Steven Spielberg is wrong

About how Steven Spielberg is wrong

Steven Spielberg was interviewed recently (video at the bottom) about various things including the threat Netflix and other SVOD services pose to the movie business. Off the top, I will say that I’m a big Spielberg fan. From E.T. and Indiana Jones movies in my childhood to Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan in the middle and now I’m looking forward to Ready Player One.

Where I think he gets it completely wrong is in his perpetuation of the long-running class system within the entertainment industry that says that movies are — and always will be — better than television. In our new multi-screen world, those classes are downright anachronistic.

Thought #1 – Why does it matter ‘where’ I watch?

Let’s start with the notion that anything available on Netflix or Hulu is a “TV movie”. The term “TV” is still used interchangeably with both the appliance that sits in the living room and the content that appears on its screen. Spielberg says, “once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie”. What if most people are watching on a laptop? Does that become a “laptop movie”? Or a phone? Or a tablet? He says, “I’ll still make The Post for audiences, asking them to please go out to the movies to see The Post and not make it directly for Netflix”. Isn’t the goal to reach as wide an audience as possible? Financially, the theatre box office will deliver more revenue, at least in the short term. But look at what happened to the print media and music industries when they focused their efforts on protecting the short term legacy business. There are also many lessons from sports where it was once a hard rule that games were blacked out in local markets to encourage fans to go to the stadium. Now franchise owners make more from TV rights deals than any other revenue source.

Thought #2 – The line between movies and TV are all but gone

It was once true that there was a visible difference between the content you saw at a movie theatre vs. what you found on your TV. But of course the lines have almost completely disappeared in the 19 years since the Sopranos debuted. Speaking of Spielberg, I would have to say that Stranger Things was better than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. “The television is better today than in the history of television”, he goes on to say and also that the improvement in TV content “poses a clear and present danger to filmgoers” (by which I think he meant to say “film industry”). What he seems to stop himself from saying is that the quality of Netflix-produced content challenges theatrical movies. I’m not sure the audience cares about his distinctions anymore. We just want to watch great storytelling.

Thought #3 – The problem isn’t the content, it’s the industry

“A good [TV] show deserves an Emmy, not an Oscar”. The awards circuit is a major force in the systemic favouritism of certain types of content vs. others. At the end of the day it’s all storytelling using video. So Stranger Things shouldn’t be compared to Indiana Jones because the former has more minutes to develop characters, story, etc.? Is the only material difference between the two overall length? Then distinctions shouldn’t be made by where you watch but maybe by the format: long form, short form, episodic, mini-series, etc. Spielberg is right when he says, “I don’t believe that films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theatres in less than a week should qualify for Academy Award nominations”. But he says that as a shot at the producers gaming the system when in fact it exposes the underlying problem in an industry where great quality content is only trying to get a seat at the table.

It’s unfortunate that someone with such a big voice in the industry isn’t using it for change, but instead to circle the wagons around a system that is starting to break down.