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?)