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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, March 05, 2019 1:00 am

Spielberg's no-Netflix-Oscars push draws ire

LINDSEY BAHR | Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – When Steven Spielberg speaks about the business of Hollywood, everyone generally listens and few dissent.

But reports that he intends to support rule changes that could block Netflix from Oscars-eligibility have provoked a heated, and unwieldy, debate online this weekend. It has found the legendary filmmaker at odds with some industry heavyweights, who have pointed out that Netflix has been an important supporter of minority filmmakers and stories, especially in awards campaigns, while also reigniting the ongoing streaming versus theatrical debate.

Spielberg has weighed in before on whether streaming movies should compete for the film industry's most prestigious award (TV movies, he said last year, should compete for Emmys), but that was before Netflix nearly succeeded in getting its first best picture Oscar for Alfonso Cuaron's “Roma” at this year's Academy Awards. Netflix, of course, did not win the top award – “Green Book,” which was produced partially by Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, did.

Still, Netflix was a legitimate contender and this year, the streaming service is likely to step up its awards game even more with Martin Scorsese's “The Irishman,” which The Hollywood Reporter said may also be gunning for a wide-theatrical release. A teaser ad aired during the 91st Oscars for the gangster drama said “in theaters next fall,” instead of the “in select theaters” phrasing that was used for “Roma.”

But Netflix also isn't playing by the same rules as other studios. The company doesn't report theatrical grosses and it's been vexing some more traditional Hollywood executives throughout this award season and there have been whispers in recent weeks that a reckoning is coming.

Now, Spielberg and others are planning to do something about it by supporting a revised film academy regulation at an upcoming meeting of the organization's board of governors that would disqualify Netflix from the Oscars, or at least how the streaming giant currently operates during awards season.

This year “Roma” got a limited theatrical qualifying run and an expensive campaign with one of the industry's most successful awards publicists, Lisa Taback, leading the charge. But Netflix, operates somewhat outside of the industry while also infiltrating its most important institutions, like the Oscars and the Motion Picture Association of America. Some like Spielberg, are worried about what that will mean for the future of movies.

“Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation,” an Amblin spokesperson told IndieWire's Anne Thompson late last week. “He'll be happy if the others will join (his campaign) when that comes up. He will see what happens.”

Netflix fired back late Sunday, without naming Spielberg, in a tweet that proclaimed the service's love of cinema and said it also loves providing wider access to movies and “giving filmmakers more ways to share art.”

“These things are not mutually exclusive,” Netflix said in the tweet.

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay tweeted at the film academy's handle in response to the news that the topic would be discussed at a board of governors meeting, which is comprised of only 54 people out of over 8,000 members.

“I hope if this is true, that you'll have filmmakers in the room or read statements from directors like me who feel differently,” DuVernay wrote.

Some took a more direct approach, questioning whether Spielberg understands how important Netflix has been to minority filmmakers in recent years.

Franklin Leonard, who founded The BlackList, which surveys the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood, noted that Netflix's first four major Oscar campaigns were all by and about people of color: “Beasts of No Nation,” ''The 13th,” ''Mudbound” and “Roma.”

Bloomberg contributed to this story.