Last month, we reported that Steven Spielberg was trying to block Netflix movies from Oscar consideration unless they had more substantial theatrical runs. This eventually spun into the narrative that Spielberg was against Netflix, trying to defend old Hollywood from the new streaming services. Of course, there was more nuance and complexity here, but that got missed everyone ran to take sides between the famed director and the streaming giant. But it looks like the initial reporting was wrong and missed Spielberg’s intent.
In a story today from The New York Times, it looks like Spielberg was never going to propose a rule change (he was already scheduled to be in New York for rehearsals on West Side Story), but he would probably support a rule change if were it proposed. But Spielberg’s goal isn’t about denying Oscars to Netflix. His larger attention is on preserving the theatrical experience:
His primary beef is not with Netflix, according to the people close to him. Rather, he is frustrated that exhibitors have been unwilling to compromise. The multiplex chains have fought off any effort to shorten the exclusive period they get to play films of any genre, which is currently about 90 days. In January, after “Roma” was nominated for the best picture Oscar, Mr. Spielberg even called AMC and Regal, the largest theater companies, and implored them to play the Netflix film even though it was already available online. They refused.
Spielberg specified his emphasis on preserving theatrical exhibition:
“I want people to find their entertainment in any form or fashion that suits them,” Mr. Spielberg said in an email in response to queries from The New York Times. “Big screen, small screen — what really matters to me is a great story and everyone should have access to great stories.
“However, I feel people need to have the opportunity to leave the safe and familiar of their lives and go to a place where they can sit in the company of others and have a shared experience — cry together, laugh together, be afraid together — so that when it’s over they might feel a little less like strangers. I want to see the survival of movie theaters. I want the theatrical experience to remain relevant in our culture.”
I agree with Spielberg that theaters matter, but also looking at it as “streaming vs. theaters” is missing what theaters have been doing wrong and doing wrong for years. I would love for Spielberg to just stroll in to an average movie theater and see that even if they were showing Roma, there would still be overpriced tickets, poor projection, and audiences happily using their phones. The problem with theatrical distribution right now isn’t that audiences would prefer to be in their living rooms; it’s that they’re treating theaters like their living rooms.
If Spielberg is serious about the survival of movie theaters, it needs to be more about getting streaming movies into theaters for longer windows. He needs to use his clout to call out major chains like AMC, Regal, and Cinemark to invest in better standards and practices. Those theater chains need to make the argument about why coming out to a theater is better and not just whine about distribution windows.