The Academy Board of Governors next month will weigh arguments over Oscar eligibility requirements directed toward films released by Netflix, setting a template for others who’ll make feature content for streaming services. Traditionalists like Steven Spielberg have made their feelings clear: they favor more stringent eligibility rules, believing it is vital to the preservation of the movie going experience. Can the Academy afford to not change, as its gatekeepers feel the sand shifting under their feet as the whole notion of what is a movie is being reconsidered?
This seemed a good for Deadline to enlist our Pete Hammond to hash out the issue with fellow film historian and prolific author Leonard Maltin. These guys have spent more time than most in darkened movie theaters. In the clear light of day, they engage in vexing conversations, trying to grapple with a streaming movie future and how much ground movie purists need to concede while upholding a high bar that presumably requires more than a token release in a few theaters to merit serious consideration for an Oscar.
The current minimum rule requires a film to play seven consecutive days in Los Angeles, with a simultaneous streaming release on a service like Netflix or Amazon permissible. Netflix has pushed hardest for such an arrangement, even as major theater chains continue to keep its films from their screens. The streamer altered its model to give a leg up to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, watching it win three of the 10 Oscars for which it was nominated. That included Best Director and Best Cinematograhy for Cuarón, and Best Foreign Film. But not Best Picture. Incoming Amazon leader Jennifer Salke has separately acknowledged that while Amazon’s trophy films have followed a more traditional theatrical release window, Amazon could adopt a similarly shrunken theatrical window for certain releases.
HAMMOND: At least one former top Academy official I know is actively working behind the scenes to push for an addendum to the current seven-day rule that would require a certain number of weeks for exclusive theatrical play before being allowed to stream in any TV format. Essentially the issue at hand is defining what exactly is a movie in terms of Oscars vs Emmys. Does the platform in which it is shown make any difference? Is it all the same? And what does this mean for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vs the future of movie exhibition? How does this get resolved, Leonard?
I am firmly on Team Spielberg/Nolan/Tarantino. I think it’s the same team Cuarón and Scorsese would be on, if they hadn’t taken the Netflix plunge. We all love the theatrical experience. The idea of seeing movies outside of a cinema, at least for the first time, is anathema to me. I agree with Spielberg: If I am watching a new movie on a television screen, my laptop, my iPhone, or my Timex, it is not really a movie. A TV movie, sure. But a big-screen magical wonder in stereophonic sound, Dolby Atmos, wide screen, glorious technicolor, vibrant black and white, CinemaScope, Cinerama, Imax? No. The experience of sitting in a dark theater with a packed audience, collectively seeing a film is something that seeped into my being at a very young age, and it never left me. I was hooked from the moment I saw Disney’s Lady and the Tramp — the first animated film ever in CinemaScope — at the Village Theater in Westwood. And I remain hooked. Even if the irony rings out that a new live-action version of that movie is being made as one of the first originals for Disney’s new streaming service.
MALTIN: Like you, Pete, I am a traditionalist. But I don’t have my head buried in the sand, and I don’t believe you do, either. Streaming services are here to stay, and they are funding and releasing all kinds of movies. We both know that some of the best indie features and foreign imports only play in a limited number of theaters. For years, discerning moviegoers who appreciate these films have had to wait for cable TV showings or home video releases to see them. VOD and streaming have changed all that. Given the option of seeing high-quality films at home or not at all, they make the obvious choice. Steven Spielberg’s comments raise a valid and provocative issue. He should know: he made a highly regarded TV movie in 1971 called Duel that was released theatrically overseas. Looking back from this vintage point, does anyone care that it originated on television? It’s a great piece of cinematic storytelling. A number of documentary features are produced by HBO and PBS. If they follow the Academy’s current rules and play in theaters, they qualify for Oscars. I’ve often wondered about that blurry line of demarcation, but it hasn’t caused a ruckus like this year’s Netflix controversy.
Given the opportunity I always prefer seeing a film on a theater screen, and not just at press showings. My wife and I patronize our local theaters and I succumb to the urge to eat popcorn (no butter) more often than not. Like you, I not only remember the movies that mattered to me as a budding film buff but I vividly recall where I saw them. I stood in line to see The Time Machine at the Englewood Theater in Englewood, New Jersey and settled for a “flat” version of the Cinerama spectacle How the West Was Won at the Teaneck Theater in my hometown. (It’s the only one of my boyhood haunts that is still in business.) My mother led me by the hand into Radio City Music Hall during the opening minutes of The Music Man when I was 11 years old. (We missed the main title sequence.) Will today’s moviegoers remember which auditorium at the multiplex they entered to see Get Out or Black Panther? I somehow doubt it.
HAMMOND: But let’s get back to the issue of the Oscars. They are a different matter in terms of defining what is a movie. Netflix continues to play by its own rule book with an almost CIA-like mentality: they never disclose particulars about their business, whether it be TV ratings, or box office numbers, or who and how many are watching. But there just has to be an even playing field. They have proven this year there is no amount they will not spend to be in the Oscar business (I heard anywhere from $20 million to $45 million — probably closer to the latter — to vie for Best Picture) because it was good for the Netflix business. Filmmakers will flock when they see that kind of financial support for pet projects they can’t get off the ground anywhere else. I am a traditionalist, yes, but I also recognize the value of technology that puts all this content at our fingertips. Everything is moving so fast these days, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always stood steadfast in setting standards for the Oscars, and current rules may need tweaking to keep up with this massive changing landscape.
