The Brat and the Big Screen
By Justin Aylward
In recent days, there has been much discussion about the relationship between streaming giants Netflix and the Academy. Blockbuster director, Steven Spielberg, who has suggested that Netflix movies should not be eligible for Oscar’s recognition, has fronted this dialog. Among other things, he talked about how the theatre-going experience is under threat. ‘There’s nothing like going to a big dark theatre with people you’ve never met and having the experience wash over you.’ Although Spielberg did not mention any specific streaming network in his most recent remarks, in 2018 he did say, ‘I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theatres for less than a week should qualify for Academy Award nominations.’
There are many complaints one can make in refuting Spielberg’s comments, and other figures in the film world have been quick to respond. But the most interesting facet of this debate is that no one side is right. Spielberg is the godfather of the blockbuster, since the release of his nerve-shredding thriller Jaws in 1975. From then on studios and distributors have realised the potential of spot-releasing their films, sending them out to theatres at certain times to attract a wider audience. Today we also see the release of aspiring Oscar-winners during the December window. But that’s not what bothers me. Instead I can’t help but hear a whininess in Spielberg’s voice as he puts forth his argument. He is the most prominent member of the director’s brat-pack, a group of young artists who graduated from the first major American film school and forging a path in Hollywood. Maybe I am being unkind, but Spielberg kinda sounds like a brat who has never been told ‘no’ in his life. He will never struggle to finance a movie, have it distributed, find an audience and feature during the lengthy awards season. If only other filmmakers had it so easy, we might not rely on streaming platforms. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu etc have brought projects that major Hollywood distributors will not support to audiences who would not otherwise have seen these films and television series. And it is a good thing that the visual arts can thrive outside the mainstream Hollywood circle.
It is understandable that Spielberg wants to preserve that theatre-going experience, but what does he think is going to happen; will film fans suddenly refuse to leave the house to watch a movie when they might watch one in their own living rooms? Maybe we should just destroy all DVDs; after all, we can’t watch them on the big screen. Spielberg has made many terrific films – no one can deny that – but many of his films rely intrinsically on the type of environment and atmosphere that is created in theatre screening rooms. There is a wide-eyed element to many of his best films such as E.T., Jurassic Park, and Minority Report; the sheen of these movies is massively dulled when removed from the darkened airs of the theatre. But this debate shouldn’t became a contest between theatres and streaming services, because we can have both, and there are positives to each. It’s true that some movies just aren’t worth seeing outside the theatre – Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is possibly the best example – but to state that films should only exist, or that they be birthed on the big screen is blind to the great emotional potential of the medium. You don’t need a massive screen to transmit the tones and emotions of film into your heart and mind. Not all films are cinematic, but it doesn’t make them any less worthy of an audience. I love a good spectacle and will never fail to be amazed by the far-reaching vistas that fill out cinema screens, but I will choose a film that moves my heart and shatters my mind any day over a visualistic feast, and I have seen such films on screens as small as laptop. Only seeing films in the theatre is like only eating in Michelin-starred restaurants, it’s nice, but it’s also a bit rich and extravagant. Sometimes you crave something simple, and many streaming platforms offer that.
Another matter I have often wondered about is the significance and prestige we have placed on the Oscars in the first place. As far as I am concerned the Academy can forbid any kind of film they want, I honestly don’t care. It won’t exacerbate my ill-feelings towards them any more. But if they do such a thing I hope it will further delegitimise them as the benchmark of filmmaking achievement. For too long the Academy has been seen as the great paragon of assessment, the final arbiters of taste for whom all film fans should look to for guidance in their choice of film. Paradoxically, the Academies blindness is so obvious for everyone to see. Their decisions are often motivated by the desire to promote a clean, liberal image of their organisation, and not by a duty to try and recognise high artistic merit in filmmaking. If one positive can come from their choice to exclude movies released through streaming services for a place in the competition, it should be the final clarifier that the Academy no longer tries to identify the ‘Best Picture’, or ‘Best Director’, etc… because they don’t. They will select the best picture that falls under the narrow constrictions of their rules.