Earlier this week, Steven Spielberg released a statement that he, and a number of other executives in the film industry, will be bringing up a specific issue with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Apparently Spielberg takes issue with films that are exclusively released in digital spaces and which are not released into theatres. He is proposing that the Academy should no longer honour the achievements of these films at the Oscars.
This issue stands in bleak contrast to the fact that Spielberg himself considered himself a trailblazer of the film industry when he started making movies in the late 1960’s. He cites that he is aiming to take a stance against ‘digital only’ releases as the theatre business has been tanking in recent years, and Spielberg has long been an advocate for putting butts in the seats and against digital film piracy. With several large theatre chains citing incredible losses over the last three to fives years (SOURCE) Mr. Spielberg believes that in order to qualify for an Academy award, a film must procure a theatrical release of at least four weeks.
Before we venture into the hypocrisy of Mr. Spielberg’s statement, let’s take a minute and use the recent, Netflix produced and released, Oscar winning film ‘Roma’ as an example.
Roma’s budget was approximately 15 million dollars for a film that was entirely produced in black and white and received the majority of its viewership digitally. Netflix is notorious for accepting pitches from independent filmmakers who are looking to procure a larger bankroll for their projects. Netflix is excellent for experienced filmmakers with a vision because they tend to be pretty hands off creatively (SOURCE). Roma actually did see a limited release in art-house theatres, which was increased from 300 locations to 600 locations world-wide leading up to awards season. (SOURCE)
To give you some perspective “Avengers: Infinity War” was released across 4000+ screens in the United States alone in 2018 (SOURCE).
So why? Why would Roma (a very well made and heartfelt film) and the Avengers (also well made, though certainly lacking in substance) have such widely different theatrical releases? Why should the theatrical release contribute at all to the quality of the art?
This isn’t a question of merit, worthiness or even how the film was received by audiences. What Spielberg is gunning for here doesn’t have anything to do with the ‘art’ of film. This move by Spielberg is EXCLUSIVELY about the bottom line.
You might be asking yourself: “Why on Earth does Steven Spielberg care if Roma has/doesn’t have a theatrical release?”
He doesn’t. But Steven is smart enough to realize that one of the great American pastimes of “going to the movies” has been replaced with “Netflix and chill”. As the co-founder and beneficiary of both DreamWorks Studios and Amblin Entertainment, making sure you keep going to the movies ensures that Mr. Spielberg will continue to add to his 3.7 Billion dollar fortune.
Mr. Spielberg doesn’t want you to continue going to the movies so that you watch a film that will potentially change your life. He doesn’t care if you watch Roma or go to watch Into the Spiderverse a half a dozen times. He wants you to keep going because he wants to continue to line his pockets with money movie theatres pay him to play his movies.
He wants to keep the tradition of ‘Going to the Movies’ habitual so that he will continue to make money from it.
I wondered to myself how much it would cost to secure a theatrical release for a film, so I did a bit of searching and ultimately found this answer on Quora by an independent filmmaker who distributed his film by himself (SOURCE).
He uses some pretty impressive numbers and knowledge of costs within the industry. For a film like Roma to have a limited release of 600 theatres worldwide, you’re probably looking at a figure of $1300 USD/theatre, so about $780,000 without marketing, and without marketing, you might as well be flushing all that money down the toilet. With limited marketing costs, you’re looking at at 1.1-1.5 million dollars for a 600 theatre release.
For a film like Roma, with a 15 million dollar budget, that’s 10% of its budget right there.
For independent filmmakers who are trying to put important stories out into the world, digital release is a great way to get your hard work in front of people who can appreciate it and ingest it in the comfort of their own homes. If you work hard on a film, if you employ gaffers and camera operators and actors and rigging techs and cinematographers, if you make films for people to appreciate and enjoy, that make people think and reconsider the world that they live in, then YOU are a filmmaker, and you deserve to have you art mean just as much as Steven Spielberg’s.
Mr. Spielberg’s decision to go after digitally released films is a testament to how much of a hypocrite he has become in his age. He doesn’t care about the art of the medium, unless of course it’s his own. He doesn’t care about the fact that large production companies don’t often option films made by people of colour, or by women (SOURCE) (and in fact, he hasn’t actually worked with many of them over his long and illustrious career) (SOURCE)
Let’s call a spade a spade. Spielberg used to be an artist. He used to make films that inspired young people across the globe. He was an incredible storyteller, and now he’s stifling others from doing the same because HE wants to get paid.
The way we ingest media is changing. We watch more Netflix and YouTube then we do television. In fact, just recently advertising spend in the digital world out-earned advertising for television (SOURCE). Steven was one of the people who told Hollywood it needed to up its game back in the 1970’s, and almost single-handedly (along with Coppola and Lucas) changed the very definition of blockbuster. It’s a shame to see him leaving a legacy like this for himself.
Maybe it’s just my opinion, but Spielberg is losing touch with audiences in more ways than I can count. His last several films have missed the mark with young audiences. “Ready Player One” was expected to be one of the best screen adaptations in years, and audiences ended up walking away disappointed. Now he’s making a last ditch effort to save the theatre business as if he gives a shit at all.
In fact, Shia LaBeouf had this to say about working with Steven Spielberg for the cinematic classic (*giant eye roll*) IJ4: Crystal Skull.
“I grew up with this idea, [that] if you got to Spielberg, that’s where it is – I’m not talking about fame, and I’m not talking about money. You get there, and you realize you’re not meeting the Spielberg you dream of. You’re meeting a different Spielberg, who is in a different stage in his career. He’s less a director than he is a fucking company.”Shia LaBeouf (This quote is literally on Steven Spielberg’s Wikipedia Page)
Now, I grew up watching Jurassic Park on repeat. It was actually the first movie I remember watching in theatres. I was six. I was terrified. It was amazing. I think I wore out our VHS. But… there’s something gross to me about watching a so-called “artist’ whine about saving the theatre business, when the reality of the situation has far more to do with his self-interest.
Films in the digital space deserve the recognition of their peers and of respected critics. People who pour their life into their work deserve to have it seen. If Mr. Spielberg wants to stop art from being seen, than I ask he turn in his ‘artist’ card, because he has officially sold himself out to the point of no return. He’s a conman who got you to separate from your money ticket by ticket at a time. Which brings to mind a quote from yet another blockbuster film.
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”The Dark Knight – 2008, Dir. Christopher Nolan
Wanna support movie theatres? Go buy a $15 bag of popcorn. Concessions are literally the only thing movie theatres make money from. They have to hand all those ticket sales over to the production companies. They don’t see a cent of it. So, you see Mr. Spielberg’s claim that he was to reinvigorate the movie industry is just a thinly veiled attempt to get your butt in a $15-$30 seat for a couple hours where you’ll actually be worth something to him.
So quit sneaking in your M&M’s, or maybe let’s just allow the theatre business die. Doesn’t matter much to me.
I’ll be at home in my underwear marathoning Will & Grace on Prime.