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Spielberg vs. Netflix: Separating Myth and Reality About the Post-Oscars Battle

A movie is a movie, whether it shows on Netflix or at your local multiplex. Fact or fiction? Check out our exhaustive quiz.

Alfonso Cuaron - Director, Orignal Screenplay and Cinematography - 'Roma'91st Annual Academy Awards, Press Room, Los Angeles, USA - 24 Feb 2019

Alfonso Cuaron and his three Oscars for “Roma” at the 2019 Academy Awards

Andrew H. Walker/BEI/REX/Shutterstock

IndieWire’s recent story about Academy Governor Steven Spielberg’s strong belief that Netflix-distributed movies should be in the race for Emmys, not Oscars, spawned a legion of comments and debates on social media. But various reaction threads also revealed how much misinformation is out there about everything from the legendary director’s positions on the matter, as well as the Oscars and Netflix itself.

Yes, IndieWire readers are smart and well-informed. See how you do with our reality check, below.

Alfonso Cuarón and David Linde

David Linde and Alfonso Cuarón

Eric Charbonneau/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Myth: Netflix produced “Roma.”

Fact: Netflix had nothing to do with “making” or even funding “Roma,” which is the case for many (not all) of the shows/movies labeled as Netflix Originals. Participant Media’s David Linde greenlit and financed “Roma,” which was shot on location by Cuarón’s production company over 110 days for a little less than $15 million in Mexico City, with Participant production chief Jonathan King on hand.

The studios could have acquired “Roma.” Participant showed ten minutes of footage to seven companies with global distribution. There were no passes and three offers. Four companies explained that because a black-and-white film in Spanish would not qualify for their Pay-TV output deals, they needed to see the film (which was still in post and not available to screen). Once they could see the film they’d be able to seek a waiver from their Pay-TV output partners, as The Weinstein Co. did on “The Artist.”

Participant explored the three offers and after a month-long negotiation landed on Netflix, which gave the most persuasive (and financially viable) marketing, distribution, and awards commitment. The studios weren’t willing to step up to Netflix’s bid for worldwide rights (a bit more than $20 million), which included a commitment for a substantial global theatrical release (excluding China — which Participant kept and will open in theaters, having just passed the censors).


“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

Courtesy of Netflix

Myth: Netflix doesn’t care about the Oscars.

Fact: Netflix cares so much about winning Oscars that they gave “Roma” their biggest theatrical release in their history, more than most foreign films get in the US, and spent some $50 million to market it, including awards spending. The question is why. So far, they have scored 30 Oscar nominations against six wins. In 2019, by acquiring their top awards consultant Lisa Taback’s team, they scored three for “Roma” and one for documentary short “Period. End of Sentence.” In 2018, they won Oscars for documentary feature “Icarus” and short “White Helmets.” Winning Oscars is about convincing marquee filmmakers like Martin Scorsese to bring their movies there, and to enhance the global profile of the site so that more subscribers will join.

Myth: Movies on Netflix get buried

Fact: This is the perception that Netflix looks to counter with agencies and managers and the studio forces that are doing battle with them every day. That’s why they’re spending more money on marketing and theatrical releases and awards campaigns for top talent.

An emmy award is seen at 70th Engineering Emmy Awards on in Los Angeles2018 Engineering Emmy Awards, Los Angeles, USA - 24 Oct 2018

An Emmy Award

Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Myth: “Roma” belongs at the Emmys.

Fact: Alfonso Cuarón is a world-class, Oscar-winning director (“Gravity”) who created “Roma” with the intention of having it shown in theaters. Netflix picked it up –outbidding six rivals that could have acquired the movie — and promised to book “Roma” in theaters with a major marketing and awards campaign. The site spent an estimated $50 million to promote the movie, including awards. In order to be eligible for the Oscar, a movie has to play for at least one full week in a commercial theater, which can be day and date with streaming.

Steven Spielberg thinks Netflix movies should compete for Emmys, not Oscars: “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,” he told British ITV News in March, 2018. “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.”

Obviously, “Roma” exceeded that. Last Thursday, an Amblin spokesperson confirmed that Academy governor Spielberg will bring up at the next Board of Governors rules meeting in April proposed changes that would force streamers such as Netflix to fulfil a more robust theatrical distribution requirement than the 2012 rules demand to qualify for Oscar consideration. It’s not at all clear that Spielberg has enough backing from the 54-member board to put through those rule changes.

Myth: Steven Spielberg is a dinosaur. 

