We live a time where home entertainment has practically surpassed the movie going experience in picture quality, sound crispness and financial frugality. With the rise of streaming services like Amazon Prime, Netflix and Hulu is there any incentive to leave our homes when hundreds of titles that change every month are at our disposal? Ask an ordinary human being and the answer would most likely be no. Ask a film maker like Martin Scorsese and the answer might surprise you. Ask another important figure, and the answer will take more than a day to contemplate.
Steven Spielberg, one of the most powerful forces in Hollywood, has been on a tangent in regards to the changing cinematic climate, specifically regarding streaming services like Netflix as a threat to the movie going experience. Not to say he hasn’t entirely dismissed the platform as evident with his involvement in the exclusive documentary Five Came Back, but in comparison to the ear drum obliterating, money magnet that is the theater experience, he still stands by his claim that it’s in danger from these distribution practices. Even going so far as holding a meeting with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences concerning the rules on Netflix nominations. It’d be easy to dismiss this as an angry rant from an elderly man who can’t evolve with the times, but in hindsight is there more to this statement than meets the eye?
The Current Cinematic Climate
In this day and age of going to the movies, chances are there’s a poster for a familiar brand and/or sequel to a franchise. You name it and it’s there: a live-action Disney remake, the next continuation of the Marvel/DC Universe, and even true stories that are increasing in numbers while feeling more fiction than fact. This can all be traced to a couple factors. First, Disney’s infectious tent-pole strategy. For those who don’t know, the tent-pole strategy is using multiple brands that have reached a wide audience as a means to financially support a studio. And Disney has half the world in its circus tent. The mouse doesn’t just own Pixar, it owns Marvel, Lucasfilm (Star Wars and Indiana Jones), ABC and as of now 20th Century Fox, with plans to go after Hulu next. Lately it’s utilized every company it owns to generate a film that hits at least a billion dollars by the end of its release: The Force Awakens, Increibles 2, Frozen and the Marvel Cinematic Universe are prime examples without bringing up the Disney Plus service launching at the end of the year.
Spielberg has stated his disappointment on the saturated branding market during a 2018 interview while promoting Ready Player One (link after the article) saying, “A lot of studios would rather just make branded, tent-pole, guaranteed box-office hits from their inventory of branded successful movies than take chances on smaller films.” And he does have a point. Companies rely too much on these box-office pillows while increasing the number of sequels into the double digits. After a while it get’s very exhausting trying to keep up on brass tacks by going back and watching every previous installment known to nerd kind. Not only is Disney branching out its super hero universe, but Warner Brothers is prepping its monster wrestling event with the Godzilla sequel later this year. But where’s the original content that has to stand on it’s own and against these giant piggy banks? Nobody knows because we’re too busy trying to watch the next Marvel movie on opening weekend as a means to avoid spoilers from internet trolls.
Second, the increasing political climate. Political discussions are usually kept off this site for obvious reasons, but for the sake of this examination it’ll be brought up briefly. Many historical events are either escapism or reality checks that mirror the divided country taking away a lot of opportunities to try something more out of the box. Welcome to Marwen, The Greatest Showman, Green Book, White Boy Rick, BlackkKlansman and Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer are based on real events, but just how well do they mirror their real world tales? Is the phrase Based on a True Story becoming the next marketing strategy now that 3D has died down and films can be properly formatted in IMAX without using the branded camera?
Third, and these has been reoccurring issues since the dawn of cinema, price, convenience and quantity. Youtuber TheUnusualSuspect recently made a video detailing his 25 reasons why he detests the theater going experience (link after the article). Whether you agree or disagree it has some valid points to take to heart before planning your next cinema trip. Ticket prices increase every year and the over abundance of unhealthy snacks are always ready to rob your wallet and arteries at gunpoint when most people are trying to watch more and eat healthier for less. Meanwhile Moviepass has seen a huge rise in competition as well as a fair share of theater chains outright refusing to cooperate, turning the subscription into a shell of its former self. A mere ten dollars will give you access to so many titles and exclusives on Netflix, Amazon Prime and/or Hulu. By box-office standards that only adds up to one adult matinee as opposed to the unlimited replay value of streaming.
