Oscars: In the Steven Spielberg-Netflix Debate, Who Really Wins?

Illustration by: Guy Shield

'Roma's' success sparks a new debate about Academy rules, but a four-week theatrical mandate could hurt small indie films and even impact inclusivity.

When the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opens this year, visitors will pass by a plaque on one wall that marks The Netflix Terrace, reflecting a major donation from the streaming service, whose chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, is also vice chair of the museum's board of trustees. But even as Netflix stakes out a permanent place in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' $388 million new edifice, some Academy members are asking whether movies appearing on such streaming services as Netflix and Amazon should be able to compete for Oscars or whether that honor should be reserved for films that get a full-fledged theatrical release.

Steven Spielberg, a member of the AMPAS board of governors, appeared to be leading the charge. Speaking a year ago to ITV News, he said, "Once you commit to a television format, you're a TV movie. 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." He seemed to double down when, appearing at February's Cinema Audio Society Awards, he commented, "The greatest contribution we can make as filmmakers is to give audiences the motion picture theatrical experience. I'm a firm believer that movie theaters need to be around forever."

Currently, the main rule that determines a movie's qualification for Oscar consideration is that it play in a theater for one week in Los Angeles County. The movie can't have appeared on any other platform before that theatrical booking, but the rule, which has been explicitly stated since 2012, does allow for a day-and-date debut on a streaming service. One idea being floated is that a movie would have to have an exclusive four-week theatrical run before ever appearing online if it wants to compete for Oscars.

Of course, Netflix showed it was willing to adjust its own business model by giving Roma, which picked up three Oscars, an exclusive three-week run in theaters before making it available to its subscribers. Later this year, the streamer is expected to give an even wider theatrical release to Martin Scorsese's The Irishman, starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Amazon Studios has been debuting its films in movie houses, although under new chief Jennifer Salke it has signaled that it may hold some films back from theaters in the future. New streaming services from Apple, Disney and WarnerMedia have yet to show their cards.

Some reports claimed Spielberg was pushing the four-week idea. When asked by The Hollywood Reporter to clarify his position, a rep for the director said there was no further comment. But speaking March 8 at SXSW, Spielberg's friend Jeffrey Katzenberg said "he has not opined at all" on the subject of a rule change and had no plans to advocate for it within the board.

While the proposal immediately generated plenty of media attention, the Academy had already been wrestling with the question of what exactly constitutes a movie in the streaming era. In 2018, under Academy president John Bailey, a special committee, chaired by Albert Berger, who reps the producers branch on the board of governors, was created to explore the future of cinema. Initial meetings involved about 100 members from all the Academy's various branches, and then a smaller working group was formed. After hearing everyone, from director Christopher Nolan and producer Emma Thomas — both big-screen advocates — Netflix's Sarandos and its head of original film, Scott Stuber, to reps for the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) and the major theater chains, the talks concluded without the committee recommending any rule changes to the rules and events committee, chaired by Lois Burwell of the makeup and hairstylists branch, which would have to consider any changes before sending them on to the 54-member board of governors. "It was an implicit endorsement of where the rules are now," says one of the participants.

But now that the issue has gone public, the debate has been reopened. The difficulty is, there are no easy answers to what defines a "movie" and no simple way to redefine the Oscar rules without triggering unintended consequences.

Barry Jenkins, who directed the Oscar-winning Moonlight, sums up the quandary: "Is it about the film or is it about where it's distributed? That's the question that we're all wrestling with because there is no denying that Roma is a cinematic experience. I'm trying to figure out where is the line."

Right now, one-week theatrical runs are used mostly to qualify documentaries and non-studio animated films or to set up carefully orchestrated releases for specialty films. For example, in 2014, Sony Pictures Classics gave a qualifying run to Still Alice, for which Julianne Moore won the best actress Oscar, but the distributor didn’t actually begin to roll out the film until Jan. 16, 2015, to take advantage of the nomination announcements. 

And if the Academy were also to require that its qualifying run has to include a certain number of theaters, that could be even more problematic, since many smaller films, even if they do play for several weeks, often do so in a very limited number of theaters.

“If you enforce a significant window, you’d be creating a crisis,” says one producer. “I don’t know why you’d want to put financiers or filmmakers in the position of taking a movie to Sundance and having to decide between someone who’s willing to give you some kind of release but will pay you nothing for it or someone who will pay you back what you put into the movie but you will have to stream it sooner. And all of a sudden you are not a movie? None of it makes sense — there are so many performances in smaller films that would get disregarded. I don’t see how it helps.”

The question could even turn into a politically charged one if it looks as if the Hollywood establishment, intentionally or not, is shutting the door on films and filmmakers who've not previously had a hearing. On Twitter, Black List founder Franklin Leonard noted that Netflix's "first four aggressive forays into Oscar campaigns" were Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation, Ava DuVernay's 13th, Dee Rees' Mudbound and Alfonso Cuarón's Roma. "I think we can all agree that the theatrical experience is worth protecting, I, for one, do," he continued. "I also think we can all agree that it is more difficult for films by and about women, people of color and myriad other communities to access the resources necessary to secure an exclusive four-week theatrical window."

Adding her voice, Ava DuVernay tweeted that if the board of governors does take up a rule change, she wanted statements read “from directors like me who feel differently.”

After all the uproar that surrounded this year’s Oscars, the board of governors may not be eager to plunge into a new controversy so quickly. The main topic at the next scheduled board meeting, set for March 19, is a review of the recent Academy Awards. Traditionally, new rules aren’t taken up until the next regular board meeting after that, which will take place in April.

As someone who finds himself in the middle of the debate, Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, endorses the Academy's mission to promote movies in theaters, but he also worked with Netflix to present Roma in 70mm in his movie houses. "I'd like to see a compromise," he says. "Netflix working more closely with cinemas to offer more robust, exclusive theatrical windows for auteur-driven films and the Academy continuing to support Netflix's films that are released theatrically. I hope we can obtain the best of both worlds."

— Tatiana Siegel and Scott Feinberg contributed to the report.

A version of this story appears in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.