of course, Netflix is making Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” at a cost of at least $125 million. In 2019, that’s a stratospheric budget for a movie that isn’t a CGI-driven fantasy tentpole, and the magic of that number, so bandied about in discussions of “The Irishman,” has become its own form of advertising. What company, in the real world, would spend $125 million to back a gangster epic that’s the supreme labor of love of Martin Scorsese? The answer is almost axiomatic: a company that loves cinema.

It’s become a routine thing to watch a relatively recent movie at home. To many of us, though, cinema — the religious experience of it, the larger-than-life quality of it — is still something that takes place in movie theaters. And I don’t believe that’s an outdated notion. Home viewing and theatrical viewing co-exist, and for a long time they didn’t fight each other (the introduction of the VHS proved, early on, to be a surprise financial cushion for Hollywood). But it is hardly a relic of an idea to say that the essence of cinema remains the theatrical experience.

Yet we now live at a time that is so forward-thinking, so fixated on the possibilities of technology, so reflexive in its loyalty to the new as opposed to the old, that when you’re talking about the format of the future vs. the format of the past, any commitment to the format of the past can carry an outmoded dinosaur aura. (We’ve all been in a coffee shop and thought to ourselves, glancing at that 60ish person in the corner as if he were some creature in a zoo, “Look, he’s still reading a print newspaper!”)

Viewed in that context, Steven Spielberg’s attempt to try to erect a fence between what Netflix does (release movies via streaming, and a few times a year sprinkle them into theaters) and what the Academy does (recognize movies that play to audiences in theaters as movies) has been attacked, by some members of the Academy and, notably, by scores of online film fans who are probably under 40, as the last gasp of an archaic way of seeing things.

The rest of that Netflix statement read, “Here are some things we also love: Access for people who can’t always afford, or live in towns without, theaters. Letting everyone, everywhere enjoy releases at the same time. Giving filmmakers more ways to share art.” The statement asked, implicitly: Are you against these things? And the online reaction against Spielberg has basically treated him as if he was.

In a subtextual way, identity politics has come into it. Spielberg is the “old white male” trying to hang onto his entitled way of doing things, while Netflix — representing speed, access, democratization, a multiplicity of voices — is the force of techno-woke rebellion opening up the world to greater possibilities. And just as Netflix has used a work of art like “Roma” as a one-film signifier of the company’s purity of intent, many observers have bought into the message of the advertising, which is: Do we want an Academy that disqualifies “Roma” from competing in the Oscars but rolls out the red carpet for a studio film that plays by the rules yet isn’t nearly as good? The Netflix vs. Spielberg battle has become, in mythical terms, a case of the rebel disruptor vs. The Man, and these days who wants to be on the side of The Man? The disruptor has all the cred.

Yet even as Netflix, so far, seems to be winning the social-media publicity campaign, the idea persists that the company puts movies into theaters not just because it loves cinema, and not just to make a profit (as every company in the history of movies has done), but because it has an ulterior motive. The company wants to prove that it loves cinema. Because by doing so, it can woo the filmmakers, and audiences, it needs to become an industry unto itself. It can woo them enough to remake cinema. And if it turns out that the vision of what cinema looks like — what cinema is — after it gets remade doesn’t happen to involve movie theaters, then so be it. It will hardly matter to Netflix, because Netflix will already own your viewing habits. Whether that’s cinema or not, it’s one hell of a business plan.

And that’s why, more than not, I’m with Steven Spielberg on his likely proposed change to the Academy guidelines. He is not dissing what Netflix does. He is trying to isolate and hang onto the DNA of cinema — to preserve an essential definition of what movies are, as distinct from what we watch on television. The notion of an extended theatrical window, or something comparable to it, would be the updated version of the old requirement that a movie had to fulfill to be nominated for Oscars: the one-week qualifying run. That was before streaming, but it’s only natural that just as technology changes habits, it changes protocol and it changes rules. It’s the one-week qualifying run that’s become a relic, a trivial hoop that Netflix (or anyone else) can jump through.

If you really want to make the case that Spielberg is wrong, then (to play devil’s advocate) why not have a movie like “Roma” qualify for Oscars the day it opens on streaming services? That’s the logical culmination of what Netflix fans favor. Yet it doesn’t address the real conundrum: Is the technology of streaming now going to redefine what movies are? Because if a movie just streams, then what makes it a movie? Why not allow hundreds of films that are made for television to qualify for the Oscars?

In the end, this battle is merely a preview of the larger streaming war to come: the one about how long all movies, and not just Netflix movies, will get to play in theaters before they’re available at home. Because if that model genuinely changes, with the backing of the major studios, and the window shrinks down to a month or two weeks, then all bets are off. Netflix now stands like a monolith, but with that potential change looming it could look like one more toothpick in the war for cinema’s future.

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