Netflix does not yet have a Best Picture Oscar, but Steven Spielberg is still apparently none too happy about the prospect of it winning one soon. The iconic filmmaker has long made his thoughts about Netflix known, saying last March that he flat-out doesn’t think Netflix movies should be eligible for Oscars. He compared Netflix originals to TV movies, saying, “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.”
Now, in the wake of three Oscar wins for Netflix’s Roma, including Best Director, Spielberg is prepared to propose a rule change that would rule Netflix films ineligible at an upcoming Academy Board of Governors meeting (he represents the Directors branch on the board). The news comes courtesy of Indiewire, though it’s unclear specifically what rules Spielberg would propose to be changed, and whether Netflix increasing the length of a theatrical window ahead of a streaming release would ease his concerns.
A spokesman for Amblin had this to say:
“Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation. He’ll be happy if the others will join [his campaign] when that comes up [at the Academy Board of Governors meeting]. He will see what happens.”
This puts Spielberg in direct conflict with his friend and fellow filmmaker Martin Scorsese, whose new film The Irishman will debut on Netflix later this year. The streaming service has already committed to a theatrical release for the film, but Scorsese reportedly wants them to give the film a wide release. That poses a challenge. Roma was released in theaters three weeks before it hit the streaming service—a first—but only in limited release, and it followed a smaller platform rollout in the ensuing months.
In order to convince major theatrical chains like AMC or Regal to carry The Irishman, either Netflix would have to bend to their rules and release the film in theaters a full 90 days before it hits Netflix, or theater chains would have to break their long-held standards that hold fast to the 90-day window. That window of exclusivity is there to ensure that exhibiting films is worth a theater’s while—if a movie’s on Netflix at the same time it’s in theaters, chances are most people aren’t going to pay extra to go see it in a movie theater.
So while that whole issue remains in flux, Spielberg’s taking steps to prevent Netflix from gaining even more ground at next year’s Oscars—but not all filmmakers are in agreement. Ava DuVernay, for one, took to Twitter to voice her dissent:
Dear @TheAcademy, This is a Board of Governors meeting. And regular branch members can’t be there. 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. Thanks, Ava DuVernay. https://t.co/DFBLVWhiJj
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) March 1, 2019
DuVernay has long been a supporter of the Netflix model, pointing out that movie theaters aren’t always accessible to those with lower income, and especially persons of color. Indeed, people couldn’t even see DuVernay’s civil rights drama Selma in Selma, Alabama or Straight Outta Compton in Compton, California due to lack of access. And the reason Alfonso Cuarón took Roma to Netflix in the first place was because other distributors wouldn’t commit to as wide a potential audience as the streaming service.
I don’t necessarily think changing the rules to make Netflix movies ineligible for Oscars is the right call, but I do think there’s value in Spielberg pushing back. A strong advocacy for theatrical distribution could be the push necessary for Netflix to commit to a more traditional theatrical window, thus ensuring folks who care to do so could see certain Netflix movies on the big screen. Without pushback, or at least advocacy from filmmakers, one imagines Netflix would just forge ahead with its day-and-date model and skip theaters altogether.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens next. Some pointed to Green Book’s Best Picture win over Roma’s as the Academy pushing back against Netflix, but I’m not entirely sure that was a major driving factor. Just as you can see a number of esteemed and Oscar-winning performers in Marvel movies, Netflix’s upcoming slate of films and TV shows is full of critically acclaimed actors and filmmakers. Just this year they have new films from Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and Dee Rees. As traditional studios move closer and closer to only making blockbuster and/or known IP content, filmmakers are forced to flock to Netflix to tell the kinds of stories that used to be commonplace on the big screen.
But that doesn’t mean Netflix has to completely ignore the theatrical model, and I do think there’s a happy medium to be reached here. Roma tested the waters with a three-week window and there was no revolt from subscribers, so I think Netflix could stand to follow in Amazon Studios’ footsteps and commit to a 90-day window for select films that are best seen on the big screen. Although that comes with the caveat that Amazon is now moving away from the 90-day window model and is going to start making films that will be released directly to streaming, just like Netflix.
The truth of the matter is the industry is evolving, and growing pains are necessary to ensure the medium of film continues to thrive. I’m curious to see what becomes of Spielberg’s comments at the upcoming Academy meeting, and how Netflix is going to adjust its model for major releases this year like The Irishman or Michael Bay’s blockbuster Six Underground.
Stay tuned, folks. Roma may be a bona fide Oscar winner, but the battle over Netflix is far from over.