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Steven Spielberg vs. Netflix

Are Netflix movies true cinema? Or are they just TV movies?
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Following the success of Netflix’s Roma at this year’s Oscars — Alfonso Cuarón’s film received ten nominations, including ​“Best Picture,” and won for ​“Best Director,” ​“Best Foreign Language Film,” and ​“Best Cinematography” — no less a filmmaking icon than Steven Spielberg is supporting changes that will effectively ban Netflix’s films from future Oscar nominations.

Essentially, goes the argument, Netflix’s films aren’t ​“real” or ​“cinematic” films. Instead, they’re ​“TV movies” and as such, should be recognized by the Emmys instead of the Oscars.

This isn’t the first time that Netflix has received the ire of the ​“traditional” film industry. At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja was booed when it played, and questions were raised about whether or not movies from streaming services were less legitimate and cinematic than movies made by ​“real” studios that played in theaters.

All due respect to Spielberg and his desire to maintain cinema’s integrity, but this recent kerfuffle feels less like a desire to preserve cinema and more like Hollywood just being mad at Netflix (and other streaming services) for stepping on their turf and not behaving the way Hollywood thinks they should.

Spielberg’s concerns about cinematic experiences aside, IndieWire has a list of studio grievances concerning Netflix, and all are business-related. For example, studios don’t like how much Netflix spent to promote Roma, that Netflix doesn’t report box office numbers when their films do play in theaters, or that Netflix’s movies are available around the world all day, every day. (IndieWire also points out that it’s not entirely clear how these grievances mean that Netflix’s films fail to meet Academy Award standards.)

Getting back to Spielberg’s argument, it seems to overlook the simple fact that, for many people, the moviegoing experience has been irrevocably altered by technology — for better or worse. This desire to enforce ​“pure” cinematic experiences seems rooted in a very idealized, even nostalgic view of the movie-watching experience.

One could argue that thanks to advances in home theater technology, it’s possible to have a purer cinematic experience in your living room than you could have in your local theater. (At the very least, you don’t have to worry about sticky floors, fellow moviegoers answering their phones, and projection errors.) And I say this as someone who enjoys the spectacle of the big screen and does think there’s something unique to seeing movies on it. But not to the point that I’m willing to necessarily denigrate other movie-watching experiences (and the movies geared towards them) as second-class.

Finally, this idea that movies made for the ​“small screen” are less cinematic strikes me as a rather limited view of cinema. It seems to be saying that if a movie isn’t seen the right way, then it can’t have the power or effect of a movie that is seen the right way — whatever the ​“right way” may be.

True, some forms of movie-watching may be more enjoyable or beneficial than others, but it seems to me that a truly great movie can transcend the way it was viewed. Put another away, if a movie is a truly great work of cinematic art, then on some level, it doesn’t matter how you see it. Its story and craft will still leave a powerful impression. (Interestingly, Academy Award voters cast their votes based, not on seeing the movies in theaters, but rather, after watching them on DVD screeners or streaming versions, i.e., the very method that Spielberg decries.)

There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the growing dominance of Netflix and other streaming services, including the ways in which they encourage us to be passive consumers of entertainment, not to mention the streaming market’s growing balkanization as more and more streaming services become available.

At the same time, I really can’t drum up too much enthusiasm for this whole ​“keep cinema pure” angle. Not when Netflix, Hulu, et al., are giving talented filmmakers increased freedom to make their art, many movie theaters offer substandard moviegoing experiences, and the studios’ reaction to Netflix seems driven by business gripes, jealousy, and curmudgeonliness as much as anything resembling concern for artistry and integrity.

Read more about Netflix and Steven Spielberg.

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