The increasing ubiquity of Netflix has posed a serious issue for the Academy Awards and the industry at large, and thus far the Oscars have been reluctant to acknowledge Netflix’s increasing output of original films. Beasts of No Nation was the first Netflix film in awards contention, but it failed to score any Oscar nominations. This past year, however, Netflix’s most serious contender yet Mudbound fared far better, scoring four nominations including a groundbreaking Best Cinematography nod for Rachel Morrison. The film ultimately walked away empty handed, but Netflix was victorious in Best Documentary Feature with Icarus, and won Best Documentary Short last year with White Helmets. So while narrative features have still yet to come away with a win, Netflix is making strides.
There are strong feelings among those in the industry about how to qualify Netflix films, since the streaming service refuses to give its movies a theatrical release before they go on the streaming service. They hold fast to a “day-and-date” model, which means their films only get short Oscar-qualifying runs in a very limited number of theaters because many theater owners refuse to take up space in their theaters for movies that are readily available online. And according to legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, that one-week window not good enough.
Speaking with ITV, the Ready Player One director got candid with his thoughts about the rise of television and streaming services, saying he doesn’t believe a short qualifying window is enough to warrant Oscar consideration:
“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.”
Spielberg spoke at length about the rise of quality television, admitting it poses a threat to filmgoing as a whole but also acknowledging this has happened before:
“[TV] is a challenge to cinema the same way television in the early 1950s pulled people away from movie theaters and everybody stayed home, because it was more fun to stay home and watch a comedy on television in the 1950s than it was to go out and see a movie. So Hollywood’s used to that, we’re accustomed to being highly competitive with television. The difference today is that a lot of studios would rather just make branded, tentpole, guaranteed box office hits from their inventory of branded successful movies than take chances on smaller films. And those smaller films the studios used to make routinely are now going to Amazon and Hulu and Netflix.”
The director has no issue with the quality of television, even saying it’s the best it’s ever been:
“And by the way, the television is greater today than it’s ever been in the history of television. There’s better writing, better directing, better performances, better stories are being told. Television is really thriving with quality and art, but it poses a clear and present danger to filmgoers.”
Spielberg maintains he’ll still make films like The Post for theatrical release, not for a streaming service, but admits that’s now become a rarity:
“I’ll still make The Post for audiences asking them to please go out to the movies to see The Post and not make it directly for Netflix… I’m just saying fewer and fewer filmmakers are going to struggle to raise money in order to compete in Sundance and possibly get one of the specialty labels to release their films theatrically, publicly. And more of them are going to let the SVOD business finance their films, maybe with the promise of a slight one-week theatrical window to qualify them for awards as a movie, but in fact once you commit to a television format you’re a TV movie. You certainly, if it’s a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar.”
That statement will no doubt be deemed controversial, but I see where Spielberg’s coming from. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are allowing for the mid-budget drama to get made, and movies like Manchester by the Sea may not even exist if it weren’t for these non-traditional outlets. Mudbound was made independently, but co-writer/director Dee Rees freely admitted that even though the film received wildly positive reviews at Sundance, no studio wanted to acquire the film for release. They simply didn’t see the money in it. She and her team went with Netflix because it was the first distributor to actually show interest in releasing the movie, and it meant the film could reach a wide audience all at once.