The times are changing and they’re changing fast. Steven Spielberg is apparently leading a charge of Academy members to block Netflix from qualifying for Best Picture unless its films have a four week theatrical run. I guess the idea is that Netflix has an unfair advantage over films that are produced and distributed the traditional way, as those have to confront the economic realities: Rotten Tomatoes, the hive mind, opening box office, competition, and an increasingly frugal public that isn’t going to lay out $100 for their family to go see something like The Favourite when they can see twenty movies a week if they want, for 6 months of access at the same price, on Netflix — on a massive 4K TV, mind you, with surround sound in the privacy and comfort of their own homes.
I feel like, in a sense, the world has grown around insular Hollywood and the Oscars. There has never been a point in Steven Spielberg’s career when he’s had to sweat profusely to get a movie made. And from Jaws onward, this isn’t a man who has ever had to worry about whether or not he can afford to go to the movies. His theater experience is at one of handful of the ultimate screend in the world, ar the DGA or other cloistered venues. Moreover, most of the people writing on this subject, film critics, filmmakers, and bloggers likewise, don’t have to lay down green to see movies either. They complain when they aren’t invited to screenings for free. I sometimes wonder how their coverage might be different if they did have to pay for movies, ditto Spielberg.
They aren’t looking at the problem from the point of view of the people movies are supposed to be made for: audiences. Not the Oscar voters. Not the critics. Not the filmmakers. Not the bloggers. Not the hive mind. The people who supposedly buy tickets or pay Netflix’s monthly fee — those are the people who are supposed to matter. They are telling us all what they think by how they spend their money.
Here are a couple of good discussions on the topic. First is the brilliant Paul Schrader’s idea, which he posted on Facebook:
THE NETFLIX DEBATE. I have no animus against Netflix. Ted Sarandos is as smart about film as any studio exec I’ve ever met. Distribution models evolve. The notion of squeezing 200+ people into a dark unventilated space to see a flickering image was created by exhibition economics, not any notion of the “theatrical experience.” Netflix allows many financially marginal films to have a platform and that’s a good thing. But here’s my query: it involves FIRST REFORMED. First Reformed was sold at a bargain price to A24 out of the Toronto FF. Netflix, which could have snapped it up as easily as it swats a fly on its ass, passed. As did Amazon. As did Sony Classics and Focus. But A24 saw a commercial path for this austere aesthetic film. As a result First Reformed found a life. A24 rolled it out through festivals and screenings from 2017 to 2018. And it survived. Not a big money maker but profitable for A24 and a jewel in their crown. Would First Reformed have found this public acceptance if Netflix and scooped it up (at say twice the price A24 payed) and dumped it into its larder? Perhaps Bird Box and Kissing Booth can fight their way through the vast sea of Netflix product to find popular acceptance, but First Reformed? Unlikely. Relegated to film esoterica. A different path? My proposal: For club cinemas (Alamo Draft House, Metrograph, Burns Center, Film Forum) to form an alliance with a two tiered streaming system (first tier: Criterion/Mubi, second tier: Netflix/Amazon).Distribution models are in flux. It’s not as simple as theatrical versus streaming.
Second, here is how director Joseph Kahn put it, from his perspective:
I would have really liked this thread, except for the need to tack on “or even yes Green Book.” To me, that shows this is a person plugged into the mass hysteria machine online. It’s absurd. “Or even Green Book.” Green Book is exactly the kind of movie audiences WOULD pay to see, dawg, in case you’re keeping track. Most of the movies film critics want audiences to pay to see? They won’t. They will wait until it goes on VOD.
Sean Baker suggests the “theatrical tier” for Netflix. Maybe? Pay a bit more, and you get to see the Netflix movies for free in a theater? He’d do it. Would you?
Ava DuVernay whose When They See Us will stream on Netflix later this year reminds us of the power of distribution.
