On Steven Spielberg, Once More

So, two and half years after the first time I wrote about Steven Spielberg’s propensity for gnomic utterances about the popularity of various film trends, I find myself moved to do so again. This time because he has again pitched these opinions into my wheelhouse, which is to say: awards shows. Or, if you’d rather, the awards granted by the bodies that put on the shows attached to those awards 1; he told ITV, regarding streaming-only films of the Netflix type, “once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. You certainly, if you’re a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar.” He went on to stipulate that he doesn’t think the strategy that Netflix has pursued, of exhibiting it in a theater for a week specifically for awards qualification, should count as a theatrical release.

At its root, what Steven Spielberg, an immensely-successful producer 2 is saying (even with a relatively-charitable interpretation), is that people should not be able to come up to his level of awards-related success unless they do so his way. He’s already inside the gates, and he’d like to see them barred to anyone who finds another way in. This is the very worst kind of old-man bloviating – he’s established, so he doesn’t see any point in making things any different for other people to become established. It is also (and this is less charitable) pretty easy to see the statement itself as being pretty firmly anti-audience. The audience, after all, is presumably made up of people that want to see more movies. He admits himself, elsewhere in the ITV video, that the streaming-only film is the way that studios are making smaller, financially-riskier projects that, in different times 3, would have been given a theatrical release. This means that the system, whereby studios are releasing their films – made as films – to a streaming platform, is an alternative not to a theatrical release, but to the films being released at all. It seems readily apparent (to me, at least) that “more available movies” is a better thing for the audience, and those movies being available for the relatively-inexpensive cost of a Netflix subscription is a double-bonus.

Let’s assume, however, that Steve has a point, and that streaming movies are, in some fundamental way, different for the viewer. The physical experience itself can be somewhat different, as you’re not going into a room to do nothing but watch the movie with a bunch of other people that are there in that same room to watch the same movie. The effect of this – a crowd – to the experience is definitely an additive part of the experience. That is to say, it definitely changes the experience in a way that makes it more of an experience. That “more,” however, can, as with all group-oriented events, be either positive or negative. Everyone has had a movie ruined by someone who wouldn’t shut up, or wouldn’t get off the phone, or whatever. The risk is taken. At its highest form, there’s something to a serious audience there in good faith. How often are movies viewed at their highest form?

The home, experience, is no less intentional, but has its own double-edged sword. While it doesn’t generally carry the threat of the masses, it also represents far less investment on the part of the viewer, who doesn’t have to leave his house or spend his money 4. Since they aren’t attaching a physical currency value to the experience, they are (psychologically) less apt 5 to attach the same value to trying to make it “worth it”, which means they are less likely to engage with it.  

What this means, as far as I can tell, is that the differences come in two places. The first is the enjoyment of the audience (i.e. the choice between going out and risking the masses or staying in and risking the distractions). This seems to be beyond Steven Spielberg’s control and is, besides that, something that is pretty much entirely subjective. It’s not something any of us can answer for anyone else. That leaves the differences that are quantitative, which are all on the business side. Films that are sold to (or produced by) a streaming service are marketed differently (i.e. they are marketed by the streaming service), and make their money differently (generally being sold outright, since a per-sale model wouldn’t work) 6, which would make the difference between the two seem like there was a huge gulf separating them…provided that your investment was in the way that it was sold, rather than in the way that it reached the people.

This last point, then, is the reason Spielberg’s statements are so vexing. He’s presenting his own self-interest 7 as being the ethically-superior option (which is the worst), and he’s senselessly gatekeeping (which is also the worst), but he’s also doing a thing I am on the record as thinking is extra-the worst, which is assuming that the audience doesn’t know the difference between their own best interest and that of the people taking their money to provide a service. It’s so transparently manipulative that it can only ever be insulting, and there could be an interesting conversation there, if the subject were to be engaged with a more good-faith approach.

Ultimately though, even the preceding thousand words are begging the question: so what? This comes after a couple of years of the Oscars being under fire for their lack of diversity and forward-thinking members. This year was the first awards-granting period to have been completed under the newer, more-diverse Academy, and some surprising films got some surprising accolades, seemingly as a result. This is, on balance, a good thing; it means that some changes are being made to the thing that existed for 89 years without ever considering such changes. To say “that’s enough changes, we don’t need any more” is, at the very least, bad optics. I don’t think that Spielberg’s comments are coming, necessarily, from an anti-diversity place 8, but it still seems like it’s shouting “ENOUGH” when too many people are let through the door.  

