More than a week after Alfonso Cuaron and Netflix collected three Oscars for “Roma,” the claws are still out against the steaming giant. Last week, Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg said he plans to push for a rules change that would require films to have an exclusive theatrical run for at least four weeks to be eligible for the Oscars when the organization’s board of governors meet in April. Netflix responded back Sunday night on Twitter.
We love cinema. Here are some things we also love:
-Access for people who can't always afford, or live in towns without, theaters
-Letting everyone, everywhere enjoy releases at the same time
-Giving filmmakers more ways to share art
These things are not mutually exclusive.
— Netflix Film (@NetflixFilm) March 4, 2019
After the black-and-white drama set in 1970s Mexico scored multiple awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts a few weeks earlier, beating British frontrunner “The Favourite” for best film, a few financial supporters, including cinema chain Cineworld, have withdrawn its support for the academy. Cineworld is the British owner of Regal Cinemas, with locations in Hazleton and Dickson City. Unlike the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the U.S., BAFTA is a charity that is greatly supported by membership, donations and corporate partnership. So a loss of one of its three cinema supporters is a big blow.
The war between traditionalists and streamers has intensified this year with “Roma,” and while Netflix has played along with the Hollywood game this time, it’s not enough to change the minds of the old guard. “Roma” lost to “Green Book” for best picture, a move that many see as a victory by the traditional movie studio over a “made-for-television” aggressor. It doesn’t help that major theater chains like Regal, AMC and Cinemark refused to play by Netflix’s specifications for a theatrical run and many didn’t include “Roma” in its Oscar showcase series. This included Cinemark 20 and XD in Moosic.
Netflix probably digged an even bigger hole for itself when executive Ted Sarandos told attendants at an industry breakfast that subscribers were “going to love it on their phone.” Despite being available online, several independent films, including some within a 90-miles radius of Luzerne and Lackawanna counties like Pocono Cinema and Cultural Center in East Stroudsburg, had multiple-week runs.
If Spielberg gets his way with the long theatrical run, and if others believe that movies with the most impact in the cinema deserve Oscars, the 2019 field would look a lot different:
Only legacy studios would be in the theaters
How would a mandatory four-week run affect what you see in the theaters? This rule would most likely apply to movies shown in Los Angeles County as the current rules are that the film is at least 40 minutes long, be projected in a theater and have a seven-day run in a theater between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31. In other words, it’s like running for president, but you only have to campaign in one county in the union. Remember Stephen Colbert’s presidential run in 2008? Now imagine that for best picture.
As big studios like Disney are requiring theaters to follow their rules with runs, smaller ones have to fight for at least one week on the calendar. Disney “allows” theaters to run crowd pleasers like “Star Wars” if they will stay in the theaters for at least four weeks without breaks. No matter how poorly received a “Star Wars” movie will be, it takes up valuable theater space that could also be occupied by smaller movies. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” would have needed to move its release date to qualify for a full four-week run.
Another studio that benefits from having a huge theater presence is Universal. Last year, the studio did a slow release of “Green Book” in November after its People’s Choice win at the Toronto International Film Festival, with a wide release around Thanksgiving. In Northeast Pennsylvania, that meant an even slower release that trickled through the theater circuit between December and February. The drama had a lucky break when the Peter Jackson-backed, fantasy actioner “Mortal Engines” bombed at the box office in December. Universal was able to get that failure out of the cinema and replace it with “Green Book.” Had it been a small studio with a dud, theater chains would likely side with a bigger title as a replacement. Pundits credit this move as the boost the controversial film needed to win the top Oscar.
This year, movies like the nominated “Cold War” and “Never Look Away” did not play in the area’s four main theaters. “A Private War,” featuring a Golden Globe-nominated performance by Rosamund Pike, was only in one local theater for a total of five days before “Creed II” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet” took over. “Goosebumps 2,” a Halloween-timed animated film, was re-released for another week in December, taking room that a small film like “Vox Lux” and “Anna and the Apocalypse” which had either one-week or no-week runs.
A film would be a FILM
Spielberg compared the eligibility of “Roma” to making voters confused with what award a film would qualify for — an Oscar or an Emmy.
This debate is nothing new. In 1994, “The Last Seduction” was the subject of an Academy eligibility ruling. The erotic thriller with Linda Fiorentino, had air on HBO four times before its theatrical run. Although many critics, including Roger Ebert, placed it on its top 10 lists for that year, the Academy ruled it ineligible for the Oscars.
