Netflix defends its impact on the movie business ahead of Oscars debate

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Netflix did pretty well at this year’s Academy Awards, but it’s also facing pushback from some big names in the movie business.

“Roma” took home more high-profile Oscars (Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography) than any Netflix or streaming original before it. But it lost out to “Green Book” for Best Picture, a race where its association with Netflix may have hurt its chances — though it faced other obstacles, like the fact that the Academy has never given Best Picture to a foreign language film.

Now director Steven Spielberg is reportedly preparing to speak out on against Netflix at the next meeting of the Academy’s Board of Governors.

It’s not entirely clear what Spielberg is proposing — the initial story in Variety said it was “unclear what specific rule changes he would advocate for,” while a more recent Hollywood Reporter piece suggests that he’s suggesting that movies be required to play exclusively in theaters for at least four weeks to be eligible for an Oscar.

Whatever the specifics of his plan, Spielberg has been open about his feelings on Netflix and awards before, arguing in an interview last year that Netflix original films were “TV movies” that should be up for Emmys, not Oscars.

The news has, perhaps inevitably, led to debate about Netflix’s impact on the movie business — for some, it’s time to trot out the “old man yells at clouds” meme, which in turn has prompted others to criticize the streaming company’s lackluster selection of movies (particularly older films), plus its resistance to putting its movies in theaters before they go live on Netflix.

Clearly, the discussion has gone beyond the Oscars themselves, tapping into broader anxiety about the threat that Netflix and streaming poses to the theatrical model. It’s the same anxiety that prompted the Cannes Film Festival to announce a rule that prevented Netflix films from competing (a rule the festival may be reconsidering), and that led the major theater chains to refuse to show “Roma,” even after it was nominated for 10 Oscars.

The debate has gotten Netflix’s attention too, with a tweet yesterday declaring, “We love cinema.” It goes on to argue that the service brings movies to people who can’t afford or don’t have access to movie theaters, gives everyone access to movies at the same time and gives filmmakers “more ways to share art.”

“Netflix, good or bad for the movies?” is an argument that isn’t going away anytime soon,  and it’s far beyond the scope of this article to settle it.

I will say this, though: I’m glad Netflix financed “Roma,” but I’m also glad Netflix backed down from its initial, hard-line stance on theatrical releases — if only because I’ve seen “Roma” on the big screen, and that’s how it deserves to be watched.

I’m certainly glad that Netflix has helped movies like “Roma,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” “The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Okja” to get made. But if a little Spielbergian pressure means that the company gets more serious about releasing its movies in theaters, even better.