Over the past few days, Netflix and a faction of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences led by Steven Spielberg have been feuding over eligibility requirements for the Academy Awards. Spielberg plans to ask the academy to bar films from awards consideration unless they have an exclusive theatrical window before being released to streaming platforms, a move he is making at least partially in response to Roma’s Oscar wins this year. (Roma did have a three-week exclusive theatrical release, but only because director Alfonso Cuarón pressured them into it; other Netflix Oscar contenders like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs got one-week theatrical windows.) Spielberg reportedly plans to ask the academy to require a four-week exclusive theatrical release before a film is eligible for Academy Awards, which is not long enough to please the theater chains that refuse to show Netflix fare, but still long enough to price out a lot of independent films. The view from Steven Spielberg’s office has a few blind spots. He’ll never have a problem distributing his movies anyway and anywhere he wants to, but as director Ava DuVernay pointed out, Netflix has been willing to put money into the types of films major studios were ignoring:
It’s a complicated issue with good and interesting arguments on both sides. Preserving the theatrical experience—and rehabilitating it in places where theater chains have let it rot—is a valuable thing and worth fighting for; so is access to distribution for underrepresented artists. But there’s one thing we should all be able to agree on: This tweet from Netflix is absolute bullshit:
To be clear, not every word is bullshit. Netflix is absolutely right about the advantages of widespread distribution to places without theaters, and they’re absolutely right about giving independent filmmakers more outlets that might buy their work. But claiming that Netflix loves cinema is laughable. For one thing, every time a giant of the medium dies, it becomes painfully apparent that, for professed cinephiles, they’re unwilling to spend a dime to license the films that built the medium. They didn’t have a single movie directed by Stanley Donen, to pick just the most appalling recent example. But let’s stipulate that film licensing is a complicated morass of economic and legal issues, and give Netflix a complete pass on their library’s appallingly bad selection of anything made before 1980. It’s still obvious to even the most casual viewer that Netflix hates movies, because they won’t offer their viewers something that theaters, LaserDiscs, videotapes, DVDs, Blu-rays, and even Mutoscopes offered as a matter of course: the ability to watch a film from the first frame to the last. Take Pulp Fiction as an example. It’s undeniably an incredibly influential movie, essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand the indie boom of the late 1990s, and unlike most incredibly influential movies, it’s available on Netflix. One of the defining cinematic experiences of the ’90s was seeing Pulp Fiction’s interlocking storylines converge at the end for the first time, as Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer finally encounter Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta and the film’s circle closes. As Tarantino wraps up all his loose ends and Jackson and Travolta stride out of the diner, the Lively Ones’ 1963 song “Surf Rider” comes up, a lazy surf jam that is perfectly suited to sitting there in a daze untangling the film’s structure, which, for a first-time viewer, has only just become visible. Here’s how Netflix presents that moment to its customers:
I love Bojack Horseman, but that’s a desecration. If you want to actually view the credits of a film you are watching, at a bare minimum Netflix requires you to fumble around with your remote control until you explicitly tell it that, yes, just like every other movie you have ever watched with their service since the beginning of time, you would rather watch the entire movie than an advertisement for a television show. There is no option to disable this feature and watch movies in full on Netflix, despite years of customer requests ranging from the impolite (“FUCK YOU NETFLIX STOP CUTTING OFF THE CREDITS”) to the possibly eternally damning (“What ungodly thing must I do so Netflix plays credits?”) There’s no movie Netflix won’t ruin this way. Here’s their version of the ending of a film by their bête noire Spielberg, Schindler’s List:
And here’s the melancholy, thoughtful conclusion of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:
You get the idea. Forget about Netflix’s awful autoplaying trailers, ignore their intrusive “skip intro” buttons, overlook their dreadful selection: The post-movie daze, whether that means shuffling out of a theater in a dream or sitting on your couch letting the experience wash over you, is an essential part of the experience of watching a film, and Netflix will not allow their customers to have it at any price. That’s their prerogative: We’ve all lived with their vandalism for years and will probably continue to do so, just like we let TV networks shit on the people who make their programs the same way. And when it comes to Oscar eligibility, Netflix’s horrible user interface shouldn’t override the valuable service they are providing by widely distributing contemporary films other studios won’t touch. But until Netflix lets its customers actually watch an entire movie, no one should ever be expected to keep a straight face when they say they love cinema. If they won’t give us movies in full, they should at least give us a fucking break.