Evidence that would support his claim would be Steven Soderbergh‘s two 2019 Netflix releases, “High Flying Bird” and “The Laundromat.” “High Flying Bird,” starring Andre Holland, Zazie Beetz and Kyle MacLachlan, has the rating of TV-MA, despite premiering at Slamdance in January and being a part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Film Comment Selects series. It premiered on the streaming service Feb. 15. “The Laundromat,” with Meryl Streep, Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman, is eyeing a qualifying theatrical release before streaming later this year. Confusion also could be made with “Velvet Buzzsaw,” the satirical horror starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. The film premiered at Sundance in January and somehow had a qualifying run to be considered as a feature film. It is rated R and premiered Feb. 1.
If major theater chains continue to reject Netflix’s runs and not want to block four weeks for a movie that would be available to stream once it leaves, all Netflix films would become major television events instead.
Blockbusters, surprise hits would only be in contention
Theatrical runs rely on how much a box office it is. Does it have Hollywood’s biggest stars? Is it a sequel or remake with an established audience? If so, the film will likely stay in theaters for the required four weeks that Spielberg suggests. A film’s longevity relies on its first week’s receipts, and often a small film is lucky if it can stay for one week. It also means that the studio backing the film will continue to advertise for it during that four-week run (currently, the Academy requires a film to have seven days of advertising). Hypothetically, if a movie can survive Spielberg’s run, it is most likely a top-five or top-10 finisher for four weeks.
That leaves the Oscars to be awarded to tentpoles like “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Deadpool 2” based on theatrical availability. When a best popular movie category was announced last year, critics and fans came out in force against it, and it was scrapped from this year’s ceremony. So why go with a requirement that relies on being a long-term box office draw? Recent best winners like “Moonlight,” “Spotlight” and “Birdman” would have lost to “Finding Dory,” “Jurassic World” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” respectively.
On the flipside, surprise hits like “Crazy Rich Asians” would have a better chance of earning nominations and awards. Kevin Kwan, author of the “Crazy Rich Asians” trilogy, turned down Netflix’s large, three-picture deal to take a smaller chance with Warner Bros. to show the romantic comedy featuring an all-Asian cast on the big screen. The comedy had a long theatrical run, but it did not earn any Oscars nominations. If Spielberg’s eligibility rules were in place, those smaller films and Netflix picks would not qualify.
Latest advancements would be canned
Netflix and other streaming services like Hulu and Amazon’s Prime Video have changed the way we experience film. You can catch up on trending movies without leaving home, take them with you on your phone or tablet or save them on your DVR. Netflix continues to attract big names like Martin Scorsese, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Amy Poehler to direct features. If these newer studio must to the new rules, what projects will be neglected in order to make the next “Roma”? “The Kissing Booth,” a monstrosity of a movie but a hit for Netflix, would have to make room for a theatrical run for a more “serious” film, like “Bird Box.” Actually, “Bird Box” did have a theatrical run, but you wouldn’t know it from all the memes and challenges that clogged the internet. Since Netflix doesn’t release its viewership or box office numbers, we don’t know how much of a financial shift these changes would require.
Spielberg may sound like an old man not getting with the times, however, he makes some valid points about determining if a movie that is streaming is the same as one that has been in theaters nearly exclusively. Does a movie with a $12 ticket to see make it better than a streaming film at 2 a.m. that’s part of a $12 monthly bill? The casual film fan would say that “Roma” is a TV movie.
But the theater experience is also changing. When was the last time you saw a movie without distractions? Without at least one cellphone user? Without people talking loudly? Without spending $50 for tickets, popcorn and drinks? Theater operators are making cinemas with more options that make it feel like watching at home. Unfortunately, at least for this moviegoer, this creates more situations for an unruly audience.
Lastly, it puts more responsibility on the studios and the theaters to foster the best in cinema that will later by curated by the Academy. Cinemas and studios will be responsible for filling four weeks out of the year with at least one title instead of just one week. If the Academy places so much importance on the theatrical experience, it should require the same from its members. Stop making screeners available and instead require members to watch the movies only in theaters. They would know if they’re watching TV or not. If the body is to award movies for being in the cinema, why not respect cinema?