Fact: Through his 40-year career, from TV movie “Duel” to performance capture adventure “The Adventures of Tintin,” Spielberg has been a maverick pioneer and effusive champion of cinema. He’s pushed through massive changes in Hollywood, as “Jaws” helped to usher in the wide-release age and technology made possible movies like “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park.” Spielberg also generously champions new talent, and while he prefers to shoot in 35 mm, always looks to the future when making youthful movies like “Ready Player One.”

My sense of Spielberg’s current Oscar mission is to level the playing field, out of some sense that the movie business he loves so passionately is under threat. The movie business faces a serious challenge from Netflix and other streamers. But the genie is out of the bottle. Rupert Murdoch knows this, and sold Fox to Disney, which is now mounting its own Over-the-Top service, Disney + with IP from Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar. The studios are used to being at the top of the entertainment pyramid. They are freaked out by the massive amounts of production spending by Netflix, which does not fit their current bottom lines, as well as the streamer’s robust Emmy and Oscar awards budgets.

But the answer is not to put the genie back in the bottle, but rather to change with the times and compete. Adapt or die.

Steven SpielbergAFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to John Williams, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 09 Jun 2016

Steven Spielberg
AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to John Williams, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA – 09 Jun 2016


Myth: Netflix does not release its films in theaters.

Fact: Netflix booked Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” into Landmark theaters in October 2015, but after that humiliating experiment, realized that bad numbers (with little marketing) can tarnish a movie. Since then Netflix has released such films as Cannes entry “Okja” and Oscar contender “Mudbound” day and date for a few weeks without announcing the box office. And in 2018, because of Netflix’s ambitious release plans for “Roma,” the streamer rolled out day-and-date limited theatrical releases for its other name auteurs: Tamara Jenkins’ Sundance premiere “Private Life,” starring Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, and Paul Greengrass’s Venice terrorist thriller “22 July,” as well as David Mackenzie’s Toronto opener “Outlaw King,” starring Chris Pine.

But with its real Oscar contenders, Netflix took a new leap. The Coen brothers’ anthology film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” began the company’s first exclusive limited theatrical engagements starting November 8 at The Landmark in Los Angeles, The Landmark 57 West in New York, the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and Curzon Theater in London. The film was released globally on Netflix on November 16 against an expanded theatrical release in additional U.S. cities, Toronto, and theaters throughout Europe.

Susanne Bier’s thriller “Bird Box,” starring Sandra Bullock, began exclusive limited theatrical engagements starting December 13 in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and London. The film was released globally on Netflix on December 21 and had an expanded theatrical release in additional theaters in the U.S. and Europe. This proved an effective marketing launch: Netflix was happy to tout how many times it was watched in the first week — 45 million, a new record.

Myth: “Roma” did not get as robust a release as most foreign-language Oscar contenders.

Fact: Last year’s Oscar-winner, Chile’s “A Fantastic Woman” (Sony Pictures Classics), reaped a worldwide total of $3.7 million. This year, Amazon Studios’ three-time Oscar nominee, Polish romantic drama “Cold War,” reached $4 million domestic for a total $19 million worldwide. For Mexico’s “Roma,” Netflix mounted a global theatrical release after launching it at the Venice, Telluride, Toronto, and New York film festivals, among many regional festivals.

“Roma” opened November 21 in Los Angeles, New York and Mexico City, followed by engagements in U.S. cities and London on November 29 and more top U.S. markets and international territories on December 7. The film hit 190 countries via Netflix on December 14 with an expanded theatrical release in the U.S. and international markets. To date the film has been released in digital 4K, Dolby Atmos and 70mm in 43 territories in 1600 theaters around the world, including 12 theaters for three and a half months in Israel, and it just opened to 30 theaters in Japan. (China is to follow.) The film is currently playing almost two and a half months after its original release in some 500 theaters around the world, and continues to entertain audiences on both platforms, months after it appeared on Netflix.

“Roma” was embraced and supported by independent theaters, which were rewarded with full theaters and long runs. The first three exclusive weeks stateside were four-wall engagements with some incomplete weeks (but not overseas). After that, it seems, theaters were on their own, but the terms are muddy at best. They did hold the movie over on its performance merits. Very few large exhibition chains played the film and the major global chains (AMC, Cinepolis and Regal) shunned the movie despite the obvious audience demand, even after its ten Oscar nominations. The movie would have scored way more than our estimated $4 million if theaters like L.A.’s Arclight had played it, even while it was available to stream. It was an event picture.



screen shot

Myth: “Roma” didn’t show in Mexico or the UK.

