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Steven Spielberg didn’t just declare war on Netflix—he’s fighting the future
The director’s fight for the soul of cinema is on the wrong side of history.
Steven Spielberg wants to watch movies like it’s 1982.
That year marked what many view as one of the best-ever for summer blockbusters, featuring Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blade Runner, The Thing, and Conan the Barbarian in its impossibly stacked lineup. The season was particularly good to Spielberg’s own E.T., which spent all but three weeks of the summer perched at no. 1. By September, it made the equivalent of $619 million.
The king of tentpole movies fought for years to keep E.T. from being released on VHS, arguing it would degrade what he viewed as the pure theatrical experience. After six years of protecting the sanctity of having children scream at their mothers for more popcorn just as Elliott and his alien buddy take flight, Spielberg eventually lost that battle. The film was released on VHS and laserdisc in 1988, raking in home video sales of more than $75 million (not adjusting for inflation).
Despite his fears that watching movies at home would mean the death of cinema, people continued going to the movies. Jurassic Park, released in 1993, made $914 million worldwide. Spielberg would continue being the most successful filmmaker in history.
Never one to give up on a fight he lost three decades ago, Spielberg has begun yelling at the Netflix cloud. After Roma won three Academy Awards—including cinematography, best foreign language film, and best director—at this year’s hostless Oscars, he wants to make the streaming service play by outdated rules. To be eligible for contention, the director reportedly wants to enforce a four-week exclusive theatrical window on Netflix movies. He also reportedly believes the company should release box office data on its theatrical releases.
Taken at face value, these demands aren’t wholly unreasonable. Netflix’s lack of transparency surrounding its finances has long generated skepticism. For instance, when it claimed 80 million people tuned into the Sandra Bullock meme-machine Bird Box in its first four weeks, it wasn’t clear how much of the movie users actually watched. What if they left the room or started answering emails five minutes into the film?
However, Spielberg’s actual comments illustrate not only his own discomfort with the changing tides of cinema but how poorly the Academy he represents has adapted to the state of filmmaking in 2019. It is not merely that its most powerful member is 37 years behind; the voting body he represents is stuck there with him.
It’s telling that the man behind the anti-Netflix campaign is the one who championed Green Book, which appeared to be competing for the best picture of 1990, to an upset victory on Oscar night. Spielberg, who helped the Peter Farrelly-directed film secure distribution at Universal, called the remixed Driving Miss Daisy the “best buddy comedy since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
But even before a movie about the joys of folding a whole pizza in half and eating it like a sandwich Crash-ed its way to a win on Feb. 24, the writing was on the wall. While accepting an award from the Cinema Audio Society, Spielberg told the audience—if they somehow weren’t already aware somehow—that he’s a “firm believer that movie theaters need to be around forever.” The role of filmmakers is to “give audiences the motion picture theatrical experience,” Spielberg added.
While Green Book certainly had its defenders, its win was as much a vote against Roma as it was a celebrating of the joys of pandering race-relations movies that flatter the fragility of a predominantly Caucasian voting bloc. It was the Academy’s version of the 2016 election with white baby boomers uniting to resist progress.
The future of cinema is not Green Book. That film represents the ghost of Oscars past—when a film’s worthiness was determined by middlebrow respectability politics. It is the very embodiment of everything the Academy has attempted in vain to resist after a sexy Nazi cougar drama edged The Dark Knight out of the best picture shortlist a decade ago. The issue with The Reader wasn’t just that it was made solely to win awards; it wasn’t even the best movie starring Kate Winslet to be released that year.
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Outrage over The Dark Knight snub led to the Academy widening the best picture field to 10 movies before switching to a confusing system of picking between five and 10 movies that no one seems to actually understand. The voting body’s narrow, insular taste in cinema is why the Academy switched to a preferential ballot to reward safe, consensus picks and hedged its bets by attempting to diversify its voting pool.
The Academy will keep trying to slice off its proverbial nose until it doesn’t have a face left to spite. In addition to stiff-arming Netflix out of the race, it has discussed going back to the popular vote—in which the movie with the most votes wins. Should that prove unsuccessful, it may begin picking winners with a blindfold and a dartboard.
But while the Roma snub may have attracted the most attention, the signs that the Academy remains as out of touch as its loudest mouthpiece were all over this year’s Oscars. In a year that gave us a crop of acclaimed films like Sorry to Bother You, Hereditary, and If Beale Street Could Talk, Academy voters felt Vice was one of the best movies of the year. Meanwhile, Bohemian Rhapsody took home more trophies than any other film on Oscar night—one more than either Roma or Green Book.
The favor shown to these films was very much the Academy doing what it always does—rewarding a brand model, instead of artistry. While Adam McKay’s portrait of absolute power took a meta approach to Dick Cheney, Vice was a standard portrait of absolute power but with more actors talking into the camera. Meanwhile, Bohemian Rhapsody was Walk the Line but worse: a rock biopic that shames its queer lead.
While Netflix doesn’t lay sole claim to innovation, it represents everything the Oscars say they want to be. It’s a democratized medium offering access to millions of viewers around the globe which has given carte blanche to idiosyncratic auteurs looking for a home for their unique vision.
As studios have left mid-budget movies behind, streaming has picked up the slack. In addition to recent films like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and High-Flying Bird, Netflix will be releasing new projects by Martin Scorsese and Ava Duvernay this year. The Irishman represents Scorsese’s largest budget in his four-decade career. When They See Us will be just the second of Duvernay’s films released outside the United States. Her first, The 13th, was also a Netflix film.
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While Spielberg wants to save cinema from the deep pockets of Netflix, this is the company that made a black-and-white foreign film about cleaning ladies in 1970s Mexico into an event movie. There seem to be more billboards for Roma around Los Angeles than Aquaman. That kind of visibility is historic and game-changing.
Despite reactionary panic about the death of moviegoing, the theatrical experience will always be the soul of cinema. But how we consume, appreciate, and evaluate film must be allowed to be as expansive as the medium itself. The future of cinema is brown, Black, queer, and female. It is at home on a computer, on our phones, and anywhere these stories can reach those who need to hear them. It should not play by one person’s rules.
Over his four-decade career, Spielberg dared us to dream the impossible: of a theme park where humans could roam with dinosaurs and of symphonies that bring together people of different worlds. But if he wants the Oscars to keep up with where cinema is already going, he needs to start dreaming outside his dark little box.
Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.