In the battle of Spielberg vs. Netflix's Oscar ambitions, who stands to win or lose?
Last week was supposed to be a good one for Netflix, celebrating four Oscar wins, including three for its awards-season darling Roma. Although Alfonso Cuarón’s sweeping drama missed out on the Best Picture prize, it landed the streaming platform major wins for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography.
But the week ended on a sour note for Netflix, as it incurred the wrath of a powerful industry figure who seems intent on keeping the streamer out of future Oscar races: veteran filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
IndieWire broke the news Thursday that Spielberg will be taking his gripes with Netflix straight to the board of governors at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to argue that films debuting on streaming platforms should only be considered in the TV-movie space at the Emmy Awards, and not in the film categories at the Oscars. (“Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” Spielberg said last year. “The good show deserves an Emmy, but not an Oscar.”)
Spielberg’s representatives said he had no further comment on the matter for now. Netflix responded on Twitter, saying that its platform allows films to reach audiences who might not be able to access theaters as easily, and that it provides filmmakers “more ways to share art.” Over the weekend, the debate got heated on social media as filmmakers came forward to discuss whether Spielberg’s disapproval of Netflix was fair. Ava DuVernay came out in support of the streaming platform, which distributed her Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary 13th in 2016 and will be distributing her miniseries When They See Us.
Tom O’Neil, editor of the awards tracking site GoldDerby, tells EW that he believes Spielberg is right about proposing some rule changes to determine what qualifies for Oscars. “Where he is wrong is that it looks personal, a backlash against Netflix,” O’Neil says. “In the era of converging media, what makes the Oscars and the Emmys different? The answer must be in the release of a film and how it is introduced to the world.”
Below, EW breaks down some of the key issues at the core of this ongoing discussion over release strategy, Oscar campaigning, and most importantly, who stands to gain and lose from any subsequent changes.
Theatrical vs. streaming
Ever since Netflix entered the original film distribution space in 2015 with Beasts of No Nation, the debate over theatrical releases and streaming has endured. But Spielberg stoked the fire once again by implying that any film that opts for a streaming platform immediately becomes a “TV movie,” and therefore should only be eligible for Emmys, not Oscars. It’s a sticky point on what differentiates the two, with the most basic definition being that a film made for a TV network is a TV movie, while theatrical films are made to be shown in movie theaters. Streaming platforms, however, have not only blurred the lines here, they also have offered filmmakers a whole new release model.
Streaming platforms haven’t replaced the studio or independent film systems — instead, many see these online, on-demand platforms as a perfect fit for smaller films that might not attract a big opening-weekend audience at the box office but would find viewers through targeted curation.
There is also an argument to made for the doors that streaming platforms have opened for creators who have been notoriously underrepresented in the industry, namely female, minority, and LGBTQ filmmakers. “It’s possible that Steven Spielberg doesn’t know how difficult it is to get movies made in the legacy system as a woman or a person of color,” tweeted Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List. “In his extraordinary career, he hasn’t exactly produced or executive produced many films directed by them.”
Netflix isn’t just making and distributing niche indie films. It’s also investing many millions into big, splashy films, such as the $60 million Brad Pitt-starrer War Machine and the Will Smith fantasy Bright (reported to have a $100 million budget, with a sequel on the way), or the $105 million acquisition of Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film The Irishman, reuniting Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and likely to be receiving a major awards push for next year’s Oscars.
The Irishman was acquired by Netflix after Paramount Pictures dropped U.S. distribution rights for the project, and to win the bid, Netflix likely promised Scorsese an Oscar campaign for the film, which is slated for a fall release. By going to Netflix, does the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s movie suddenly become a TV movie? Would Scorsese be happy with Emmy recognition over Oscars?
If Netflix films become ineligible for Oscars, chances are that the streaming platform will lose its appeal with a certain echelon of filmmakers making movies that would otherwise be part of the film awards conversation.
Deep-pocketed awards campaigns
When Netflix hired veteran awards consultant Lisa Taback last year — the savvy force behind the Best Picture success of movies including Miramax’s Shakespeare in Love, the Weinstein Co.’s The King’s Speech, and Open Road’s Spotlight — it was a clear sign that the streamer was upping its awards game for the 2018 season. From Roma’s debut at the Venice Film Festival in August, the strong reviews and reactions for Cuarón’s film bolstered Netflix’s chances to have a frontrunner in the Oscar race, and the company dug deep into its pockets to get the film out there. Industry sources have told EW that Netflix spent upward of $50 million on the Roma campaign. According to a Reuters report, the company also purchased billboards in strategic locations around Los Angeles that likely drew a lot of eyeballs from industry folk on their daily travels.
To compare, film studios’ specialty divisions such Fox Searchlight (The Favourite), Focus Features (BlacKkKlansman), and Sony Pictures Classics (The Wife) are unlikely to have more than $5 million to spend on an Oscar campaign (and often a lot less), while films made and released by indie studios are unlikely to have more than $1 million for a campaign. O’Neil says the last Oscar movie that mounted an expensive campaign was Warner Bros’. Argo in 2012, spending some $30 million and eventually winning Best Picture.
But there could also be something more personal here. After all, Taback’s campaigning derailed Spielberg’s own film at the Oscars in 1999, when Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan in what is regarded as one of the biggest upsets in Academy Awards history. In 2012, Spielberg’s War Horse was bested by the Weinstein Co.’s The Artist for Best Picture, with Taback once again a driving force. In 2016, Spielberg was foiled by Taback yet again, as Spotlight beat Bridge of Spies in the Best Picture category.
