I have a vivid memory as a child of watching a boulder almost crush Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark after he stole a golden statue, and I'm glad he got away with it even though some might think he shouldn't have been there. This 2019, Alfonso Cuaron won a best Director Oscar for Roma, a Netflix produced movie that had a small and short theater run before being released directly on Netflix.
In the last 10 years, Netflix has changed the game for film and television making them potentially a first and only stop for content and eliminating the "windowing" process. One of the greatest filmmakers of our time, Steven Spielberg, is challenging whether features produced by Netflix and released with a limited theatrical before being available on Netflix, should be considered for an Academy award nomination and suggesting for example they should receive Emmy's which would essentially say Netflix is the new "TV". Currently, most people might not even care, but such a distinction, if it were decided would affect a ton of people in the industry as we subliminally rank directors, producers, and actors on whether they work in TV or film, and this will also translate to how much they earn and more importantly, the impact of their art. I'd like to share my own perspective as a filmmaker who's made and released 3 indie feature films, and releasing my fourth later this year.
Act I: Setting the stage
I remember distributing my first feature film $upercapitalist in late 2012 through Warner Brothers when they decided to release the title "Day and Date"(released digitally and in theaters at the same time) which at that time was considered a novelty, though now common for indie films. Netflix wasn't producing much of its own content and was considered the last in the chain of how a feature is released called "windowing". In simple terms, that was: First theatrical release (typically 90 days), Airline rights, Transactional Video on Demand (iTunes, Google Play, Cable VOD, etc.), television, DVD, and then Subsciption Video on Demand (SVOD).
In just 7 years (or less) Netflix has managed to eliminate those windows for a lot of content and produce a few Academy Award level titles (Roma, etc.) and deliver it on any smart device, shortening the time a person needs to wait as well as reducing the cost to watch while making it available at an almost ubiquitous level. They have forced industry behemoth players like Disney and Warner Media (owned by AT&T) to refocus their strategies and prioritize streaming or be at the mercy of Netflix's demands as it grows in power. This year Apple will be a new player joining this world streaming war (WSW) along with Amazon, Hulu, Facebook, and companies based in South East Asia and Europe who are teaming up, or China's iQiyi which distributes Netflix content and Tencent's QQ film.
The Oscars, especially in the last 10 years, has been the center of controversy and debate from the awards they give out, to the format, to the host. After all, it's the most sought after award when it comes to awards in film. It also has a lot of expectations to deliver as pressures for politics and diversity (inclusion) always seem to influence the outcomes. How films are chosen is not a democracy; nominations and awards are elected by a group of peers in each category that are like an electorate.
Act II: The Obstacle
Spielberg wants to draw a line in the sand to say, "This is what qualifies for an Academy Award," this is what can be nominated, and here are stricter rules that define that and even classify Netflix as "TV" by restricting awards to Emmy's. Now I can't speak for Spielberg, but I think his reasoning is that he's trying to defend the "cinematic" experience (by the way I hate that word "cinematic" because it's so vague, but that's another topic). Without further rules, streaming companies, not just Netflix, could take advantage of the awards system while further eroding or even eradicating the box office.
Some might say, who cares right? Is anyone dying over this? I agree it's a first world problem. And even though it would be a dream to have an Oscar, from a personal standpoint it's not my be all to get one to say I'm a great artist. As I have progressed in my career, I've realized for myself how trivial awards can be, and that the work is what matters most as it lives on forever. However, as a father now, my viewpoint has changed to a degree. Movies have a profound influence on our childhoods and they carry on into our adulthood. Movies can give us nightmares, or they can inspire us. Movies might represent that first time you held your partner's hand. The reason you became an archeologist...
I argue that movies are very much food for the mind and an Oscar winning film would mean a large number of people, in the hundreds of millions potentially, would eventually see that movie and be influenced by its messaging. So, logically, what we define as an Oscar qualifying film, is actually extremely important, globally (they replay Oscar movies in theaters of other countries too) as they have the power either to unite or divide us, just as any leader can do.
Act III: The Payoff
My personal opinion is we do need to redefine what qualifies to be nominated for an Oscar and even how it gets nominated. So in regard to what Mr. Spielberg says about changing the rules; the rules and the system need to evolve so I agree with him if that's where he is headed. Does this mean that a Netflix produced title should never qualify for an Oscar, that the two are mutually exclusive, i.e. Netflix is TV? My answer is no. I think Netflix and other companies with disruptive technologies are creating awesome opportunities and opening doors for filmmakers who might not ever have had a chance to make it in this super tough, exclusive industry. Companies like Paramount Pictures International and Hulu who have also acquired my titles have meant major milestones for me as an artist and fortunately that's because the lines are blurred right now. I am 100% certain if it weren't for the time we're living in, my career would have ended 7 years ago after having worked 10 years to get there. Having platforms like Netflix are crucial for innovation because having them around breeds real competition for gate keepers to evolve or become extinct.
Now, I hate it when people give their opinion and present no constructive solution or practical advice. I think Mr. Spielberg mentioned Emmy's to get the conversation going and ask the necessary questions. And that's exactly what should be happening. The Oscar rule committee should get people like Spielberg and other filmmakers in the room: Nolan, Scorsese, Del Toro, Wong Kar Wai, Zhang Yimou but also rising filmmakers on different levels (I'm raising my hand). If anything, they might consider rules that are more inclusive, and even opening up more categories (I for one would champion a stunt award). These categories should be judged like they are organic ingredients to ensure we're recognizing the best non genetically modified media (Non-GMO). Or even, I'd consider lengthening the format of the Oscars and eliminating commercial breaks. I mean, it may not be too long before the Oscars end up on a streaming platform near you anyways.