Talk to anyone about this year’s most intensely anticipated movie and the answer pretty much always comes back: Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a mob drama scripted by Steven Zaillian and starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Anna Paquin – with Joe Pesci brought out of unofficial retirement in a tasty wiseguy role. It is being distributed by Netflix. Who can possibly doubt the cinephile credentials and passion of Scorsese? Surely someone like him would not have associated himself with Netflix if he believed it was undermining or cheapening the cinema experience?
The simple existence of The Irishman is a potent argument in the debate about the giant streaming service. Netflix won the culture-war bragging rights last summer after the Cannes film festival declined to take its movies. It simply took them to Venice and premiered sensationally good films such as Alfonso Cuaron’s multi-Oscar-winning Roma, the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and – perhaps most triumphantly – the restoration of Orson Welles’ “lost” film The Other Side of the Wind.
But now the anti-Netflix argument has been revived with Steven Spielberg’s damning pronouncement: “I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theatres for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.” Spielberg even woundingly suggested Netflix films should be up for mere Emmys as TV movies. At next month’s Academy board of governors’ meeting, Spielberg is expected to argue for a rule change: to be up for Oscars, a film needs a substantial theatrical run of perhaps four to six weeks before it’s made available for streaming.
Who is right? Or, to ask a related question, who is the righteous underdog? Those sympathetic to Netflix contest their opponents’ claim to be the defenders of decent celluloid values battling against an overweening corporate monster intent on crushing the community values of movie theatres. On the contrary, they say Netflix is challenging the privileges of entitled white males. Franklin Leonard, founder of The Black List has tweeted: “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.” A Wrinkle in Time director Ava DuVernay has made the same point..
Set against that is another argument: is the Netflix boom a kind of crazy tulip fever, depending on borrowed money? After all, subscriptions alone don’t cover it. Last October, Netflix announced that it was borrowing a further $2bn on top of existing debt. Its total liabilities, including debt and contractural obligations, are just over $28bn, according to reports, and it certainly can’t rely on subscriptions from its estimated 130 million customers worldwide to foot the bill. In fact, its cash flow is now around minus $2bn and it faces fresh competition from Disney’s new streaming service. Netflix is gambling on continued growth to cover costs.
So might Netflix – whisper it – suddenly collapse, leaving us to wonder how we could have been so naive and disloyal in relation to the workable theatrical release model?
Perhaps the wisest intervention has come from Paul Schrader, director of the tremendous but Oscar-snubbed drama First Reformed. He posted on Facebook his experience of having his movie rejected by Netflix but picked up for conventional if modestly scaled theatrical distribution by A24. He asks: “Would First Reformed have found this public acceptance if Netflix had scooped it up … and dumped it into its larder? Perhaps Bird Box and Kissing Booth can fight their way through the vast sea of Netflix product to find popular acceptance, but First Reformed? Unlikely.”
His new proposal, for club cinemas to form alliances with streaming systems in two tiers, the “populist” tier (Amazon/Netflix) and the more recherché tier (such as Criterion and Mubi) could be the way forward. Perhaps the streamers could go further and create their own club chains (like the fantasy movie theatre shown in the signature intro that precedes an Amazon film).
Perhaps Spielberg will win the day, and Oscar-eligibility will depend on a 28-day exclusive theatrical premiere. But distribution, as Schrader says, is in flux.
This article first appeared on The Guardian.