There’s still something sacred about the communal experience of the cinema. Sitting in a dark room with a group of strangers and experiencing something together – loud, up-close, and on an enormous screen – remains a timeless pleasure that should be preserved. As a critic, but also as a moviegoer, I worry about this. But misplaced fear and cynicism that streaming platforms will be the cause of the cinema’s decline worries me, too.
“I love Netflix, but fuck Netflix,” said Dame Helen Mirren last week, not mincing her words at the CinemaCon conference in Las Vegas. “There’s nothing like sitting in a cinema.” The British actress was echoing the sentiments of filmmaker Steven Spielberg who, back in February, declared he was “a firm believer that movie theatres need to be around forever”. Netflix, in his eyes, is a threat to that future, discouraging subscribers from going to the cinema by giving them the chance to watch the platform’s original content in their living rooms.
Both Mirren and Spielberg’s comments are revealing of anxieties about alternative models of funding, distributing and watching films. In the same way that, 12 years ago, sceptics were worried that the Amazon Kindle would throw sales of paper books into jeopardy, some members of the film industry are worried about the impact of streaming platforms such as Netflix on the box office, and the wider film culture. In fact, in 2018 the print book market in the UK actually increased, with about 190.9m physical books sold. They have found a way to coexist.
Similarly, Alfonso Cuarón’s Netflix-backed Roma showed that, just because a film can be watched at home, it doesn’t mean lots of people won’t still choose to pay to see it at the cinema. The film made approximately $4m at the international box office during its 15-week run. That’s considerably less than you might expect for a film of its prestige had it been released solely in cinemas, but it’s not exactly a pittance either.
Spielberg, however, doesn’t seem to see things this way. In the run-up to this year’s Oscars, Netflix cannily arranged limited theatrical releases for titles such as the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Cuarón’s Roma, simultaneously adding them to its own online platform, therefore qualifying them for awards consideration while also serving subscribers. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences states that to be eligible for an Oscar a film must play in cinemas, and cannot run on television – or, I suppose, on a streaming platform – before its theatrical debut.But to its credit Netflix is complying with Ampas rules. And it was worth it: Roma won three Oscars.
But Spielberg, who is an Ampas board member, appears to be determined to avoid this happening again.
According to Variety, he is lobbying for a rule change that would make films that adopt this release model (known as “day-and-date”) ineligible for Oscar nominations, insisting instead on a longer window between a film’s arrival in cinemas and its streaming debut.
Never mind the fact that many Academy voters rely on “for consideration screeners”, watched on – wait for it – their televisions; the main problem with a restriction like this is that it would also hurt indie distributors, many of whom are already struggling to compete with larger studios. These rules would further narrow the type of film that is celebrated.
Spielberg’s furrowed brow suggests to me a moral conservatism – a panicked lack of faith that the medium of film itself can transcend the device on which it is watched.
In an interview with ITV News last year, he argued that “once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie”, insisting that those titles should receive Emmys, not Oscars. Does Spielberg think that watching a film on a TV or a tablet changes its content? The fetishisation of the cinema space is its own problem.
Besides the obvious arguments to be made for streaming platforms’ accessibility (most people don’t live near an independent cinema) and affordability (a monthly subscription is often cheaper than the average cinema ticket), it’s worth considering the kinds of films – and filmmakers – Netflix Originals is backing. From work by Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher and Dee Rees to Martin Scorsese, Nicole Holofcener, Alex Garland and Alice Rohrwacher, Netflix as both a funder and a distributor is putting its money behind projects that consolidate the very auteurism the Oscars claim to celebrate. To exclude these filmmakers from the Oscar race to prove a point seems both petty and pointless.
On the other hand, if this doesn’t come to pass, the implications for companies such as HBO, Amazon and Apple, as well as Netflix, are exciting. Were the Academy less resistant to the way the industry is changing, smaller, riskier films from distinctive but lesser-known voices like Jennifer Fox’s HBO-backed Sundance hit The Tale or Dee Rees’s under-seen Netflix film Mudbound might enter the Oscar race. More people would have seen them, and the culture of film would expand, rather than shrink.