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In the Future, No One Deserves an Oscar

The debate between Steven Spielberg and Netflix misses the real problem facing filmmaking in America.

Dan Groshong/AFP/Getty

Last month’s Academy Awards almost marked the beginning of a new era in movie history. Having changed film and television viewing forever, Netflix had just one world left to conquer: The Oscars. To that end, the streaming giant put the full weight of its considerable marketing budget behind its inaugural Best Picture nominee, Roma, the black-and-white epic by Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón. When the ceremony arrived earlier this month, the film was the betting-odds favorite.

Netflix and Cuarón ultimately lost the top prize to Green Book, a movie about an Italian-American’s journey to becoming slightly less racist while driving through the segregated South. But this was just a temporary setback for perhaps the most important media-distribution company in history (and Cuarón still took home two statuettes). Netflix has spent billions doing everything it can to monopolize its users’ time. A Best Picture Oscar, which would lend the company prestige and help it attract more A-list talent, seems like an inevitability. Unless Hollywood changes the rules.

At the next meeting of the Academy’s Board of Governors, director Steven Spielberg is expected to propose that streaming services be blocked from the competition. This issue has divided Hollywood: between an old guard that believes it is protecting both filmmaking and filmgoing from the existential threat of digital disruption, and those who see Netflix as a disruptive and egalitarian force. This is a false dichotomy. The debate about the future of moviegoing shouldn’t be a binary one between a studio system increasingly beholden to franchises and intellectual property, and a nihilistic streaming service set on eliminating all competitors and monopolizing its users’ attention. The real problem with film right now is a lack of diversity caused by a lack of competition—both in Hollywood and online.

Spielberg, who reportedly lobbied Oscar voters on behalf of Green Book, has mused on this subject in the past, arguing that Netflix should be relegated to the Emmys because its movies are typically watched on television sets. “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” Spielberg told ITV last March. “You certainly, if it’s a good show, deserve 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.”

While there’s no reason to question Spielberg’s cinephilic motives, it’s nevertheless clear that Hollywood’s anxiety about Netflix comes down to money. The studios are upset that Netflix does the bare minimum to compete for awards by releasing movies in theaters for the shortest duration possible, then spends tens of millions on awards-driven promotional campaigns; studio executives griped that Netflix “was trying to buy” a Best Picture Oscar for Roma. Above all, though, studios and theater chains see Netflix as a threat to their business model, which is based on people paying increasingly large sums of money to watch movies on large screens outside of their homes. The problem with Netflix, in other words, isn’t that it doesn’t make movies, which it clearly does, but that it allows people to pay $12 to see as many movies as they want in a month rather than $12 to see a single film once.

It’s not clear how the Academy would fix its Netflix problem. The Academy only requires movies to have a qualifying run of one-week to contend for cinema’s highest honor, a low bar that Netflix easily clears with limited-release engagements in select cities. But the easiest way to shut out streaming services—extending that window—would adversely affect smaller movies, especially documentaries and foreign-language films, by requiring expensive multi-week runs that may not be financially feasible.

Netflix, meanwhile, has used the Spielberg controversy to portray the studios as oppressors and cast itself as a populist company out to bring quality, diverse films to the masses. (It’s true that Netflix gives some of its movies a much larger reach than they would have through the traditional system, but the company’s record on diversity is mixed.)

There is a case to be made against Netflix, but it doesn’t have anything to do with distribution. Netflix presents itself as a filmmaker-friendly disrupter of a gatekeeper studio system, but it’s an extremely powerful entertainment company itself. Because it is both the producer and distributor of much of its content—which Hollywood studios have been prevented from doing since the 1940s—Netflix has a profound influence over what their 118 million subscribers see (including 60 million Americans).

For the moment, Netflix’ approach has been to make something for everyone: a platform where you can watch a lowbrow stoner comedy from Chuck Lorre and an unfinished masterpiece by Orson Welles. In 2019, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman will get a wide theatrical release through Netflix, and it just announced an adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s seemingly unadaptable One Hundred Years of Solitude (the success of Roma reportedly played a role in landing the project). But that’s almost certain to change in the coming years.

The studios are increasingly pulling their licensed shows from Netflix. That, coupled with competition from Amazon (and soon Disney), is driving Netflix to ramping up its original content: It’s expected to spend up to $15 billion on production in 2019. While much is made of Netflix as a savior for projects that increasingly tepid Hollywood studios won’t touch, it is still mostly a conventional media company producing safe, middle-brow content. As it increases its market share, this aversion to controversy—and, perhaps, quality—will likely also grow. Even if Netflix doesn’t vanquish its rivals, the future of prestige TV still looks bleak. Increased competition from Amazon, which is spending $1 billion on a Lord of the Rings show, and Disney, which owns both Marvel and Star Wars and is launching a streaming service in the near future, suggests a coming arms race in blockbuster TV.

The state of filmmaking in Hollywood shows us what the consequences of such an arms race would be. Over the last decade, the major studios have come under increasing pressure from their multinational, publicly traded owners to produce movies with high profit margins. Thus, they have moved away from prestige fare and embraced popular franchises: Mega-blockbusters that are expensive to produce, but can deliver hundreds of millions in ticket sales and merchandise. Spielberg and other cinephiles are undoubtedly concerned that Netflix represents an existential threat to the majesty of the moviegoing experience, but studios’ growing addiction to franchises is harming the diversity of film. In the first three months of last year, Black Panther accounted for nearly a quarter of all box office receipts. The success of these films creates a vicious cycle. “Studios,” The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Fritz told me at the time, “are inevitably going to make fewer films and pour even more resources into big-budget event franchises that can hopefully be the next Black Panther.”

Netflix, for now, resembles Hollywood in the 1990s, when the local cineplex featured a healthy mix of films: romantic comedies, blockbusters, indie dramas, Oscar bait, and so on. But this is unsustainable for any company that is hellbent on monopoly. The more that Netflix is forced to consider its bottom line, the more its content will look the same. In such a future, films like Roma may never get made in the first place.