This past season, Roma came closest to toppling that dynamic and almost winning the Best Picture Oscar. Even though it would have broken a more dubious precedent: It would have been the first Best Picture winner with a gross of $0 dollars, since Netflix never officially divulged what it made in its theatrical runs, as it maintained its secrecy.
That’s their prerogative, but expect that whatever low bar for eligibility and transparency Netflix sets will be followed by the next group who’ll make content for streaming services, likely to include Hulu, Apple, and studios from Disney to Universal, Warner Bros and MGM. The Academy’s responsibility will be to rule on and define what product qualifies for Oscars and what should be eligible for Emmys; they had better not to try to walk a grey line because they are getting pressure from various filmmakers. Rules are rules, and movies are movies. It is a tricky business for the Academy to start setting “windows” for theatrical exhibition, but is it too much to ask that a streaming platform wait for weeks while their movies play in theaters to be considered real movies worth awards consideration? Whatever the decision, it should be uniform for all releases, not just for marquee names like Cuarón or Scorsese, whose The Irishman may continue to push this envelope even further.
Netflix made a big deal of saying they played Roma in theaters before it ever debuted on the streaming service. That was a big step forward, but they did it on their own terms, opening it and closing it and pretending it was essentially a series of previews until it hit the promised land of streaming. That’s right. They would open for the weekends, then take it off what few screens played it from Monday thru Wednesday (the actual only days in addition to Thursdays that theater chains allow AMPAS members in for free) and then repeat the pattern of opening and closing. That selective theatrical distribution was unprecedented, and I suspect that was their way of being able to tell their paying subscribers they weren’t breaking their promise to deliver the goods to them. In fact, the film didn’t even qualify for Oscars in those first three weeks because Roma didn’t play seven consecutive days. It only actually qualified the week it hit Netflix’s global streaming service. If all movies had to comply with clear rules of eligibility, the Academy can avoid the slippery slope that will get more slippery.
MALTIN: Let’s not kid ourselves: there will always be studios and distributors who will use the fine print — or loopholes in it — to qualify their films for Academy Awards. Steven Spielberg’s concept of a movie playing for one month to be considered a theatrical release is laudable but possibly utopian. It penalizes smaller films that can’t sustain a four-week booking or spend enough on advertising to bring out a paying crowd. That doesn’t constitute a level playing field. Some documentary and short-subject candidates already twist themselves into knots and spend a small fortune to secure the necessary week of exposure to meet current Academy qualifications.
We are living in a time of great change. We may find ourselves redefining what constitutes a movie as opposed to a television program. Producers and networks are debating such terms as limited series and miniseries already. All I care about is seeing high-quality entertainment, whatever the mode of delivery. When the great Louis Armstrong was confronted with the disruptive arrival of bebop in the jazz world, he dismissed the concept of labeling with a famous quote: “There is only two kinds of music, the good and the bad. I play the good kind.” I agree with Steven Spielberg that movie theaters should never go away. For me and millions of others, including kids and their parents, movie going is not just a habit — it’s a ritual.
HAMMOND: I don’t think anyone is suggesting that Netflix, Amazon and other streamers are not providing a great service, a platform for movies that otherwise would never get seen in any significant way, or even get made for that matter. My biggest beef is there is just too much. It is overwhelming in terms of sheer numbers of movies (from around the globe), TV series, specials, documentaries. It is work, just keeping up with the weekly output. There are many movies Netflix has that I still haven’t seen but know if they had a more traditional theatrical release I certainly would have seen. I get that I am not your average movie consumer, but the “convenience” of seeing these films in my living room is a negative rather than a positive for me. I like the theatrical experience, and just can’t help the fact that watching at home diminishes the moviegoing thrill for me. Time and technology move forward and streaming services ought to be commended for using their clout and money to get worthy projects produced.
However, I had not seen Netflix’s Sundance 2018 pickup Private Life — the Tamara Jenkins-directed film that stars Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn – until I wanted to review it and watched it on my Netflix account. It is such a wonderful movie, with such outstanding performances (including newcomer Kayli Carter) that I literally got up from my couch and cheered at the end. It made my top 10 best list for the year, but I regretted not having been able to have seen it first in a theatrical setting. Netflix promoted it for awards, but I wonder: if the film had gotten a release like Fox Searchlight gave Can You Ever Forgive Me?, instead of the brief limited runs in the few theaters that play Netflix films, might it have gotten some well-deserved Oscar recognition? I know Netflix desperately wanted Crazy Rich Asians (also in my top 10) and made a better financial pitch for it, but the filmmakers were determined to get it the widest possible release in theaters, and it went to Warner Bros. Good for Jon Chu in upholding the ideal of movie theaters, and a collective viewing experience, something filmmakers are finding hard to resist with all that streamer cash out there. It would have been very different as a Netflix film, don’t you think? The very name Netflix says it all: Network Movies.
