Streaming Giants Challenge Hollywood Tradition

By Ben Lashar

Imagine a TV or direct to DVD movie winning an Oscar 20 years ago. It would be impossible. While some movies without a theatrical release have garnered a following, they were mostly considered different animals. Even TV and direct to DVD movies made within the studio system were considered separate from traditional cinema. However, the success of streaming exclusive films has forced film experts to rethink the wall between theatrical and streaming movies.

Last month, the head of the famed French Cannes film festival announced the festival would no longer consider streaming exclusive movies for awards. The decision followed a controversial 2017 festival, where Cannes audiences were less than receptive to Netflix’s two entries: Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories. A few days after the announcement, Steven Spielberg offered a similar sentiment. In an interview, the acclaimed director claimed that Netflix movies should not be considered for Academy Awards.

Many on the internet were quick to label the Cannes staff and Spielberg as out of touch enforcers of the old guard, but the two had legitimate points. Cannes was upset at Netflix for breaking French law and tradition. France requires 36 months to pass between a movie’s release date and availability for home purchase.

Furthermore, a certain percentage of a movie’s gross must be re-funneled into the funding of independent and foreign films. Netflix ignores both laws. The streaming service releases movies in theaters on the same day as streaming. Theatrical runs are often under a week long and occur in less than 20 theaters nationwide, ensuring the bare minimum silver screen time to be nominated for awards. Netflix’s refusal to follow French tradition offended the Cannes staff. One prominent member even called the streaming service “American Cultural Imperialism.”

Spielberg, on the other hand, was more evenhanded in his critique. He believes that if movies are primarily made for televisions and television audiences, they should be considered for Emmys and not Oscars.

The suggestion was not a critique on quality of work. Spielberg made sure to say, “Television is greater today than it’s ever been in the history of television.” Spielberg’s problem is the potential damage of awarding streaming films over theatrically released films. Instead of fundraising and submitting work to festivals, many upcoming filmmakers are approaching streaming services with ideas. Spielberg claims this may cause major studios to stop financing smaller movies: “The difference today is that a lot of studios would rather just make branded tent pole guaranteed box-office hits from their inventory … than take chances on smaller films. And those smaller films that studios used to make routinely, are now going to Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix.”

If streaming movies are considered separate from theatrically released movies, they can be honored without taking potential buzz away from small theatrically released movies.

On the other hand, perhaps streaming services should be honored for taking those chances on smaller projects and unknown names. Netflix is releasing 80 movies in 2018, so getting those movies in festivals and award shows can potentially make many new careers. Relegating these films to TV movie status, where they would have to share nominations with Hallmark movies, might not lead to the same prestige or fame.

In addition, award-winning silver screen filmmakers are taking their skill and style to streaming services, further blurring the lines between theater style and streaming style filmmaking. For example, Martin Scorsese, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of all time, is currently directing a Netflix original movie called The Irishman. The movie is a mob epic with a budget of $100 million dollars and stars Robert DeNiro, Al Pachino, Harvey Keitel, and Joe Pesci.

Finally, despite criticism surrounding streaming platforms, award committees have already honored Netflix a fair amount. Netflix movies have been nominated 8 times for Oscars. During the latest Oscars, the historical Netflix Drama Mudbound had four nominations for best supporting actress, original song, adapted screenplay and cinematography. In addition, a Netflix documentary about the use of steroids called Icarus won the Oscar for best documentary.

Hollywood is a town full of traditions. With a variety of fiery opinions regarding streaming services, the movie industry will have to decide if streaming movies will be separate entities or if they will be folded into the film establishment. Either way, the two forms of releasing movies are sure to impact each other.

Video might not always kill the radio star, but radio will always have to adapt to survive.