Saturday, April 6, 2019

TL;DR: Spielberg, Netflix and Cinema - You're All Wrong On This One

Most people suck at going to the movies.  I don't know how or why this is, but you do.

Yeah, you.

Literally every movie you go to see, theaters ask you to please not talk, to turn off your phones, and to basically please not cause any distractions for the hundred or so other people in the room.  Despite the fact this is done for very good reasons, somehow, a good 1/3rd of people can't seem to follow these basic guidelines.  Chatting, looking at phones, not turning off ringers, or, my favorite, actually taking a call.

My point is - going to the theater is a nightmare of our own making.   Most people treat the shared space of the theater, of the multimillion-dollar production in front of them, in a room designed specifically for an ideal experience, surrounded by people they don't know, the same as if they were watching a film on a laptop in their living room, and with all the same behavior that's totally fine if you're at home under a blanket and not surrounded by dozens of strangers.

Which is weird, right?

Whatever magic-of-the-cinema films like Cinema Paradiso or Hugo try to capture about the theatrical experience is not part of the common religion in an era when movies are something you let the kids put on over and over so they give you 30-90 minutes of peace, or you consider movies one way to zone out while you're crammed into an airplane seat.

Steven Spielberg, the guy who spent forty-odd years transforming American cinema, cultural icon, studio mogul, film preservationist, Shoah Foundation pillar, and so much more... is also a part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  In the wake of the 2019 Oscars and the nomination of Roma for Best Picture (a movie I have not seen and have no opinion of), has been meeting with his fellow board members to address the fact that Roma was mostly never intended for theaters, but to Netflix subscribers who would watch on their sofas.

This got out to the press, who have framed Spielberg's inquiry as that of an elitist Luddite.  Why would he keep people from being able to see the movies they want to see in the format they prefer?  Why is this greedy narcissist trying to block movies like Roma from existing?


At the end of the day, I imagine that Steven Spielberg is not trying to take away Netflix or home video - you're talking about a guy who made enough money to buy private islands off the home video sales of Jurassic Park.  He will participate in (and profit from) streaming services from his catalog of movies and TV shows as well as new content he'll develop before he eventually calls it a day.

So, what is he on about?

We all need to take a step back and reframe the question. "Okay, so what IS a movie?"

Also, it's fair to ask: when we give out industry awards for the industry of cinema (and that's what the Oscars are), did a medium that's already covered by another category (television) just make it through our industry's awards on a technicality? 

Team, that's a legitimate question - and it's okay if the answer is "no, it's a movie" and Spielberg Charlie-Brown-walks his way home.  It's also okay if the Academy sides with him - because all he's asking about is industry awards, not passing a law that says Netflix is hereby stopped from making movies by order of Cap'n Spielberg (no, really, it's impressive how many people genuinely think he's trying to stop Netflix from content creation).

The Oscars are a cultural phenomenon.  I don't not get that.  But it's just... an award.  Movies have never hung on the existence of awards, but we can probably agree that the Oscars are a nifty marketing gimmick for folks who want to feel in-the-know about what's new that's out that's got cultural cachet (and that's fine).  And, yes, I am aware that the likelihood of certain movies existing hinges on talent wanting those awards (which leads to some hilarious reaches by actors and directors who have exceeded their grasp).

For 120 years, movies have been a thing where someone shows a moving picture on a screen and you cram as many people as you can into a room, and balance supply and demand to fill the room as often as possible.  It has not been "we put a thing on the internet, and because we were feeling daffy, we also put it on a movie screen for a few days".  So, yeah, there's going to be some turbulence there as much as if you gave a Tony to an episode of 3-camera sitcom which is, let's be honest, a play captured by cameras.

In the past, if movies were released in New York and LA prior to the end of the year to make the most of Award-Season proximity, those movies were still intended for a wider release, and hopefully one that can use any Oscar buzz for marketing.  It did not mean those movies were at Blockbuster by January (although even that changed to showing up InDemand and on airplanes in the past few years). And you certainly didn't see HBO or a network trying to claim their films should be up for an Academy Award even if they got a screening somewhere (which they do from time to time).

But neither movies nor Netflix will end if someone decides movies which do not receive full theatrical presentation are not the right category of media to appear at an industry awards show for theatrically presented media.  If you consider cinema the thing, and everything else a lesser thing or ancillary market - this makes some logical sense.  Again: cinema awards, not TV awards.

No one will stop Netflix from giving filmmakers money and a platform.

If Netflix is in it just to exploit the Oscars to drive subscribership rather than to drive people to the theater or other industry distribution channels, then... I dunno.  I think the people in the industry get the say on this one and their award.

Look, Netflix films probably are a movie for most of the world if you're one of those majority of Americans who see five movies per year in theaters.  Of course I watch movies at home - in a month, I'll have no less than four movie streaming services as I've already signed up for the Criterion Channel.  I buy BluRays.  I watch movies off cable from my DVR every week.  I am fine with the home video experience.  Half those noir's I cover?  They're something I watch at least partly while on the elliptical - I am sweatin' to the oldies.

dump movie in front of me, please

And, my understanding is that *most* Oscar voting is done by people who receive DVDs at home of nominated pictures, because seeing all of that is impossible (and I suspect that a secret Academy streaming channel is not too far in the future).

I understand that when some folks look at Spielberg, he looks like just a cranky old guy who fears change, but, look, Spielberg is probably a lot more in tune with how much money everyone stands to lose or gain  When you resell a movie at the theater, then home video, then cable, then on TV... going straight to "then on TV" leaves a lot of money on the table.  Money guys like Spielberg used to buy private islands.  Those four windows gave studios four chances (five, with streaming) multiple opportunities to recoup costs.