Fact: Netflix quietly qualified “Roma” for submission as Mexico’s Oscar entry by opening the film August 24 for a one-week theatrical run in Mexico City, in time for the August 26 eligibility deadline. It opened there again on November 21 and played 100 independent theaters, as the big NATO circuits including Cinepolis would not book it. “Roma” opened in one London theater on November 29, added another London house on December 6, and on December 14 the day it started streaming, opened in 16 more theaters in London, Ireland, and Scotland, and continued to add more theaters through February.

Scott Stuber, Alfonso Cuaron, Ted Sarandos

Myth: Netflix demanded the biggest theaters with Dolby Atmos in the middle of the holiday season.

Fact: “Roma” couldn’t play most of the biggest theaters in Dolby Atmos because they are owned by the major theater chains which refused to play “Roma” because it was only exclusive in theaters for three weeks, not 90 days. Nonetheless Netflix played ten indie theaters with Atmos, including Landmark’s Pico cinema in Los Angeles.

Myth: Netflix never releases streaming or box-office numbers.

Fact: That’s mostly true, which drives people crazy because they want to be able to measure performance. And on the studio side, distributors want streamers to play by the same rules they do. But Netflix does reveal its numbers when it serves its purposes. The streamer informed reporters, for example, that “Beasts of No Nation” was streamed more than three million times in North America in the two weeks after its disastrous October 16 day-and-date release, claiming that the film was the No. 1 streamed movie in all of Netflix’s territories.

And in 2018, in its first three weeks, more than 14.5 million subscribers watched Paul Greengrass’ true Norway terrorist drama “22 July,” which launched a limited engagement in theaters on October 10, 2018, at the same time it was made available for streaming in 190 countries, and was released in theaters in 15 cities stateside for a total of 134 markets.

Myth: Netflix doesn’t want to be in the theatrical business.

Fact: That’s true, but the streamer is learning the upside of putting movies in theaters to build reviews, awareness and word of mouth. Netflix is a streaming company that wants its films to be available to their subscribers. But in order to lure filmmakers, they play certain high-profile films in theaters.

Myth: Netflix is trying to put theaters out of business.

Fact: Netflix believes in neither the theatrical release model nor the brick and mortar exhibition business — they had a chance to buy the Landmark indie theater chain and walked away; the chain was sold to distributor/exhibitor Cohen Media. Ted Sarandos is amazed that the studios have hung onto their model for so long, holding back ancillary “windows” for DVDs, streaming, pay-per-view, and television so movie theaters could enjoy their 90-day exclusive. “The theaters can differentiate their experience with the consumers in ways we can’t compete with, and I wish they would,” he told IndieWire in 2017. “Going to a movie should be like going to Disneyland, so you can have a great experience and a super-high-end night out.”

But even as exhibitors upgrade and reduce the number of theater seats, theater attendance has flatlined. Studios are caught in a self-defeating spiral, Sarandos said: “People get more risk-averse when things don’t work. It keeps feeding itself until a bad week turns into a bad summer turns into a bad Christmas. It’s trying to remake the same thing and do sequels and a replay of the same model and ignoring the technology that’s available to help make customers happier and better monetize movies.”

Native Son Sundance

“Native Son” at Sundance.

Myth: HBO feature films are not eligible to compete for Oscars. 

Fact: HBO launches films like “Native Son” (April 6) at film festivals like Sundance and could open its feature films in theaters in order to qualify for Oscars, but the premium cabler chooses not to. (HBO Documentary Films is more likely to give a great documentary an Oscar shot, with 26 wins since 1983, many in the Documentary Short Subject category.) HBO prefers to turn its feature films into premiere events for its own subscribers. Sundance feature “Native Son” will premiere April 6 on HBO, which is partnering with A24. It’s an Emmy contender.

Amazon Studios’ Julie Rappaport, Jennifer Salke, Ted Hope and Scott Foundas at Sundance 2019.

Anne Thompson

Myth: Amazon Studios follows the 90-day established theatrical window.

Fact: They used to respect the 90-day window, but not anymore. New Amazon Studio head Jennifer Salke is making more flexible deals to allow a range of release plans custom-fit to each movie, even the ones she acquired in a recent Sundance buying spree. And producer Steven Soderbergh is expected to play with the windows for Amazon’s Sundance pick-up “The Report” this fall.

Myth: If a film shows on Netflix and not in a theater it’s not a movie.

Fact: “What do you call it when you watch a movie on ABC?” someone asked Twitter. “Roma” is a movie, no matter what platform it shows on.

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