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Netflix v.s. Spielberg: Who Is Right About the Oscars?

Spielberg doesn’t want Netflix to win any more Oscars unless they change their distribution model.



Do you ever feel like a kid in a candy store? That’s me when it comes to filmmaking. As a trained actor and director I can spend hours talking about the different aspects of filmmaking. Particularly oohing and aahhing about how a director chose to shoot a scene, the brilliance of an editor, the way a director developed the relationship between characters in a movie, epic lines in my favorite movies…the list goes on.

I also have an understanding of the film industry thanks to having studied producing and I love that side of the business too. That’s to say: I love seeing the opportunities that present themselves to filmmakers these days. And when it comes to upending the Hollywood business model, I can wax on for a lifetime.

Being the lead editor for the Lifestyle section on Vigyaa, I now have a valid excuse to browse IMDb and Variety for juicy content ideas. In all fairness, I do check CNN and the BBC too. Anyway, today I went straight for Variety and guess what I found? The feud between Spielberg and Netflix. Not that it’s really a feud, more like an ongoing debate, but it sounds better to say it’s a feud. More juicy. Think the Montagues v.s. the Capulets. Now we’re talking tension. Drama. A show worth watching.

So what exactly did Spielberg do to start this feud? He made a statement that once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. In other words: you are not an Oscars contender if you make a movie for a streaming site, like Netflix. Only films that have cinematic release may compete for an Oscar. And Netflix does offer cinematic releases for movies when they’re trying to win Oscars, only they’ve often restricted the time a movie is shown in cinemas, or released it on Netflix simultaneously.

To understand Spielberg’s argument a bit better, you need to understand the film industry. Traditionally, a movie is released in cinemas first for a minimum run of three months. Theatres may discontinue a film before the run is over, but DVDs will not be sold, nor will the film be available on TV, until the three-month window is over.

This system was set up so as to ensure that the cinemas made money and the filmmakers made money — without selling cinema tickets, a movie would not make very much money. Films that go straight to TV make significantly less, which is often why films made for TV have significantly lower budgets.

Then Netflix came along and at first things remained the same — films had cinematic release before you could view them on Netflix, TV, or DVD. But pretty soon Netflix started producing their own content and releasing films on Netflix at the same time as they released them in cinemas. And sometimes they limited their cinematic release to a couple of weeks, instead of three months. What’s more, they didn’t necessarily have cinematic release in other countries for their films. Last year they were banned from competing in Cannes as their movies had not been released in cinemas in France.

Normally, a film that is made for TV competes for Emmys while films made for cinema compete for Academy Awards (Oscars). Spielberg and several other people are therefore arguing that Netflix movies that are shown in cinemas for less than three months (due to Netflix restrictions, not because they’re tanking at the cinemas) aren’t movies, but TV films and should compete for Emmy nominations instead.

The thing is, before Netflix, there were no TV movies made for over $100M. That puts them in a category all of their own.

Now, let’s have a look at some other things. First of all, filmmakers want to make their money back, so it makes sense with cinematic release, right? Sure, if you have a couple of million to market the movie. If not, you can’t afford that unless you work with a genius marketer and do something sensational. And with some movies, no matter how well-made and how well-marketed they are, they are made for a certain segment of the population. They are not traditional TV movies made for mass-appeal, they are artworks made with skill and hard labor. You paying for a big cinematic release is plain silly, because you won’t make your money back.

That doesn’t mean they are bad movies that don’t deserve Oscars though.

Then there’s the thing about who is truly making money from the movie. You pay the sales rep, the distribution company and the cinemas, and deduct the cost for print and advertising before the production company sees any money. The actual share that comes back to a production company is frighteningly small.

Then there’s the issue with getting people to go to the cinema and pay $12 to watch a movie that, in three months, they can watch for free, or for a very discounted price online, on TV or on DVD.

I love the cinema. I particularly love one called The Labia (yes, you got that right) in Cape Town where a ticket costs about $3 and popcorn costs ca. $0.70. Like Prince Charles Cinema in London it shows a lot of films that fall into the arthouse spectrum, but also productions that are simply well made. I watched La La Land and The Hundred-Foot Journey at The Labia, for example. Why are cinema tickets at these kinds of cinemas so cheap? Because you watch the film after or towards the end of its three-month run in other cinemas.

It’s very hard to make money as a cinema these days, which is why some cinemas are trying out new experiences, such as serving food with the movie.

You could, of course, argue cinema tickets would be cheaper if Hollywood just agreed to cut the costs of some of their films.

What I’m trying to say is that not all movies are tailored for a big cinematic release as it would not make financial sense. Does that make them less Oscar worthy though? If you’re an innovative filmmaker selling your film on YouTube do you not deserve an Oscar?

By buying up independent films (i.e. films not made by the big studios), Netflix and Amazon have made it possible for several filmmakers to have their films released to a wide audience. Likewise, by creating original content in different countries around the world, they have opened a new avenue for filmmakers to create their art. For them it’s often much cheaper to stream it straight to their site than pay for distribution. While they create some bad content (the kind of “crowd pleasers” that often turn into B-movie of the kind you used to find on TV), they also create the kind of movies you certainly weren’t the kind that used to be produced for TV. I still remember watching Our Souls at Night last year, thinking “this is why I became a filmmaker.” It’s a film that’s certainly not tailored for everyone. In fact, it’s very slow (I think I even fast forwarded at one point), but it’s also beautiful.

Netflix premiered Our Souls at Night at the Venice Film Festival, then released it for streaming. So is it a TV movie, or just a movie?

As a filmmaker, of course you dream of cinematic release for all your movies — you want to give the audience the cinema experience. If you have the cash for marketing it and if the audience have the cash for seeing it, is another story. You want to support local cinemas, the local economy and so forth, but it has to be in a manner that’s sustainable. If you don’t make your money back, then it’s not worth the investment.

I think, as filmmakers, we have a responsibility to keep supporting cinemas if we want people to be able to see our work on a big screen and we want people to come together to watch films, not just sit on their couch alone and watch them. However, I’m not sure this has anything to do with the Oscars, apart form using the Oscars as a way of pressurizing Netflix into supporting cinemas and thereby salvaging the old Hollywood business model. That business model will change anyway though. It always does.

One of the big jokes in Hollywood is that they tried suing Sony when they first came out with VHS/DVD (I can’t remember which). They were certain it was going to ruin business. Then they ended up making so much money from DVD sales that the thought of online streaming sent them into a state of panic. Now they wanted to sue Netflix. Whatever comes next, they’re gonna wanna sue that too.

I think the best movies should win Oscars. End of. I also think that it’s time we started putting some thought into how to rejuvenate cinemas. And upend the Hollywood business model, but then I’ve always wanted to upend that particular business model.






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