Reality Bite for Steven Spielberg: Netflix Isn’t the Enemy, It’s Elitism

Why hasn't Spielberg jawboned so loudly for gender parity or diversity, asks RCL film critic.

March 6, 2019 5:00 am
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 16: Steven Spielberg attends the 55th Annual Cinema Audio Society Awards at InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown on February 16, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 16: Steven Spielberg attends the 55th Annual Cinema Audio Society Awards at InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown on February 16, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Getty Images)
Getty Images

Steven Spielberg’s post-Oscars aggressive mobilization demanding a four-week theatrical qualifying run for a movie to be eligible for Best Picture – with his sights on Netflix – really aggravates me. And not only because I think that the streamer’s Roma is a more authentic film than Spielberg has made in the past decade.

This has been a flashpoint and continuing source of heated discussion — and tweeting — ever since Spielberg, a governor of the Academy’s directors branch, expressed his controversial intention to lobby to revise Oscars eligibility rules at the upcoming Board of Governors meeting.

After winning three Oscars for Roma, Netflix tweeted: “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 doesn’t need me to defend them. They have the righteous Director Ava DuVernay, who’s also used social media to voice her view @ava: “One of the things I value about Netflix is that it distributes black work far/wide. 190 countries will get WHEN THEY SEE US. Here’s a promo for South Africa. I’ve had just one film distributed wide internationally. Not SELMA. Not WRINKLE. It was 13TH. By Netflix. That matters.

That does matter, Ava. Moreover, it’s significant that the industry’s embedded leaders may not be getting the message. I’m mad because when Spielberg and his cronies get their boxers in a twist and mobilize within their cloistered industry they choose self-interest and self-preservation.

Why should I be surprised?

News to the three-time Oscar winner Spielberg: there is nothing sacred about a theatrical release. It’s the stories and their connection to contemporary audiences that must be nurtured. That’s where the juice is. And that’s where the potential is to make positive change.

I would really love it if these powerful Hollywood kingmakers took all their clout, Academy cred, mentorship capability and ridiculous bags of money – and channeled that energy into the most crucial issue facing their industry today: inclusion.

I’m not asking these film folks to write checks to the Democratic Party. They already do that.

Just, please, don’t squander your outrage by planting your flag on this issue of theatrical releases.

Or, as The Black List founder Franklin Leonard tweeted: “It isn’t even about Netflix, though they’re the most visible and least sympathetic target. It’s about every other film and filmmaker who will struggle to get access to the resources necessary to make a film but not get those allowing for a four week exclusive theatrical release.”

Thank you, Mr. Leonard. This is the key point. Access to the means of movie production is the central struggle of this moment.

These viewpoints in support of a new economic model lead to my central question: has Spielberg taken as aggressive a stand defending gender parity or diversity as his outspoken rebuke to Netflix? Has he worked with other honchos to, for example, amass a $100M development pool to support full budgets of new films directed by those filmmakers previously disenfranchised?

This isn’t charity. This is industry survival in a global economy. And, as the pump of cultural product that Hollywood is, this is about preserving and enhancing our position as a world power in the field of ideas at a moment when we are losing face on the international stage.

And I’m not asking Spielberg or his posse to do it as a reflection of personal magnanimity. Slough off the ego, roll up the sleeves and make change because it will cost you nothing other than money. Certainly you haven’t spent those massive movie profits simply on In –N-Out burgers.

Mr. Spielberg, if you want to save movies, I suggest you step out of your creative comfort zone and relinquish control.

This won’t be easy. He’s no longer a Young Turk but an elder statesman. And his inclination, as reflected in his prestige Oscar-bait period films, is to lionize the white savior over the oppressed minority. For example, in Schindler’s List, now celebrating its 25th Anniversary, Liam Neeson saves the Jews as the fact-based title character who rescues his factory workers from the maw of the Nazis. Ditto Amistad, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln.

What none of these dramatic serious stories does, with the exception of The Color Purple, is relinquish the central narrative arc to the so-called victims: Jews, blacks or women.

I don’t expect Spielberg the artist, whose 1975 film Jaws signaled the rise of the blockbuster and the decline of the 1970s groovy grainy films of his fellows like Sidney Lumet’s contemporaneous Dog Day Afternoon, to easily shift his focus. He has been in the industry sweet spot, often numero uno, for nearly half a century. But this is my plea.

We don’t need a savior tilting at the windmills of the past, like a silent-movie star raging in a squeaky voice at the rise of talkies. We need financing. We need mentorship and budgets.

We don’t even need big budgets.

Last year’s Oscar-winner Moonlight by Barry Jenkins had a $4M production budget. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird was $10M. Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone the movie that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career, was $2M.

What would the Athena Film Festival or the Memphis Film Prize or the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival be able to accomplish with $100M to award to women of all kinds and artists of color?

That would be a game-changer, Mr. Spielberg. And maybe it’s time for us, your audience, to save you from yourself.

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