Just like politics, Oscar campaigning can get dirty, with whisper campaigns and strategic takedown pieces often timed around voting periods. And then there are the glitzy private events thrown for voters, from dinners to musical events. While there are strict Academy rules about what kinds of events can be thrown for voters, there are no rules on how much a studio can spend on advertising and promoting an awards film overall. Spielberg’s proposal could suggest capping what studios can spend, and in doing so, could level the playing field for the independent releases with fewer resources.
Netflix’s Roma release
To be considered for Oscars, a film must play for at least one week in theaters before the end of the calendar year. This is why many prestige films vie for fall releases, hoping to get into the awards conversation during the critical voting periods. Smaller independent films that can’t afford a big theatrical rollout will opt to do maybe a four-theater release in New York and Los Angeles — the two major hubs of awards voters — before the end of the year, with the intention of expanding the release after receiving nominations.
Netflix amended its own rules of releasing films exclusively on its streaming platform last year, in order to ensure that Roma would qualify for Oscar contention. Netflix released Roma in more than 100 U.S. theaters and more than 500 theaters internationally beginning Nov. 21, some three weeks before the film’s Dec. 14 debut online. But Netflix also used the four-walled release method, in which the studio buys out entire theaters; moviegoers still buy normal-priced tickets, which go toward reimbursing studios for the money spent on buying every seat, but the model allows studios to avoid having to report box office sales, and they can also claim that all screenings are sold out.
To compare, Amazon has built in a theatrical release to its movie model, debuting films like the 2016 Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea and this year’s Oscar-nominated Cold War in theaters a full three months before putting them on its Prime Video streaming platform.
What Netflix is doing is very much allowed, but is likely to have irked some Oscar voters who feel that perhaps the tech giant is skirting the rules too much. “To do a fake theatrical release to just qualify is deceptive and wrong,” O’Neil says. “[Netflix] played by the rules, but the rules need fixing.”
The farthest reach
Netflix’s response to the Spielberg drama to tout its reach.
As DuVernay pointed out, it was not her Disney film A Wrinkle in Time that reached the largest audience, but rather her Netflix documentary 13th. Netflix offers filmmakers a platform that reaches their global base — more than 130 million subscribers across 190 countries. In comparison, Black Panther was released in just over 50 countries, Bohemian Rhapsody was released in around 50, countries and A Star Is Born was released in some 40 countries. All three were also nominated for Best Picture and were among the biggest box office earners at the Oscars this year.
Part of Spielberg’s proposal could be to implement a mandatory four-week theatrical release for films aiming for Oscar contention, ahead of a debut on any streaming platforms. This might not be an issue for Netflix, however, given its three-week theatrical launch of Roma. Filmmaker Sean Baker suggested on Twitter that Netflix could even build a theatrical price plan into its subscription model, allowing subscribers the option to see Netflix movies in theaters for a few extra bucks a month.
The innocent victims of Spielberg’s four-week-theatrical-run proposal would instead be the small indie films, foreign films, and documentaries that can often only afford a limited one- or two-week theatrical run, with the hopes that awards recognition could allow them to go wider. An industry source tells EW that a typical small indie film doesn’t have the marketing budget to go all in on a four-week run, but with a limited release and a high per-theater-average, the film can hope to go bigger after it receives nominations. But a blanket four-week-run rule? Not every small movie distributor can handle the cost of that.
Revolution vs. evolution
Many have criticized Spielberg’s proposal against Netflix as him being out of touch with the shifting landscape. After all, film has come under threat from its earliest days, from televisions entering homes in the 1950s to VHS tapes going mainstream in the 1980s to DVDs offering an even higher quality of viewing at home in the 2000s.
Netflix getting so close to winning Best Picture with Roma this year “sent chills” up the spines of the film industry, one source tells EW. However, the notion that box office and the theatrical experience are under threat from streaming could also easily be challenged when looking at theater attendance: The 2018 U.S. box office garnered just shy of $12 billion in ticket sales, a new record.
Furthermore, there is now an entire generation of children who have grown up with YouTube, Netflix, and other streaming platforms as an inherent part of their entertainment consumption. This generation doesn’t necessarily discern between watching a movie in theaters versus on their devices at home. Did the filmmaker intend for that viewership when they were conceiving their artistic efforts? Perhaps not. But even Spielberg has faced the same: He may be making movies for the big screen, but there are entire generations who have only seen Spielberg’s movies, such as Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park, on a small screen. Does that undervalue their appreciation for the craft of the film?
And then there’s the issue of awards screeners. While the average person has to go to the theater or wait for a streaming debut to see new releases, awards voters have the privilege of receiving screeners, allowing them to see new and unreleased awards contenders at home on DVD. Which makes Spielberg’s insistence on robust theatrical releases for Oscar contenders a little hypocritical, according to some critics, given that voters are watching these movies mostly on a small screen.
The landscape for film has been evolving and continues to shift as times and technology change. The Academy had to amend its documentary rules in 2017 to prevent multipart documentary series from qualifying for Best Documentary Feature, months after ESPN’s five-part O.J.: Made in America won the award.
Spielberg is expected to address the Academy’s board of governors on the issue in April, and DuVernay has asked for filmmakers in support of Netflix to also be in attendance at the meeting. The stakes are high for both Oscar traditionalists and the disruptors of the film world, and all eyes are on what comprise could be made, and what reverberations that will have throughout Hollywood.