MALTIN: To return to the subject of definitions, remember that Ingmar Bergman’s majestic Fanny and Alexander started out as a sprawling television series in Sweden and was trimmed for its U.S. theatrical debut. It went on to win four Oscars. Wolfgang Petersen’s epic submarine drama Das Boot earned six nominations, even though it originated as a TV miniseries. As with Roma, I’m grateful that I saw Fanny and Alexander on a big screen. I’ll never forget its sumptuous production values and set pieces, along with its portrayal of complex family dynamics. I wouldn’t mind revisiting it on a streaming service or Blu-ray at home because I’ve already derived the benefit of seeing it in a theater.
I share your frustration about the deluge of material facing us these days. There is simply too much to keep up with — a First World problem, to be sure. When even the leading players in this new arena can’t beat the drums loudly enough to get my attention, it’s not a good sign. It was TV executive John Landgraf who admitted that there was too much television to take in; now that’s becoming true of movies commissioned for Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney and all the rest.
With so much output it’s inevitable that some films and series get lost in the shuffle. Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017) won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance in 2017 but barely made a blip on the radar when it debuted on Netflix. Would it have fared better as a theatrical release? Yes. It would have merited reviews from old- and new-media sources (not just dispatches from the Park City film festival), raising its profile and building on its Sundance prestige. With Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood in the leading roles it would have certainly attracted a following. Since we don’t know how many people streamed it we can’t say if Netflix considered it a success, but as far as I can tell it sank without a trace. A movie as good as that deserves a better fate.
HAMMOND: Kodachrome was another example. I saw it at CAA before it went to Toronto as an acquisitions title. It is a terrific film and the producers took the best financial deal and thus it landed on Netflix. I thought it was ripe for a mainstream release, but no studio apparently bit, so you have to be grateful it landed somewhere. I loved it so much, I booked it for my screening series. There, it beat every other film, including all traditional releases, as the favorite in a poll of attendees, by a mile. Because I saw it early I told anyone who would listen that whoever picks up this will have an easy Oscar nomination for Ed Harris, in one of his best performances ever. By the time Oscars rolled around, neither the film nor Harris were in the conversation. With bigger fish to lavish millions on — from Alfonso Cuarón to the Coen Brothers — Netflix didn’t campaign for the movie, or Harris. Like everything else, it is still in their queue to be discovered. Check it out if you haven’t seen it. I saw it twice – in theaters. As for your line about wanting just to see high-quality entertainment “whatever the mode of delivery,” who can argue with that? The bigger question Spielberg and others are asking is, does it qualify for Oscars as a theatrical motion picture, or for Emmys as one that is seen by 95% of viewers on their TV sets? I say there must be a happy medium here somewhere with the Academy determining the definition of a movie as it relates to Oscar and spelling out uniform rules of eligibility that everyone must play by for all of their films. Have I made my point, Leonard?
MALTIN: I don’t have a horse in this race, but I do care about good movies being seen by the largest possible audience. By that measure, outlets like HBO and Showtime have long had indie distributors beat by a country mile. But their high-profile films are intended to be seen on a television screen; that’s why they qualify for Emmy Awards. If a talented director makes a feature film and finds the only market for it to be a streaming service, I don’t see why he or she should have that film branded as a TV movie, if it plays in theaters first. We’re not likely to resolve this issue here, Pete, but I hope the movers and shakers at the Academy remain open-minded. A film that people can see on a theater screen should be considered a movie if that’s how it’s presented to the public.
HAMMOND: I hope Spielberg does jump in as a voice of reason for all of us “traditionalists” out there. I agree with you on the glories of seeing Roma on a big screen with that sumptuous black-and-white cinematography and superb sound design that is largely lost if you view it on Netflix. If you go on to Netflix by the way and look at their premier “Trending Now” row of offerings, Cuarón’s masterpiece is there – sandwiched between Sex Education, Gilmore Girls and Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. I note this to say Netflix cuts a wide swath, a smorgasbord of stuff in which one movie is just a part. That is different from the exclusive haven a movie theater offers.
I wonder if Roma‘s Best Picture chances were killed because it was on Netflix. Sure, we know of many Academy members who voted against it to make a statement about Netflix, but I heard from several Oscar voters who sadly did not see Roma on the big screen, only on a screener or on Netflix. Many of them told me they turned it off after 30 minutes. The deliberately paced movie requires a theatrical setting not provided in a living room with the interruptions of life.
Netflix smartly made seeing it in a theater a key part of its wide-ranging campaign. But let’s face it: theatrical exhibition isn’t the definition of their service. In his Oscar season interviews, Cuarón had to walk the line between urging people to see Roma on a movie screen, while defending streaming as a viable alternative for a movie that he so meticulously made as a movie. You have to honor the people paying the freight. But in my discussions, those who loved his film saw it in theaters. Roma got two nominations for sound alone. It was an incredible experience in theaters, unique and inventive and some of that was completely lost when viewed on a TV screen.