Steven Spielberg's Netflix Fears

When he said the streaming company’s films shouldn’t be eligible for Oscars, the director was also criticizing bigger problems with Hollywood.

Steven Spielberg at the London premiere of his film 'Ready Player One'
Steven Spielberg at the London premiere of his film Ready Player One (Grant Pollard / Invision / AP)

As Hollywood continues to ponder the encroaching threat of Netflix to the movie-theater model, one of the industry’s luminaries, Steven Spielberg, has gone on the offensive. Netflix films? They’re just TV movies, according to him. “You certainly, if it’s a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar,” Spielberg noted in an interview on the press tour for his upcoming film, Ready Player One. He went on to criticize Netflix’s strategy of selectively releasing its more prestige movies in cinemas to be eligible for Oscars consideration. “I don’t believe that films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination,” the director said.

Spielberg is the latest director to publicly criticize Netflix’s film-distribution model. Last year it was Christopher Nolan, who was promoting Dunkirk; like Ready Player One, that was a mega-budgeted movie with arresting visuals meant to be seen on a big screen. “Netflix has a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films,” Nolan said at the time. “They have this mindless policy of everything having to be simultaneously streamed and released, which is obviously an untenable model for theatrical presentation.”

Nolan and Spielberg have one key thing in common: They’re both blockbuster directors whom studios love, and who will probably never need Netflix’s help getting their films made and distributed. But despite Spielberg’s position of privilege in the industry, a closer look at the rest of his interview suggests there’s more nuance to his views. Yes, he’s arguing that Netflix movies should be considered TV, since that’s the format they’re presented in. But Netflix isn’t the only existential threat to filmmaking, in his mind. Also to blame are the company’s competitors: the big movie studios who’ve abandoned many of the smaller-budget projects that used to be their bread and butter.

In his interview with ITV News, Spielberg said he sees Netflix as part of a natural evolution of the TV industry, which has rivaled cinema for decades. Only now, movie studios are shrinking from the fight, the director explained:

[Netflix] is a challenge to cinema, the same way television in the early 1950s pulled people away from movie theaters … Hollywood’s used to that. We are accustomed to being highly competitive with television. The difference today is that a lot of studios would rather just make branded tentpole guaranteed box-office hits from their inventory … than take chances on smaller films. And those smaller films that studios used to make routinely, are now going to Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix.

Though Spielberg doesn’t think Netflix movies should win Oscars, he clearly recognizes that the company is making the kind of films traditional studios tend not to produce anymore. And he’s criticizing the establishment he’s long been part of for its unwillingness to take risks on properties that aren’t brand names. Though his forthcoming movie, Ready Player One, is an action-packed spectacle based on a bestselling book, it’s far from the sure bet that a Star Wars or Marvel title might be. And without Spielberg’s name attached, Warner Bros. might have balked at greenlighting it.

But like Nolan, Spielberg is also grousing about Netflix’s particular release strategy, which is designed to aggressively disrupt the theater industry. Since launching its original films in 2015, Netflix has secured theatrical releases for certain major movies to qualify them for Oscars contention. But the company insists on having these films hit the big screen and the streaming service on the same day. Unsurprisingly, this approach has already gotten Netflix banned from main competition at the Cannes Film Festival. (Amazon, the other major streaming player in film, gives its movies a long theatrical run before making them exclusively available on its streaming platform months later.)

Perhaps an Oscar ban will follow for Netflix; perhaps not. But of late, Netflix has seemed less interested in pursuing awards fare, and the company has generally been far more successful on the TV front anyway. In the end, the streaming company will always be able to counter arguments about its theater-busting strategy by pointing out accessibility—even the smaller films it makes can be instantly watched by more than a hundred million people around the world.

Banning Netflix from the Academy Awards would be an aggressive move by establishment Hollywood. But it’s easy to see where Spielberg’s anxieties regarding the future of mainstream filmmaking are coming from, given the deluge of sequels and franchise movies that flood the ever-extended summer market. The Oscars have long been the best way to encourage studios to produce less commercial, more artistic fare; and if more of those movies get diverted to streaming services, that won’t bode well for the big screen.