Noah Brier | May 20, 2019

Why is this interesting? - The Oscar Debate Edition

On Netflix, The Oscars, and what makes a movie a movie

Noah here. Netflix seems to always be in the news, but it was a particularly big subject around Oscar time. Bob Greenblatt, AT&T’s new head of HBO said "Netflix doesn't have a brand” and Steven Spielberg started a campaign with the Academy to block movies made for streaming services from winning Oscars. Netflix responded with a Tweet:

Why is this interesting?

Spielberg’s stance is that films made primarily for streaming are television shows, not movies. In an interview a year ago with ITV he explained, "Once you commit to a television format, you're a TV movie. You certainly, if it's a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar. I don't believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination."

This came back to my attention because Felix Salmon (4/17 WITI on the Sacklers and philanthropy) pointed me towards the excellent Jason Hirschorn rant from the top of his daily MediaREDEF email on Friday. Here’s the bit that caught my eye:

A movie should not have to be in the theater in order to be nominated. The theater is a technology. It’s a format. It has nothing to do with narrative. It is not the artform or the artist. Merely a mechanism to display the work of art. I like movies in the theater better than at home. Your phone is verboten. When those lights go down, you’re in a different world for a few hours. I love the big screen. I love the sound. I love the suspension of disbelief. And for me, it may enhance a movie. But, again, it is not the art. And there are some ironies. Lots of them.

I have lots of thoughts. First and foremost, though, I disagree with Hirschorn that a technology or format has nothing to do with narrative. Marshall McLuhan and many media theorists after him have shown how a medium is far more impactful to society than a message. In fact, one of my very favorite McLuhan quotes touches on exactly this tension: “For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” It’s the medium that shapes the story, not vice versa.

To be fair, Hirschorn actually makes this point himself later on in the rant: “My bet is if SCHINDLER'S LIST was pitched today it's doubtful it gets made in the big studio ecosystem. Now, yes, having Spielberg may change that, but that kind of movie, sans explosions, is unlikely to come out into the theater ecosystem as the future progresses. If it does get made, it likely would have been released on Netflix. Oh, the irony.”

The reality is you can never pull those things apart. Technology, media, formats, or whatever else you want to call them, shape the content that fits within their bounds. To that end, I actually have a decent amount of sympathy for Spielberg’s argument. He’s right: a movie made for a streaming service is fundamentally different than a movie made for theaters. This will only become more true as streaming services continue to grow. If, as Spielberg seems to see it, Oscars celebrate movies in the classic sense of the word (a thing different than a play performed on a stage or a show viewed on a television) and he wants to continue to promote and reward those making them in that historical form, than the Academy should change the rules. Of course, if that happens, they also have to acknowledge they’re taking yet another step away from modernity, which is usually not a great strategy.

In a lot of ways this is just the classic story of each medium repeating itself. When a new technology comes along, people recreate the old content in that new channel: radio dramas were little more than plays performed without a stage, the TV nightly news was a visual radio broadcast, and so on. As McLuhan explained in Understanding Media, “A new medium Is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace. It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.” To say movies made for theaters versus streaming are no different is to ignore that we’ve already seen fundamentally new forms of entertainment emerge on TV over the last twenty years. Whether it’s HBO, Netflix, Prime Now, or even FX, many of these shows are much closer to thirty hour serial movies than the sitcoms or dramas that ruled TV for fifty years. (NRB)

Sabotage Tips of the Day:

I had forgotten about this until I was digging through my Evernote for something else on Saturday. It comes from the OSS (precursor to CIA) “Simple Sabotage Field Manual.” From the page: “This classified booklet described ways to sabotage the US’ World War II enemies. The OSS Director William J. Donovan recommended that the sabotage guidance be declassified and distributed to citizens of enemy states via pamphlets and targeted broadcasts.” It’s shocking how much this just sounds like every day at a big company. (NRB)

Quick Links:

  • If Noah intrigued you with that OSS tidbit above, highlight recommend the Wild Bill Donovan bio. The actual “most interesting man in the world.” (CJN)

  • A wonderful story on what it is like to live at Everest Base Camp. Due to the multimedia, this might be best viewed on a desktop or bigger screen. (CJN)

  • This distinction between instructions and coaching: “Instructions make you better at doing what you (independently) valued, whereas coaching makes you better at valuing—it cues you in to what’s important, at an intellectual or physical or emotional level. Coaching takes many forms—teaching philosophy is coaching, and I see my therapist as a coach of sorts—but one thing it always requires is the kind of time-investment that generates a shared educational history. Coaching is personal.” I will write a whole email about this at some point. Link via Benjamin Palmer on Ben and Colin’s Telegram Channel. (NRB)

  • I couldn’t quite fit this into the top section, but there was one other bit about how movie theaters are changing from the Hirschorn rant that was worth sharing: “I called my friend, legendary producer, and Tribeca founder JANE ROSENTHAL to discuss these ideas. She's always a great source and understands the history of things. Jane reminded me that in recent years the number of movie seats in NYC has plummeted. Not exact numbers, but here is a little tidbit of the hypothesis. Below 23rd street alone, minimum 5000 seats have been lost. Logic: a theater may have an average of 5 showings a day. 5 times the number of seats is your potential cume per theater. Theaters are closing. They are being downsized. Some are focusing on bigger seats. Some focus on revenue per customer with food, wine, etc.” (NRB)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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