steven spielberg netflix controversy

Steven Spielberg is having a moment right now, and I don’t mean in terms of his filmmaking. The acclaimed director has been making headlines lately because he can’t stop complaining about Netflix. Spielberg just can’t wrap his head around this whole “streaming movies at home instead of going to the theater” thing, and feels so serious about this that he’s taking his complaints to the Academy. Now, Netflix has responded…via Twitter. Really though, I’d like for this entire conflict to end, because it’s getting depressing.

Over the weekend, Film Twitter exploded (not literally, unfortunately) as word quickly spread of Steven Spielberg’s latest crusade against Netflix. The filmmaker plans to address the Academy Board of Governors this April in an attempt to stem the tide of Netflix and their rising influence. Spielberg has spoken several times in the past about his distaste for streaming. He’s the type of filmmaker who cherishes the so-called “theatrical experience”, probably because he’s an extremely wealthy guy who hasn’t had to go to a local AMC theater, with their crappy projection, rude audiences and apathetic staff, in over 20 years.

Netflix, meanwhile, came even closer to Oscar glory recently with Roma, a film that picked up several Academy Awards, and might have even won Best Picture – had Academy members like Spielberg not been so disdainful of Netflix. Several voters anonymously admitted that they intentionally voted against Roma, because they hated the idea of a Netflix movie winning Best Picture.

This whole situation is extra weird because Roma actually did play in theaters, in a limited capacity. But the frequent lack of theatrical run isn’t the only problem Spielberg and company have against the streaming service. They don’t like that Netflix doesn’t release box office numbers. Netflix also doesn’t obey the 90-day rule that other studios adhere to, in which there’s usually a 90-day window between theatrical and home release.

As far as I could see in my Film Twitter bubble, Spielberg’s complaints were met with almost overwhelming scorn over the weekend. Almost everyone agrees that, at least in this case, Spielberg is wrong. This also inspired a whole wave of people to act like this one mistake hereby nullifies everything Spielberg has done before as a filmmaker, which is just crazy, folks. Yes, he may be wrong here – but let’s not pretend he’s suddenly a bad filmmaker because of that.

Netflix has taken it upon themselves to respond, via Twitter. Without directly mentioning Spielberg, the corporate entity issued the following statement.

This is a succinct statement, and Netflix has a point (while at the same time being shady as hell by not releasing numbers). But the bottom line here is that Steven Spielberg is one of the most powerful filmmakers in the world, who can literally get any film he wants made. Other filmmakers aren’t so lucky. And that’s where Netflix comes in (in some cases).

For instance: Ava DuVernay took to Twitter to voice her disapproval of Spielberg’s move. The Selma filmmaker’s documentary 13th was released by the streaming service, and later this year, Netflix will release DuVernay’s When They See Us, a series about the Central Park Five. “One of the things I value about Netflix is that it distributes black work far/wide,” DuVernay wrote. “190 countries will get When They See Us…I’ve had just one film distributed wide internationally. Not Selma. Not [A Wrinkle in Time]. It was 13th. By Netflix. That matters.”

Dee Rees, the director Netflix’s Mudbound, also praised the streaming service for their commitment to a film most studios wouldn’t touch. “I think the other studios were afraid of this film, they didn’t want to touch it,” Rees said. “It’s a huge ensemble. Like, whose face is going to be on the poster? How much are you going to put into that? Netflix has been extremely supportive of me as an artist. I’ve never felt more supported in terms of the marketing of the film and having a voice in [that] and, you know, putting seven faces on the fucking poster! Most studios wouldn’t do that, they’d maybe choose two faces.”

Rees’ next film, the Anne Hathaway-starring The Last Thing He Wanted, will also be distributed by Netflix.

And then there’s Alfonso Cuarón, whose Roma inspired this latest wave of anti-Netflix-ism from Spielberg and company. When questioned about the streaming service and their distribution model, Cuarón responded:

“How many theaters did you think that a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, that is a drama without stars — how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release? Why don’t you take the list of foreign films this year and compare the theatrical release to those things and for how long they’ve been playing. See how many are playing in 70 [millimeter.]”

The Children of Men director added:

“Something we must be very conscious of is that the theatrical experience has become very gentrified to one specific kind of product. Right now, it’s unquestionable that you have all these filmmakers, interesting filmmakers, doing film with different platforms because those platforms are not afraid of doing these films. And like Roma, I just hope that many others have the theatrical release and greater theatrical releases that I have [had.]”

I’d love for all of this to be over, and soon. As a lifelong fan of Steven Spielberg, it pains me to say this, but he’s wrong here. The sooner he realizes that, the better we’ll all be. I’m confident he’ll come around – because we’ve actually been here before – sort of. In the 1980s, as the home video marketing was starting to take shape, Spielberg was dead-set against it. Eventually, though, Mr. Spielberg relented. In 1988, he agreed to release his 1982 hit E.T. on home video. The rest is history.

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