And for those scoffing at "big, tent-pole movies collapsing" - what happens when a tentpole is removed from a tent?  It's called a tent-pole movie because it's holding *everything* else up and giving the studio the money and opportunity to take cheaper risks and withstand failure of other pictures.

I don't want to discredit the arguments about "Netflix is providing a platform for voices that would go otherwise unheard" - I think it's about 1/3rd true and especially true in a modern context as a best-possible option.  Given our cultural memory hole, consider Netflix didn't just invent the Spanish Language film nor was it the first to show actors of color.  But, yeah, I'm glad it's there paying people for their work.  But...  look, a lot of movies of all kinds have gotten made before Netlfix, so if your argument is "I was willing to watch this for basically free on my TV, but in the past I was unwilling to pay to see something like this" - and I know that's not what you're saying, but...  you know...

And before we start praising them for their dedication to the craft of cinema - consider what you can and can't find in their offerings.  What do they have in their catalog that wasn't made before 2010?  Admittedly, just in the past two weeks a few very interesting things showed up (I saw The Stranger and some other films I'd bookmarked but weren't previously available just popped up in my list) - but the prior 120 years of cinema are near absent.  Unlike Blockbuster, who could always argue shelf space was a premium, the considerations for hosting this sort of content have always been remarkably cheaper.

Frankly, I don't think Spielberg will exactly win this argument.  He may keep things on hold for a year or so.  Netflix may actually want to reconsider how much they could make at the box office.  But right now WB and Disney are working on streaming platforms, and my guess is they'll want in on that sweet, sweet subscription dough or in-demand purchases of whatever their brand of "indie" movie looks like (don't forget, Miramax's best years were as part of Disney, y'all).

The reason you may have a "Paramount" or "Fox" theater in your local town as the famous, old-school theater downtown is because at one point Hollywood made and distributed it's own films.  It was total vertical integration from locking up starlets in multi-year contracts to shooting movies to owning the buildings and popcorn machines.  Eventually the government decided this was a problem and busted up what was seen as an anti-competitive stance.  Until the mid-90's, TV was in the same boat - NBC couldn't create it's own content, Disney could only show it's stuff on ABC, not own the network itself.

Netflix is it's own form of vertical integration, and that's a curious thing not to get mentioned anywhere.  Because vertical integration rarely ends up working out well for consumers in the long run.  Just imagine if Toyota also said when and where you got your gas.  I'm just saying.  We don't actually know what the longterm effect is of, essentially, limiting our options and divvying up our funds for subscription services that will determine what we see - but I have a hard time believing that idea ends well when you wind up with 4-5 services you can afford and everything else starts to dry up and blow away.

Consider - Netflix is (a) super shady about what's actually going on at Netflix, from viewership numbers to how they can afford all this, to (b) how and what they're tracking and how that gets monetized.  Something I've been thinking a lot about the past few weeks since they announced they canceled One Day at a Time due to low viewership numbers is: compared to what?  What was the bar?  Was it for this one show, or all of their shows?  How does that work?  And if CBS All-Access wants the show (and they say they do) and Netflix isn't willing to hand it over - why?

And this, of course, led me to start wondering: so... what will Netflix decide we're going to watch?  What movies will get made by Netflix in the longrun if the figures are driven by clicks rather than dollars?  Because I'm betting no matter what democracy of voices stuff they're selling now, that doesn't last once they have data to track and the goal is to hyper-target audiences and audience tastes.

Frankly, I don't care if "the theatrical experience" is an intangible - so are the Oscars.  If movies are made to be seen on screens forty feet across, in the dark where you join in the shared experience with 200 strangers - asking who made the best work for that experience is a ridiculous question, but that's the question that the Oscars posed way back when Wings was taking home the prize.  If we've become terrible as audience members, and we no longer appreciate the form or the theatrical experience and really want to never leave our houses so every moment is defined by convenience and stretchy pants and simultaneously looking at a second screen, then I'm sure someone will find a way that everyone still gets trophies.

At the end of the day, I'm still a romantic about sitting in the dark and looking at those big screens, whether it's in a grand old theater like Austin's Paramount, in a sleek modern theater with seats so deep they're bigger than my first dorm room, or in a theater where your shoes stick to the floor and you can hear that one speaker in the back rattling every time the sound gets too bass-y.  The stories were not meant for individual reception - for an audience to feel only they saw and heard what was on screen, but something we all entered into together, whether that's Gone with the Wind or Commando, and in an era before tweeting our thoughts in real time and trying to own and reframe the narrative to suit our own needs and agendas, maybe we got something out of that. There's no doubt that when I go to see Creature from the Black Lagoon, a movie I've seen a half-dozen times on home video, seeing that blown up on the big screen is a completely new and novel experience.  Same with The Third Man or even a Star War.

That's what Spielberg was hoping to make when he entered into this business - stories for those rooms full of people.  And I expect that there's a good generation or two in the Academy that got into the business with the same expectations.  Eventually all things change, be the drivers economic or societal, and - again - I believe those things will inevitably change.  But I do hope we never quite lose our desire to pack into those movie houses, just as we do those music halls, churches and other spaces where we join in a shared experience of storytelling where we can laugh and cry and gasp  or grin all together, and maybe share something in common once in a while.

*some of us kinda chose where we wanted to live based on what was available, culturally, so there's that, too.  But we all make compromises.

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