Steven Spielberg is pushing a somewhat controversial rule change that would prevent films that premiere on Netflix and other streaming services form being eligible for Academy Awards. His argument is that since these films premiere on “television,” they are “TV movies,” and should instead be considered for Emmy awards, not Oscars. It would appear the success of this year’s Netflix film Roma, which was awarded the Best Director Oscar, has prompted Spielberg to take a stand for theatrical distribution.
On one hand, I have to agree with Spielberg. I am not opposed to protecting movie theaters. There’s just nothing like seeing the latest Marvel movie on a giant screen with an amped up sound system, surrounded by the energy of an excited crowd.
However, I feel this debate, which seems to be largely about semantics and distribution formats, reveals just how out-of-touch Spielberg and much of the Hollywood establishment is with the current state of visual media. While everyone in Hollywood is over-the-moon that this year’s Academy Awards had a 12% larger audience than last year, they’re forgetting that it was still the second worst audience in history for the telecast. I think this speaks not just to the increasing irrelevance of the Oscars, but also the fading importance of traditional broadcast television.
Spielberg wants to draw a distinction between movies and “TV movies” based on initial distribution; however, he seems to be forgetting the fact that even for his movies, the vast majority of their presumably infinite life-cycle will be spent as “TV movies.” All of Spielberg’s Oscar nominated and Oscar winning films are available on home video. From Schindler’s List to The Post, you can buy them all on disc, and some of them are even available – gasp – via streaming. For the majority of Millennials and all of Gen-Z, most of Spielberg’s greatest films will exist as “TV Movies.” You want to watch E.T. or Indiana Jones? They’re both currently available on Blu-ray and streaming. While I got to experience Jurassic Park for the first time in the theater, for my daughter, it will always be a “TV Movie.”
But what makes something a “movie” and what makes something a “TV show?” For the most part, this has been determined by their particular formats. Most “movies” run between 80 minutes and two hours, with the occasional epic growing to three hours. Why? Because movie theaters have a finite amount of time and space to run movies. For the longest time, three-hour films were off limits simply because they ate up too much movie programming time. A three hour movie runs twice in six hours, while a two hour movie runs three times. That’s 33% more profit. Also, make a movie too long, and people start getting up to pee.
Likewise, television formats have been determined by broadcast blocks, typically 30 minute and 1 hour blocks, with shorter times typically allotted for comedies and longer times allotted to fill later, dramatic blocks.
In both cases, the medium determines the length and format of the content.
But what about the big, wide-open world of home streaming, where we have complete control over what we watch, when we watch it, and how we watch? We can binge-watch complete series in one sitting. We can stop to go pee whenever we want, and even rewind to see what we missed. We can comment in real-time via second screens. We can watch as little or as much as we want, whenever we want.
What do distinctions like “TV movie” and “TV series” matter in this technological new world? Does a show have to be thirty minutes, or an hour, or 80 minutes, or three hours, or eight hours? What’s the difference between a “show” and a “movie” in the digital age? Okay, so maybe the distinction is movie theaters … protecting the cinematic experience and whatnot. But isn’t that just a context? I can’t imagine a piece of content that wouldn’t be more exciting in a big movie theater. How cool would it be to binge-watch Stranger Things on a movie screen? Even a YouTube stream like Dude Perfect would be better on the Big Screen. And what about YouTube videos? What awards should YouTube channels get — is that an Emmy or something else? You can watch traditional movies and TV shows on YouTube. So where do they fit into all of this?
The current reality is we can now watch video content on a variety of screens, from mobile phones to movie theaters, and we have more control than ever over that experience. Questions of semantics, movies vs. TV movies, Oscars vs. Emmys, etc. seem like Baby Boomer attempts to hang on to a reality that is fading, and fading fast.
I’m not sure an Oscars rule change — which will really only make an irrelevant broadcast increasingly irrelevant — is the answer to protecting “the theatrical experience.” If we want to protect movie theaters, we need to acknowledge the changing shape of visual media, and how previous distinctions may not matter as much as they once did. For movie theaters to survive, they need to understand themselves as just one of many contexts consumers have available to them to experience media. Different contexts mean different things. This will mean embracing new business models and targeting different types of media consumers.
People will continue to consume visual media. The success of streaming services demonstrates that. Visual storytelling is not going to go away. However, movie theaters may go away if they’re not careful. You can’t fix this through obscure Oscar rules and fighting consumer motivations. You can fix this by embracing evolving audience behaviors, and finding your place within a very complex media ecosystem.