Film News

Steven Spielberg & The Unintended Consequences of Changing Oscar Rules to Punish Netflix

Last year, when the Academy announced its proposed Best Popular Film category, the lack of clarity was glaring. There were no announced guidelines for how films would even qualify for such a category, and we’ve since learned that’s because the Academy itself hadn’t figured that out yet. The internet, predictably, had a field day. Turns out, you actually have to put the work in and think that kind of thing through before announcing it the world.

Hopefully, Steven Spielberg, as one of the representatives of the directors branch of the Academy, realizes that. Because, as IndieWire reported last week, he wants to put a permanent end to streaming movies like Roma which don’t honor exclusive theatrical windows competing for Best Picture. However, it’s not at all clear how you actually do that without setting off a series of unintended consequences which could unfairly handicap indie distributors and radically reshape how the studios approach awards season.

“Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation,” an Amblin spokesperson told IndieWire. “He’ll be happy if the others will join [his campaign] when that comes up [at the Academy Board of Governors meeting in April]. He will see what happens.”

Spielberg and his like minded Academy members, the report states, are disturbed by how much money Netflix spent on Roma Oscar campaigning. Which, fair. The total is said to be in the $25-$50m range compared to Green Book’s $5m.

A more efficient use of Oscar campaign dollars.

More urgently, they feel threatened by the prospect of Best Picture potentially going to a streaming movie which only plays in a bunch of oddball indie theaters for a couple of weeks before going online everywhere around the world.

They’re not alone.

After the BAFTAs gave its Best Picture award to Roma, one theater chain threatened a boycott and another, CineWorld, pulled its support of the British Academy. Unless some rules are changed, you can be certain AMC and other North American chains will do the same should Netflix’s The Irishman win Best Picture next year.

One proposal on the table is to demand that any films hoping to qualify for Best Picture need to play in theaters exclusively for at least four weeks. That’s not an arbitrarily chosen number of weeks, either. No, it’s a direct fuck you to Netflix and Roma since the streamer put the movie in indie theaters for only three weeks before making it available to stream around the world.

That was a huge concession on Ted Sarandos’ part since he’d previously attempted to simply meet the bare minimum requirement and put Oscar hopefuls like The Meyerowitz Stories in theaters in New York and Los Angeles for one week prior to streaming. As the rules are currently written, that’s all any movie has to do to qualify for any Oscar, not just Best Picture. Extending Roma to a three-week run in over a hundred theaters was a voluntary concession to the traditionalists in the Academy.

Now, Spielberg, who has been fretting about the impending end of the theatrical moviegoing experience for years now, wants to officially push the goal lines just a little further down the field. One ironic consequence, however, is two of Spielberg’s own recent Best Picture nominees – The Post and War Horse – would have been ineligible if forced to comply with a four-week window:

As major studio releases, they each honored the traditional windowing system wherein a movie begins its life in theaters for three months before filtering through home video and cable. However, they also each came out over Christmas, meaning they didn’t play for at least 4 weeks in the year in which they were released.

That’s not uncommon. We’re all family at this point with the movie awards season and the way all the presumably best movies are saved for the last two months of the year. It’s an annoying, imperfect system, one which is rapidly losing its efficacy since voters are growing increasingly more resistant to end-of-the-year Oscar bait. But studios plan their calendars around it and cinephiles look forward to it every year. Come Oscars time, at least one Best Picture nominee is something which came out in later December and often times didn’t expand wide until January.

So, how do you to punish Netflix without also punishing those end-of-the-year releases? Of the 89 movies to be nominated for Best Picture since 2009 – the first year in which the category was expanded to include 10 nominees, nearly a quarter (23%) of them would have been ineligible under the proposed rule change:

  • Vice (12/25/18)
  • Phantom Thread (12/25/17)
  • The Post (12/22/17)
  • Fences (12/16/16)
  • Hidden Figures (12/25/16)
  • The Revenant (12/25/15)
  • The Big Short (12/11/15)
  • American Sniper (12/25/14)
  • Selma (12/25/14)
  • American Hustle (12/13/13)
  • Her (12/18/13)
  • The Wolf of Wall Street (12/25/13)
  • Amour (12/19/12)
  • Django Unchained (12/25/12)
  • Les Miserables (12/25/12)
  • Zero Dark Thirty (12/19/12)
  • Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (12/25/11)
  • War Horse (12/25/11)
  • The Fighter (12/10/10)
  • True Grit (12/22/10)
  • Avatar (12/18/09)

Much like the ill-fated Best Popular Film category, whatever Spielberg wants to do to force Netflix into complying with more traditional release windows needs a little more thought put into it.

