The Spielberg Vs. Netflix Controversy Is Really All About The (Possible) End Of Movie Theaters

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My earliest memory of being in a movie theater is filled with wonder and more than a little terror. I was 4 years old. Sound and imagery overwhelmed me as characters I had come to love were faced with death. I remember feeling like my head and heart might explode simultaneously. What 4-year-old contemplates death anyway? The cinematic experience was realer than reality — more vibrant, more visceral, more alive. I almost couldn’t take it.

The film was Bambi.

I’ve had countless other experiences in movie theaters that I would describe as … well, maybe religious is too strong, but they were certainly unforgettable. Sitting on my father’s lap during Return of the Jedi because I couldn’t see over the seat in front of me. Squirming next to my madly cackling mother during Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally … Feeling the electricity of a paradigm-shifting, opening-night screening of Pulp Fiction. Laughing with the drunkest movie audience I’ve ever had the honor of sitting with during Beavis and Butt-head Do America. Knowing I was watching a masterpiece while a packed house sat rapt during There Will Be Blood.

I know all about the (potential) magic of the theatrical experience. And I believe, at heart, that this is what Steven Spielberg is attempting to protect with his recent crusade against Netflix. The famed director plans to argue to the Academy Board of Directors that films distributed by streaming services shouldn’t be eligible for Oscars. If Spielberg gets his way, a movie like Roma, which just won three Academy Awards, in the future would presumably be put up for Emmys, rather than the world’s most famous cinematic honor.

But this power struggle, between the avatar of the Hollywood establishment and the upstart monolith with impossibly deep pockets, is about more than just an award. It ultimately concerns how we will define cinema in the 21st century — or if “cinema” will continue to be a discernible art form at all.

For Spielberg and many other cinephiles, cinema is defined in large part by where and how movies are viewed — in a movie theater, with an audience, on a screen far larger than the typical home theater. The theatrical experience, the argument goes, transforms the combination of motion, pictures, and sound in service of telling a story into an art form that is markedly different from watching a television show, playing a video game, or surfing the internet. Remove that experience, and cinema is … no longer cinema. Cinema suddenly resembles every other form of visual media.

I’m sympathetic to this argument. I also regard Netflix’s posturing as a benevolent patron of diversity striking out against imperialist behemoths with a heavy dose of cynicism. (If you really love cinema, Netflix, how about streaming more movies that were released before, say, 1980?)

That said … is it possible to agree with Spielberg and also believe that he’s fighting an inconsequential battle in a war that his side has already lost? Let’s assume Spielberg successfully beats back Netflix from the Oscar: How can it be regarded as anything but a temporary reprieve from inevitable technological advances that many viewers have already embraced?

That includes me, a lover of movie theaters and a prodigious streamer. In fact, I lean more to the latter these days. As a parent, I hardly ever go out to see movies anymore. When I do, I often fall asleep. (Cut me some slack: When I went to movies every week in my teens and 20s, I didn’t have small children waking me up every morning at 6 a.m.)

Now that Netflix is distributing films like Roma and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs — along with less artful but still buzz-y features like Bird Box, Set It Up and Fyre — it frankly feels like a godsend. It’s made newer movies more accessible, enabling me to see more of them than I would otherwise at the moment of their peak “water cooler” relevance. It’s also planted the expectation that I should be able to do this more often with top-tier releases from world-class directors.

I say this as a person who lived without streaming for most of my life. To me, going to a theater to see the latest talked-about movie still seems like the “right” way. For anyone born in the 21st century, however, I suspect this all seems far less logical. If you can watch these great movies at home, why not every movie? If we have the means to do it, then why not just do it? What’s with all of the hand-wringing about where we watch?

The backlash against Spielberg seems fueled, at least in part, by a generational divide over whether the boundaries fortified in the past by artists and critics between cinema and television and other visual media should still be acknowledged, now that films can be distributed and viewed in so many different ways. Again, to a person who has always lived in a streaming world, the distinctions between film, TV, YouTube, and even video games are less clear and meaningful.

My 6-year-old son is a product of this world, a culture of infinite, on-demand choices. (Try explaining to a little kid why a radio station won’t play the song you want to hear the moment you want to hear it.) He enjoys movies but he’s usually bored whenever I take him to movie theaters. Sitting in one place for two hours is too much for him. He likes the freedom to move around and play during a movie – or to watch something else if a particular film isn’t grabbing him.

If I grew up now, would Bambi have still impacted me as much as it did? I wonder about that. Either way, I’m going to keep taking him — and his younger sister when she’s old enough — out to movies until they refuse to go with me. I truly believe that I’ll have that option for years to come, regardless of whether Netflix is allowed to compete for Oscars.

What’s happening with movies right now reminds of what has already happened with music in the past 15 years. As a purist who still loves physical media and record stores, I’d long been wary of digital music, even as I used iPods and then transitioned to Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music. Yes, I have three different streaming services on my phone, as well as various archival live-music apps. I also continue to purchase vinyl and CDs from several different record stores in my community.

Cinephiles already experience a similar duality, as streaming takes up more and more of the mainstream audience’s attention. In the years ahead, most movie theaters will probably go the way of most record stores, particularly the corporate, anonymous chains that are equivalent to long-gone dinosaurs like Sam Goody and Musicland. But there will likely always be some movie theaters that cater to the aficionados who value the ritual of filmgoing, in the same way that some stalwart record stores exist for those listeners seeking a richer experience than simply queuing up Spotify.

Those who fret about whether cinema can exist outside of old-world movie palaces will take solace in the stubborn persistence of the album format, which remains a preferred avenue of musical expression even after technology was supposed to make it obsolete. I suspect that two or three-hour movies will be similarly enduring, no matter where people watch.

As a film fan, I’m excited about the possibilities for what platforms like Netflix can provide for audiences and artists, though I also hope that I’ll always have the option to see a film like Roma in a theater. I’m also fascinated by how technology will shift the meaning of cinema, even as artists are compelled by their love of film history to make their own versions of the films that moved them as children.

You can take cinema out of theaters, but you can’t take it out of our hearts.