The weekend after the Oscars is usually not the time when Academy Awards-related controversies pop up, but the latest disagreement in the film world doesn’t have to do with any picture in particular. It’s about how films qualify for awards consideration, and whether or not a rule change aimed at interrupting Netflix’s strategy would help or hurt overall. It’s kind of a complicated situation (Academy Awards rules are super boring), but let’s attempt to break it down.
Earlier this week, Indiewire reported that director Steven Spielberg, “the Academy Governor representing the directors branch,” would be proposing a rule change at the Academy’s annual post-Oscars meeting. “Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation…He will see what happens,” said a spokesperson. The gist of it is that Spielberg thinks Netflix movies like Roma or should be considered for Emmys as TV movies. In a way, it stands to reason: Netflix shows like Orange Is The New Black compete as television shows at the Emmys; for the past two years, Netflix has won the category with episodes of Black Mirror. If people are accessing and treating Netflix content the same way that they access and treat a television event (ie, watching it from home on their own schedule rather than buying a ticket for a theater screening), then Netflix titles are TV.
But Netflix, which mounted Oscar campaigns for Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs this year and has been competing and campaigning for a while now, obviously thinks otherwise. The streaming giant gives its original releases the requisite Oscar-qualifying screenings in New York and Los Angeles, and always gets a newspaper review, also an Academy rule. Amazon Studios employs a similar strategy, buying buzzy movies out of festivals, giving them a theatrical run and then making them available to Prime subscribers in perpetuity, often in the same year they were released. Which is to say that it’s just plain easier to watch a streaming company’s movie than it is to watch a traditional only-in-theaters movie, and maybe this puts the older studios at a disadvantage, or cheapens the experience of seeing great works on a big screen.
(Then you get into the money of it all and it gets really complicated, because Netflix has deeper pockets than most studios but that’s mostly due to its investors, not revenue, so that whole side of the business is always changing.)
Critics and filmmakers have noted that, regardless of Academy rulings, Netflix has been giving a platform to minority and indie filmmakers and, because it doesn’t rely on (or report) numbers, can take risks other studios might now. So for Spielberg, very much a member of the Old Guard of Hollywood and a man who has already won himself a number of Oscars, to lead the charge against it seems a little backward, if not conservative.
Director Ava Duvernay, who partnered with Netflix for her documentary 13th and the upcoming When They See Us, tweeted, “Dear @TheAcademy, This is a Board of Governors meeting. And regular branch members can’t be there. But I hope if this is true, that you’ll have filmmakers in the room or read statements from directors like me who feel differently. Thanks, Ava DuVernay.”
There are also those asking, in so many words: Really? This is the problem Hollywood should fix right now? This is your number-one priority? Theatrical qualifying runs?*
So, that’s the long and short of why any film critic you follow has been subtweeting Spielberg this weekend. And why is it happening now? Because, many believe, Netflix is planning to finally snag that Best Picture Oscar in 2020 with Martin Scorsese’s mob drama The Irishman. Even if it means letting the film play on the big screen for a while.