Netflix’s humble beginnings started as a DVD rental website before becoming the streaming giant we know and watch today. Back then it was such a revolution it killed the two biggest rental services Hollywood Video and Blockbuster. No longer burdened with traveling to and from a store along with the occasional late fees, people didn’t have a need to return to either seeing as they could keep a movie as long as they’d like. With all this history, there’s definitely some justified panic over how it might replace the theater experience redefining convenience as the years go on. Heck, it might even mean the extinction of physical media, but that’s a story for another time. However there is one thing that a theater experience will have that home entertainment could never fully replicate: audience participation. If a time machine is ever invented, I’d go back to the premiere night of Avengers: Infinity War just to take part in that once in a lifetime experience of having an audience react to 10 years of build up. The screams, the cheers, the applause and the absolute silence with tears at the end. I could even say the same for Return of the King, the final Harry Potter movie or The Force Awakens. Something like that can’t be duplicated in our homes on the same scale despite how far home electronics have come this past decade. Meeting new people and participating in the excitement is part of the experience even if it means getting into nerd wars every now and then.
Even so, Netflix has made obscure films like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma more accessible than ever, which did screen in theaters for a week after premiering at the Venice International Film Festival. Some might call that cheating, but given how some great movies this year like Stan and Ollie suffered the same fate without streaming to back it up, what’s more unfair in this situation? Furthermore, Netflix is actually trying to purchase its own theaters to completely cement their place along with the other studios during award seasons. They’re goal is to have their exclusives play on the big screen and streaming depending on the desired experience customers want (link after the article). And whoever heard of short films like Period: End of Sentence or Endgame (not to be confused with the upcoming Avengers sequel) before they were announced as Oscar nominations? Did anyone also forget The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)? An Adam Sandler movie that took smaller award ceremonies by storm in how amazing it was. With an industry so focused on taking advantage of nostalgia just by reselling brands, there are so many original ideas Netflix has green-lit that wouldn’t even get past the pilot stage at a major studio. And that’s speaking for both movies and television. “Those smaller films that studios used to make routinely are now going to Amazon, Hulu and Netflix.” The latter company themselves have responded to Spielberg’s assessment (link after the article) with this twitter quote:
We love cinema. Here are some things we also love:
-Access for people who can’t always afford, or live in towns without, theaters -Letting everyone, everywhere enjoy releases at the same time
-Giving filmmakers more ways to share art. These things are not mutually exclusive.
Now when it comes to award nominations, there’s a lot more to decipher. For example OJ: Made in America hit headlines when it was nominated for both the Oscars and the Emmys in 2017. At nearly eight hours requiring intermissions for initial screenings, it was turned into a multi part series on television earning its way into both well known award ceremonies. Since then the Academy has refined the rules on multi-part documentaries so that they couldn’t be nominated as they need to fit the standard feature length time. And the following years reflect that. A series like Orange is the New Black clearly fits a television category with it’s multi-episode format earning a lot of Emmy nominations. While The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is structured as a two hour movie and deserved its Oscar nominations as it too played in cinemas for a week before jumping to Netflix.
As for Spielberg himself, I’m not going to call him a man past his prime. He has always embraced new technology and ideas throughout his career, whether it’s perfecting computer animation for Jurassic Park or having a hand in creating memorable video games like the original Medal of Honor and Boom Blox. He values animation just as much as live action in producing Tiny Toons, Animaniacs and Freakazoid as well as directing The Adventures of Tintin, a redemption feature after the disappointing Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He knows what he’s doing even at the worst of times. Despite his objection over streaming Spielberg has stated, “The television is greater today than it’s ever been in the history of television. There’s better writing, better directing, better performances, better stories are being told. Television is really thriving with quality and art.” What I can say is that neither him or the cinematic climate want to move outside their comfort zone at this point. It’s a case of an unstoppable force meeting an unmovable object and the outcome will be interesting to watch as much as Bruce Campbell’s response on Twitter to the situation (link after the article):
Steven Spielberg is gunning to make sure Netflix never has another Oscars contender like Roma. Sorry, Mr. Spielberg, Roma ain’t no TV movie – it’s as impressive as anything out there. Platforms have become irrelevant. Make a movie with Netflix.
But here’s a question to go out on. With Roma taking home a number of Oscars, is it too late for Spielberg to talk with the academy about this? Have these victories solidified Netflix’s position in the film industry with nothing to stop them?