It has the makings of a great screenplay: As the future of an entire industry hangs in the balance, the ultimate establishment figure — a genius in his fourth decade of domination — goes to battle with a menacing interloper.
That hyperbolic story line has enveloped Steven Spielberg since early last month, when reports surfaced that he planned to propose Oscar rule changes that would block films that are primarily distributed online from competing. “Spielberg: Ban Netflix From Oscars” read one headline.
Right now, the academy rules allow any film that plays for one week in a theater in Los Angeles to compete. They also allow for movies to be available for streaming at the same time that theyre playing in theaters.
The Spielberg vs. Netflix maelstrom became so frenzied, particularly on Twitter, where the director was branded as an out-of-touch crank, that the Justice Department sent an unusual letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, warning that changes to its eligibility rules could raise antitrust concerns.
Unbowed, according to some trade news outlets, Spielberg will propose his rule change at an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences board meeting Tuesday night in Beverly Hills. “The Spielberg-Netflix Showdown” is how IndieWire described the closed-door session in a preview article.
Theres just one catch. Spielberg, 72, will not attend the meeting, much less propose any rule changes. He is not even in town. His schedule has long called for him to be in New York, where rehearsals are underway for his next film project, a remake of “West Side Story,” according to a person who works for him, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his private itinerary.
In fact, Spielbergs animosity toward Netflix appears to have been acutely overstated.
Spielberg has been publicly silent through all of it. But inside his company, Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg has expressed frustration with the way his views about streaming have recently been characterized in the news media, according to two people close to him, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to maintain their relationship. Yes, he believes that theater owners, streaming services and traditional studios need to come together to figure out a way to protect what he likes to call the “motion picture theatrical art form.” If the academy were to come up with a reasonable way to ensure that only films with robust theatrical releases are eligible for Oscars, there is a strong chance he would vote for it, the people said.
But a geriatric Luddite who wants to kill Netflix?
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His primary beef is not with Netflix, according to the people close to him. Rather, he is frustrated that exhibitors have been unwilling to compromise. The multiplex chains have fought off any effort to shorten the exclusive period they get to play films of any genre, which is currently about 90 days. In January, after “Roma” was nominated for the best picture Oscar, Spielberg even called AMC and Regal, the largest theater companies, and implored them to play the Netflix film even though it was already available online. They refused.
He has a Netflix account and binge-watches the services original programming — some of which Amblin helps produce, including “The Haunting of Hill House.” (Amblin also has series in the works for three other streaming services: “Cortes and Moctezuma” for Amazon, “Amazing Stories” for Apple and a reboot of “Animaniacs” for Hulu.)
“I want people to find their entertainment in any form or fashion that suits them,” Spielberg said in an email in response to queries from The New York Times. “Big screen, small screen — what really matters to me is a great story and everyone should have access to great stories.
“However, I feel people need to have the opportunity to leave the safe and familiar of their lives and go to a place where they can sit in the company of others and have a shared experience — cry together, laugh together, be afraid together — so that when its over, they might feel a little less like strangers. I want to see the survival of movie theaters. I want the theatrical experience to remain relevant in our culture.”
Spielberg, who swings between serious dramas (“The Color Purple,” “Schindlers List”) and big-budget fantasies (“Jurassic Park,” “Ready Player One”), appears to recognize that more is at stake at this moment in Hollywood than awards eligibility. As streaming services proliferate — Disney will roll out its offering Nov. 12, with Apple, WarnerMedia and Comcast not far behind — movie theaters could become even more reliant on superheroes, sequels and remakes.
Could there soon come a day where popcorn movies like “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” arrive in theaters but more sober films like “Lincoln” go directly to a streaming service? Its not a far-fetched concern given the film industrys current trajectory. Moreover, some important new voices whose work has emerged on Netflix — Dee Rees (“Mudbound”), Cary Joji Fukunaga (“Beasts of No Nation”) — have had their films excluded from theaters because the streaming service and the multiplex chains have been at loggerheads.
Asked at a recent convention for movie theater operators whether he would consider reducing the 90-day period of exclusivity for certain film genres, Adam Aron, the chief executive of AMC, responded by saying: “Shocking as it may be, its better not to have those negotiations in the pages of The New York Times. Having said that, AMC has a willingness to consider alternatives to the current status quo — if, and its a big if, underline it with a red Sharpie — any change would benefit the shareholders of AMC.”
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