This year’s Oscars were a big deal for online streaming service Netflix, which—through a savvy combination of marketing, theatrical maneuvering, and the “Hey, why didn’t we think of that?” genius to give Academy darling Alfonso Cuarón money to make whatever sort of movie he might happen to like—scored its first Best Picture nomination, for Cuarón’s Roma. Sure, it didn’t win, but Cuarón picked up another award for Best Director, and it was still a much more high-profile performance for a studio/network/something that usually has to content itself with nominations and the occasional win over in documentary land. (2017's Best Documentary Short Film award for The White Helmets was the service’s first actual win.)
Maybe too high-profile: Whatever simmering Netflix resentments Hollywood’s big-name directors have had on the back-burner for the last few years—slipping out in festival introduction speeches or the occasional candid interview about how Netflix’s output aren’t “real” movies—have now come to a boil, with the big guy himself, Mr. Steven Spielberg, now openly gunning for the service to be excluded from Academy consideration, at least in their current form.
Spielberg has made it clear in the past that he thinks Netflix’s films— which run only rarely in theaters, and even then, not with a traditional distribution model—qualify only as “TV movies,” fit for Emmy consideration, rather than the Oscars. Netflix’s decision to put Roma in theaters for a three-week (and in some places, more) run doesn’t appear to have mollified Spielberg, either; per IndieWire, he’s expected to speak in favor of rule changes that would exclude films like Cuarón’s from consideration at next month’s Academy Governor’s Board meeting. (He represents the Director’s branch for the exclusive body, presumably on the grounds that he’s Steven fucking Spielberg.)
The studio complaints about Netflix break down into a few simple categories. The first is that they spent way more money on Oscars marketing this year than anybody else—reported numbers range as high as $50 million, although even the more conservative $25 million would be five times what Universal spent for Green Book. And second, there’s the whole “they don’t run their films in theaters unless we make them” thing. This one is exacerbated by the fact that the studio doesn’t license its movies to theaters to run, instead renting them outright and keeping all the ticket sales for themselves. Among other things, that means they don’t have to report box office returns, which, good luck ever getting a stray number out of Netflix, folks. (The Nielsen people have been trying to crack that nut for years.)
Or, to make a pretty complicated paragraph a lot shorter: People are pissed off about money—how much Netflix is spending, and how much it is, or isn’t, bringing in. We’re willing to buy the idea that Spielberg’s motives are more pure—he’s a dedicated cinephile, and he’s already got more cash than god—with a focus on the idea that there’s a fundamental difference between visual media made to show on a theater screen, and that designed to run on a monitor or a phone. (Per an Amblin spokesperson: “Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation.”) But it still sounds likely that he’ll end up serving as the mouthpiece for a movement fueled in large part by established studios who don’t like the way the new kid on the block operates.
Not that Hollywood is all facing one way on this: Ava DuVernay—whose projects with Netflix include 13th and her upcoming When They See Us—pushed back hard against the anti-streaming fervor, asking the Academy to allow other filmmakers to speak (or at least be heard from) at the upcoming Governors’ Board meeting.
It’s obvious that rule changes are coming for the Oscars—like it or not, Netflix and the other services following in its wake are already altering how movies get made, and the Academy is duty-bound to (very slowly) respond. But here’s the thing: Roma was, unequivocally, a movie—not a miniseries, not a TV movie, but a movie—and furthermore, was one of the best movies of 2018. Any proposed rule changes that wouldn’t allow a film like Cuarón’s to compete aren’t going to come off as anything except a whole bunch of “Old men yells at cloud,” no matter how respected and beloved said shouting elder statesman might be.