Steven Spielberg presents: “Irony”


Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikipedia

Steven Spielberg has a problem with the movie “Roma.” Maybe not artistically — I’m guessing that he, like most people, liked it — but with who produced it and distributed it and how. And after learning about his objections to it, I’m choking on the irony of it all. 

“Roma” is a Netflix movie. It made a brief, small-scale theatrical run to qualify for the Academy Awards, but the vast majority of people who have seen it have watched it via Netflix, either on their TV, laptop or tablet. Spielberg does not like that what he considers to be a TV movie was eligible for the Best Picture Oscar for which it was nominated. He thinks it should’ve been up for an Emmy instead. I read this morning that he intends to use his considerable power to prevent that from happening again in the future by getting the Academy Governor’s Board to bar Netflix movies from Oscar consideration.

Spielberg has both aesthetic and business objections to Netflix flicks. On the aesthetic side, he is said to “feel strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation” as it relates to screen size, sound, and overall experience. For this I do have some degree of sympathy. I watch far more movies at home these days than I do at the theater, but I still have a soft spot for the moviegoing experience. If I am truly interested in a new release, I will make a point to get to the theater to see it. 

But I don’t have to. Maybe Spielberg assumes that those of us not rich enough to have a dedicated screening room in our Pacific Palisades homes are watching VHS cassettes on a 19″ Magnavox sitting on a metal TV stand, but the fact is that it’s not hard or even super expensive anymore to get a really nice visual and audio movie experience in our living rooms. I have a rather crappy TV by today’s standards — it’s an HD flat screen, but I bought it like 13 years ago and it’s not paired up with a big sub-woofer or surround sound or anything — but it’s still pretty good for anything but the grandest epics and most intense special effects-laden movies. For most movies I watch, including movies like “Roma,” it’s perfectly fine.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s grant Spielberg’s point about aesthetics. Let’s defer to his obviously hefty cinephile bonafides and grant him that it’s better to see a movie made for the big screen than made for Netflix. I’ll grant that because what I find far, far more objectionable are his complaints about the business side of this. 

The business objections of Spielberg and others on the Academy Governor’s Board to Netflix movies are varied. Some of it is just that they don’t like the money Netflix throws around, which is nothing I particularly care about. For the most part, though, Spielberg and his friends don’t like the way Netflix interacts with movie distributors and theaters when it does those limited theatrical runs required for Oscar consideration. Specifically, Spielberg doesn’t like the manner in which they rent theaters out instead of licensing films, which allows them to keep, rather than share, ticket sales, and allows them to avoid reporting box office numbers. In the aggregate, Spielberg’s complaint is that Netflix is messing up a well-worn and established movie distribution model. 

Which, when you think about it, is pretty damn rich coming from Spielberg. Because while I love a great many Spielberg movies, the guy’s business legacy is that he fundamentally altered the model of film distribution in this country which, in turn, had a massive and, many argue, negative impact on the artistic side of filmmaking.

Spielberg broke into the business as part of the “New Hollywood” generation of writers and directors who came of age in the 60s and who came into professional prominence in the 70s. These were young auteur-types to whom Hollywood studios gave unprecedented freedom and autonomy because, frankly, the studios were losing money, were out of touch with the prevailing culture and had no idea how to woo audiences anymore.

New Hollywood movies focused on characters — often characters who lived on the margins of society — over spectacle. They trafficked in dark and often violent themes. Plots and storylines were heavy on ambiguity. Happy endings were not necessarily, or even often, the order of the day. From “Bonnie and Clyde” to “Five Easy Pieces” to “The Godfather” to “The Conversation” “Nashville” to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to “Raging Bull” and any number of movies I could name in between, some of the greatest movies in American history were made during this period.

The distribution model of these films was radically different than what we see today. Whereas now films open in thousands upon thousands of theaters on a single day, in the 1970s, films opened in a handful of cities at first and were rolled out to other cities over time, allowing word-of-mouth and critical consensus to build. This helped filmmakers gradually sell what were often tough sells, artistically speaking, to audiences. It’s not fair to say anymore that certain things simply won’t “play in Peoria,” but it’s probably the case that it’s easier for things to play in Peoria if the people in Peoria hear that something played pretty well in Chicago, Indianapolis and Rockford a couple of weeks ago. 

Then in 1975 Steven Spielberg made “Jaws” and it changed everything.

Rather than rely on word-of-mouth, Universal Studios spent millions on a well-planned and highly-coordinated marketing campaign to promote “Jaws” before its release. TV and Internet trailers are ubiquitous now, but they were rare in the mid-70s. “Jaws,” however, featured a high-profile national prime-time commercial buy. The producers and the author of the novel on which the movie was based hit the TV talk show circuit to promote the film and the publisher of the book worked with the studio to ensure that the paperback version matched the film poster as a means of cross-promotion. The movie also had the most elaborate array of marketing tie-ins of any film to date, including a soundtrack album, T-shirts, plastic tumblers, a book about the making of the movie, beach towels, blankets, shark costumes, toys and games. 

More significant was the abandonment of the slow-roll distribution. “Jaws” opened simultaneously in hundreds of theaters across the entire United States. It was more than a movie, it was an event. It made a massive amount of money in its first weekend and, in so doing, single-handedly ushered in the Blockbuster Era. Today we take first weekend box office figures for granted as a measure of a film’s success — indeed, we deem a film a success or a failure based, almost exclusively, in how that first weekend goes — but we didn’t start doing that until “Jaws” came out in June of 1975. 

There is no question that the blockbuster distribution model makes way better business sense than the old way of doing things — studios are rolling in cash now in ways no one every could’ve imagined back in the 1970s — but it fundamentally altered the artistic and aesthetic sense of Hollywood as well.

Marketing is essential now in ways it never was before “Jaws.” It’s far easier to market spectacle and thrills than it is to market character sketches and ambiguity, so we get more of the former now than we do of the latter. It’s far easier to get people into a movie theater if they have a really good idea of what they’re going to see than it is to spring surprises on them, so modern marketing gives far more away about a movie’s plot than it holds back and sequels, copycat films and films with shared universes proliferate. People like to feel good far more than they like to be challenged so, while movies have always been about entertainment, the product is made to go down with a few more spoons of sugar than they did during the New Hollywood era. The “Hollywood Ending,” primarily a function of morality in the Golden Age, is now a function of test marketing and focus groups. 

Which is not to say that good movies aren’t made now and the the industry has gone to hell. There were a lot of truly crappy movies made in the early-to-mid 70s (we remember the good ones and forget the bad). There have likewise been tons of fantastic blockbuster movies that followed “Jaws” into America’s multiplexes, many of which form the cultural DNA of people of my generation and beyond, many of which were made by Steven Spielberg. And despite the now 44-year-long blockbuster mentality of Hollywood, there have always been a handful of good, small, dark, morally ambiguous or challenging artistic movies that slip past the beancounters every year. And yes, even a couple of those were made by Steven Spielberg. 

But it is inescapable that Spielberg almost singlehandedly changed the moviemaking business. He did it by basically blowing up one distribution model and replacing it with another and in so doing he fundamentally changed both the business and artistic sides of Hollywood. For him to now bitch that someone else is doing that is quite the damn thing. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.