In a 3.20 interview with England’s UTV News, Steven Spielberg said that Netflix should compete for Emmys and not Oscars. “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” he said. “If it’s a good show it deserves an Emmy, but not an Oscar. I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”
On one hand, I half agree. And on another hand, I wonder. Theatrical belongs to the Oscar realm, and direct-to-streaming is an Emmy thing. But isn’t this kind of an early-aughts, George Bush administration way of looking at things? Obviously the lines are getting hazier and hazier these days.
Consider how the big distributors have deliberately degraded theatrical over the last decade or so. Theatrical used to be the big leagues, the blue-chip realm, the ultimate destination of the best films being made by the best people. But in today’s world, the adult goodies appear in theatres only during the last two or three months of the year, and sparingly at that. For the most part the theatrical realm of 2018 means “mainly for morons.” Idiot-brand superhero franchise comic-book CG Asian-market, etc.
The stuff they preview these days at Cinemacon, the biggest exhibition convention of all, is the proof in the pudding. 10 or 15 years ago, when Cinemacon was called Showest, the studio previews would be…what, half or two-thirds popcorn and maybe one-third prestige? Now they don’t even preview ambitious adult films — Cinemacon just focuses on the high-impact, Dwayne Johnson-starring popcorn crap.
In the same interview Spielberg said, “A lot of studios would just rather make branded, tentpole, guaranteed box-office hits from their inventory of branded, successful movies rather than take chances on smaller films.”
And then Spielberg acknowledged something significant: “The smaller films that the studios used to make routinely are now going to Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. And by the way, television is the greatest today it’s ever been in the history of television…better writing, better direction, better performances, better story…television is really thriving with quality and art. But it poses a clear and present danger to film culture.”
In other words, Spielberg allowed, approximations of the small or smallish theatrical prestige movies that occasionally won nominations and awards in the old days — On the Waterfront, Marty, Twelve Angry Men, Room At The Top, To Kill A Mockingbird, Lilies of the Field, Hud, Midnight Cowboy, Zorba The Greek, Dr. Strangelove, Alfie, Blow-Up, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, The French Connection — are now being made (or at least trying to be made) by Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, AMC, National Geographic and a few others. And presumably Apple when that operation goes into full swing.
Clearly, obviously, “film culture” is an attitude, a determination, a state of mind. But let’s also be honest. Of the three big movie-showing formats — theatrical, streaming and cable — theatrical seems the least invested in cranking out “good stuff.”
A decent slate of the better films, thank God, can still be found in theatres between October and late December (the most promising sounding this year include Backseat, First Man, Black Klansman, Mary, Queen of Scots, Widows, Radegund, Roma, If Beale Street Could Talk, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Wife, On The Basis of Sex, Todos lo saben) but what if ’18 turns out to be another whiff year like ’17? What if we get stuck again debating the merits of some artfully shot creature feature vs. a horror-comedy vs. some oddball, defiantly unrealistic small-town drama for the Best Picture Oscar?
This is what bothers me. That award-calibre theatrical films will start to go more and more downhill, in part because the New Oscar Kidz are more and more inclined to support genre films as well as those invested in diverse representation, while cable and streaming fare will get better and better. The Oscars will go to the films that the younger membership favors, but the best of the best won’t even start out theatrically. And then the Oscars will really have become the MTV Awards.
Spielberg again: “Fewer and fewer filmmakers are going to struggle to raise money [to make a theatrical film]…as long as they can compete in Sundance and possibly get one of the specialty labels to release their film theatrically, and more and more fo them are going to let the VOD [outfits] release their films, maybe with a promise of a slight one-week theatrical window so qualify them for awards, as a movie…but once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. If it’s a good show, it deserves an Emmy but not an Oscar.”