One of the things I value about Netflix is that it distributes black work far/wide. 190 countries will get WHEN THEY SEE US. Here’s a promo for South Africa. I’ve had just one film distributed wide internationally. Not SELMA. Not WRINKLE. It was 13TH. By Netflix. That matters. https://t.co/lpn1FFSfgG
— Ava DuVernay (@ava) March 3, 2019
Look, folks, to Spielberg and anyone else suddenly paying attention — this train left the station long ago. LONG LONG ago, and it isn’t Netflix’s fault. The train left the station before Netflix even started sending out DVDs through snail mail. Netflix fed a need by adult people who wanted to stay home and watch movies, to not even go out to the video store — that’s how much they wanted to stay home. Like Millennials who use Grub Hub and UberEats, Amazon and AmazonFresh, people like shit delivered to them at home. On their own time, at their own request.
I remember being at a dinner party in 2009. The Hurt Locker was about to win Best Picture. I was sitting at a table with upper middle-class white women, and they were talking about movies. None of them even went to the movies but once or twice a year if a film required it. That year, they’d all seen Avatar. Avatar is an “event movie,” and so not only had they seen it, but they believed it was going to win Best Picture. “No,” I explained. “The Hurt Locker will.” They stared back at me blankly. These were educated, actualized women, and they’d never even HEARD of the Hurt Locker. That was ten years ago.
The train has left the station. It’s all over but the shouting. Can Netflix and the old guard reach some kind of compromise? Sure. But the basic problem remains: people don’t WANT to go to the movies unless there is a good reason to shell out a lot of money. Spielberg himself, along with George Lucas, helped to invent the blockbuster. They know it. (Then in 2013 they warned the monster would bring about Hollywood’s implosion.) Even if Spielberg became a guy who made movies like Lincoln, he was still the guy who made Jaws (the greatest movie of his career and perhaps of all time), Raiders, E.T., and Jurassic Park. He and Lucas have predicted that in the future movies people paid to see would only be event movies.
There are so many reasons for this that have nothing to do with Netflix. International box office greed and lust. Competition with China (why is this our fight?). The pressure to “open big” or else fade out. Look, First Man’s big story was that it didn’t make back the money it cost. Well, neither did Vice, bankrolled with the largesse of billionaire, much like a Renassaince patron. Neither did Roma make profit than can be easily defined, but that never became a story. Why? Because it was behind the Netflix shield. It could afford to be “just art” where First Man, reduced in some minds to a commodity on the marketplace, couldn’t. Right?
The Oscars maybe used to be about celebrating the theatrical experience, but they have long since abandoned that after the Academy pushed the date up one month, thus forcing the whole Oscar race, give or take a movie or two, to be decided at film festivals and at home on screeners, far from the madding crowd. So give me a break, okay? The Oscars have long been the “custom meal” aboard an airplane while the rest of the plebeians stuck in coach had to eat whatever the airline was serving. They have been out of touch with the movie-going public forever. And just because suddenly Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Star Is Born were nominated this year doesn’t fix that. None of this is the fault of Netflix. It is merely evolution. Mutation, adaptation, survival.
Just remember this: 99% of everything that has ever been alive has gone extinct. Extinction is the rule. Survival, the exception. So sure, dress it all up and pretend that Hollywood still cares about people going to the movies. Hollywood cares about what it’s always cared about: making a lot of money. That’s why it’s going the way of Broadway with only movies based on other movies. Spectacle that is looking more and more like games than movies. Games, because games are starting to sell even better than movies because users like the interactive experience. Don’t blame Netflix because Big Hollywood shit the bed with terrible films. Why not do a little soul searching on that?
Netflix is carving out a separate path for artists who want to make the kinds of films that still represent cinema as art — storytelling of the human kind. That’s not a bad idea. The Oscars themselves are fighting for relevance, not because of Netflix, but because they’ve long since given up the idea that there is actually a race for Best Picture. It is a controlled game every year, played, fought, and won by publicists (mostly) and an entire industry that helps shape it. But the fix is in, folks. We know that. We know, despite how many films are nominated, usually only two, sometimes three will have a shot at winning.
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman is a movie no one has to worry about playing in theaters. It will make money. When they release it for a span of weeks, it will make money. For Netflix, I assume the thinking is that if The Irishman plays on its platform, more people will watch it than they would if it earned $100 million at the box office. Their question would then be — do we care about the Oscars?
The pearl clutching is a bit rich, to put it mildly. But sure, let’s put the movies in movie theaters so elitists in New York and LA can see it on the big screen. Everyone else in America? Let them eat cake. Or in this case, let them watch it when it comes on streaming.