But even if it somehow has nothing to do with the eligibility of more films in and of itself, there is still the fact that the business practices of the studios are being blamed on filmmakers and/or the audience and/or the nominating bodies of awards-granting institutions. Smaller movies – movies that are funded through production interests that land them on streaming services – aren’t going to be made for the same financial reasons that giant studio-helmed movies are going to be made. They’re going to be made as the result of someone’s desire to do it. If one imagines that there is a sort of critical mass by which movies end up finished, with the twin factors of “money involved” and “artistic motivation” adding together to reach this mass 9, then the two things can be seen to be complementary: you need more of one if you lack more of the other. This means, following on, that the financial risk taken on by the people that end up distributing it drops as the people motivated become more motivated. That’s the part of the market opened up by the streaming-only model: movies made by people who wanted to make their movies for less than the absolute maximum amount of money.

It manages to invalidate the “it’s making the filmmakers bad” argument that came at the end of Spielberg’s comments – the money-end of the film industry has decided that the way to best-capitalize on the films in question is to distribute them through this streaming-only model, and Spielberg has seen this and said “those movies are tv shows and also the filmmakers aren’t learning how to be filmmakers” because of the business-related result of the filmmakers wanting to make their films for less money. If he, a nominating member of the Academy and a person to whom the Oscars matter, is willing to speak for the Oscars in this capacity, then that is proof that, whatever gestures they’ve made toward inclusion, there is still a baked-in mindset that they actually constructed the best way to evaluate films, and that shows itself to be faulty with every year that goes by 10. Right before Spielberg gave his remarks to ITV, Cannes announced that Netflix features will not be exhibited, and while Cannes certainly isn’t the Oscars, it’s a similarly old-guard, established film-evaluating institution, and it shows that this attitude is endemic. This attitude, then, which is focused mainly on praising the largest bodies at the expense of the smallest (and of the audience), is harmful to the state of the art form itself, in addition to being harmful to all of the culture that supports it.

I suppose, given all this, that what I’m saying here is that there’s still more arguments to figuring out a way to evaluate films for long-term praise and memory that doesn’t involve the approval of an awards-granting body that continues to contain members that are only interested in one type or variety of thing winning awards, and that the best way to win this game is not to play. I think the sooner we all get together on figuring out what that should be and how that should work, the better off we’ll all be. The good news is that, as the Oscars decline in popularity and visibility, it’ll sort of happen naturally anyway, and whatever Steven Spielberg thinks about the issue will stop mattering.

  1. the extent to which the spectacle of the Oscars is separate and distinct from the Oscars themselves is a matter of some debate, and something I really should hash out one of these days. Stay tuned, I guess. 
  2.  I mean, he’s also an immensely-successful director, but that matters less to what we’re discussing when we talk about his opinions on the business of distribution and awards consideration, see below. 
  3.  to put a finer point on it, the times in which Spielberg himself came up as a filmmaker and producer. 
  4.  this is obviously modulated by the presence of the necessary subscription, which would add a cost onto the experience if someone, say, signed up for Netflix just to watch Okja or whatever, in which case this paragraph could be safely ignored except for the parts about the masses. 
  5.  this is a generalization, I am aware, but so is the thing about theaters being full of seat-kicking phone-using loudmouths – I’m comparing the potential drawbacks against the potential drawbacks here. If this were at all scientific, each case would be evaluated differently. But I assume that you, the reader, know what I am getting at here. 
  6.  I suppose I would be interested to know who owns the back-end on physical releases – i.e. that of Stranger Things – should they exist. The decision to release them would probably lie with Netflix (otherwise there would be nothing stopping film production companies from releasing them directly), but I wonder if there would be any payout to the production companies that made the movie in the first place or whatever. 
  7.  which may range from something as simple as “just wanting there to be less competition” to something as complicated as a general malaise with the state of the industry – I’m not interested in analyzing it, but I present it here only to point out that his actual motives themselves matter very little to the discussion. 
  8.  I mean, Short Round aside, the guy made a non-racist Tintin movie, for fuck’s sake. 
  9.  realistically, there are an uncountable number of things that play into a film actually getting made and released, but for the sake of argument here I am again simplifying the case to make a rhetorical point. I think most of the factors, anyway, can be largely grouped into “for the money” or “for the artistic satisfaction.”  
  10.  the evidence for this statement is that people are still not what you’d call happy about the Oscars, and the renewed diversity – a Mexican director won best picture, for example – isn’t actually fixing the problems that people are having, because it’s too little, too late. 

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