“There’s a growing sense that if [Netflix] is going to behave like a studio, there should be some sort of standard,” one Academy governor told IndieWire. “The rules were put into effect when no one could conceive of this present or this future. We need a little clarity.”

That’s completely fair but beware the unintended consequences. If that much damage could be done just to the Best Picture category, imagine would become of the Foreign Film, Documentary, and less mainstream categories which sometimes have to rely on the one-week-in-a-theater rule.

Netflix, for now, isn’t backing down:

Source: IndieWire, AVClub


  1. I’ve seen quite a few articles about this topic already and I only have one question, What does it matter? If they go with the standard 4 week rule, then, like you said, they exclude a large amount of films.
    I understand what Spielberg is saying and how theatrical film releases are dying, but if a movie is good, what does it matter where or how it’s released?
    Netflix is right in their response tweet you linked, they provide access to more people and more independent directors that might not be able to swing a full theatrical release.

    1. It really shouldn’t matter. Honestly, the whole thing feels a bit like re-arranging the chairs on the Titanic or maybe the record companies suing Napster out of existence and not realizing that particular genie was already out of the bottle. It’s a lot of talking about the minutia of how awards are handed out when who the fuck really cares? A good movie is a good movie regardless of how it is distributed. Because virtually every other traditional brick & mortar business has gone the way of the dodo, movie theaters are firmly entrenched and see this as a direct threat. Meanwhile, they raise ticket and concession prices every year and voluntarily submit to a gentrification process whereby only the most obvious and mainstream Hollywood movies get to play in theaters. All the more thoughtful, challenging work goes to streaming or random art houses if you’re lucky enough to have some available to you. Roma NEVER would have been by a major studio today. That’s the bigger story, not whether or not it qualifies for an Oscar or Emmy.

  2. I actually fully understand Spielberg’s reasoning and I think he’s right on the imminent end of the theatrical movie-going experience. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s much that can be done if most people prefer to watch movies in streaming rather than in theaters. That’s a shame, the 7th art should be enjoyed in appropriate locations!

    1. And Jeffrey Katzenberg now says Spielberg was misquoted by IndieWire, his campaign isn’t meant to ban all streaming movies from Oscar consideration but instead to actually make sure the rules reflect the current reality of the film industry. For example, Netflix didn’t actually break any rules, but those rules were written well before anyone could have ever imagined something like Netflix would exist. So, is it at least time to put a cap on how much money any one company can spend on an Oscar campaign? That’s something they’ve been kicking around since Weinstein perfected the art of buying Oscars, but even he never launched a campaign as expensive as the one Netflix did for Roma.

      Either way, Spielberg is now entering his last year as a member of the Board of Governors. He’s about to be term-limited out. So, he sees this as his last chance to do something. However, it’s ultimately too little, too late. The film industry and TV industry helped create Netflix through licensed content because they saw easy money and didn’t recognize the potential for an “if it makes life more convenient for the consumer, their consumption habits will be forever changed”-style seismic shift. Meanwhile, at the same time that change was happening the DVD boom faltered, the film industry abandoned diversified release slates in pursuit of all four-quadrant, all-the-time models, and language-neutral blockbusters that could play in China. The TV industry, meanwhile, was in constant flux, with broadcast networks other than CBS changing strategies and leadership every couple of years, and cable channels becoming too numerous to cut through.

      Then along comes Netflix to deliver the old shows we loved, movies we meant to watch, and original programming the film industry abandoned and TV industry didn’t see a profit in.

      It thus feels a little disingenuous for some in the industry to fret about Netflix. They’re the ones who created the demand that Netflix ended up happily meeting. However, I don’t take Spielberg to be disingenuous about it. He’s a cinema purist. He recognizes the film industry is the last one of the brick and mortar businesses left standing. He doesn’t want that to change. AMC, Regal, and the other North American theater chains – as per usual their profits fluctuate depending on the quality of the movies in any given year. Last year was good to them, the year before that not so much. The end is hardly nigh.

      However, there are larger trends at play that not even Steven Spielberg can fight. Heck, his last movie would have been a bomb if not for its ability to play as a language-neutral blockbuster overseas. Unless you’re in the rarified air of a Marvel Studios, that’s just the way things are now, and given that landscape Netflix bankrolls (or buys) movies the majors wouldn’t even dream of touching anymore. If they’re good enough, hell yeah they should win Oscars.

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