Early last year, director Steven Spielberg gave a speech at the Cinema Audio Society. The speech was notable because Spielberg lamented the rise of film-quality movies on streaming services. Specifically, he was upset over the 2019 Oscar nominations for the Netflix movie, “Roma”. It went on to win Best Director, as well as two other Oscars. Spielberg is probably not any happier this year, since multiple Netflix movies received a total of 24 Oscar nominations, including two for Best Picture. That means it’s the studio with the highest number of Oscar noms this year. Spielberg may be crying into an overpriced bucket of popcorn as you read this. But is he right? Does the changing landscape of how people consume entertainment have a wider implication for the movie industry? Will streaming services ruin cinema?
In short, I doubt it. But it’s worth talking about the changes that could happen and whether they might be positive or negative overall.
Why this will be good for movies
The biggest reason Netflix and other streaming services making high-quality, Academy-award worthy movies is actually a good thing is accessibility. Going to the movies can be very expensive, depending on where you live. I live in the Atlanta area, and a movie at a peak time can set you back 20 bucks. Compare that with a Netflix subscription for only $8 a month that allows you to stream up to two shows at the same time. (For those times you and your sweetie can’t agree on what to watch.) And, keep in mind, once you’ve paid that $8, you can basically watch as much as you want. For people who are budget-conscious, it’s a no-brainer.
Though I’ve fought for the concept that not all movies have to be high art, I still see value in “high-brow” movies. Netflix offering Oscar-caliber movies means that more people have the ability to watch that type of film, thus exposing them to new genres and ideas they may not have considered. While it often seems like the purpose of movies is to make money (and, let’s not sugar-coat it, that is frequently the purpose behind most movies), the ultimate purpose should be great storytelling. That’s the case whether you’re watching “The Irishman” (still in my Netflix queue…) or “SpongeBob Squarepants”.
Why this will be bad for movies
Let’s be real. I love Steven Spielberg, and maybe the man is giving us something to think about with his critique of streaming services, but the real reason he’s concerned? Money. Netflix notoriously guards its ratings – the numbers of people watching different shows and movies. I think it’s because they don’t want actors and directors to know just how much potential revenue they may be missing out on. For TV shows, most of the time, actors, directors, and other industry pros earn residuals when a show they’ve appeared on/produced re-airs. With film, depending on the contract signed, actors/directors/others may earn more money depending on how much revenue the movie generates. That’s not the case with streaming shows. The people involved get paid once. That’s it.
Big stars still say “yes” to these projects because the initial amount of money they make is high enough that residuals/box office revenue doesn’t really matter. That’s not the case for actors with smaller parts who may only appear on one or two episodes of a popular show, or for just a few minutes of a movie. Why do those actors agree to those terms? Because, from personal experience, if you aren’t a superstar, you need the money and you need the credit on your resume.
To be clear, even though Spielberg has plenty of money, I don’t think it’s bad for him to have this concern. As a director and producer, he often takes the biggest financial risk on a given project. He should, therefore, reap the reward when it is successful. He may just not want to say that publicly because, to most of us regular folks, it could sound pretty elitist. So, he makes the “bad for cinema” argument because it’s a bit more palatable, though I don’t think it really holds any water. His argument is that going to a film is an experience in and of itself, and he isn’t wrong. I just think that a good story is more important than the format in which it’s delivered.
Fill your queue with pride
Despite the misgivings of anyone in Hollywood, Netflix, Hulu, and the like aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. I’d expect to see more and more nominations in the future, from all kinds of awards shows. The only possible victims I can see for that are smaller movie theaters. To that end, when you think about going out to see a film, be sure to consider one of those theaters for your viewing experience. Other than that, I have my doubts that streaming services will ruin cinema.