As the streaming revolution continues to roil Hollywood, more and more filmmakers—including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg—are wrapping their heads around a surprisingly vexing question.
Gianluca Sergi has been obsessing about movies since he was a child growing up in Milan. Now a 54-year-old professor at the University of Nottingham, he founded a film club in his hometown when he was 13, moved to the U.K. for college in 1991 to study the subject, and has dedicated an academic career to analyzing the industry—specifically its social currency and power. The guy loves movies, and his enthusiasm is contagious.
After writing three books and presenting a new research project on film innovation, his work caught the attention of Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, who invited Sergi to present his findings at a board meeting of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences back in December of 2016. It was a particularly fraught time in the movie business: Sean Parker had recently launched his Screening Room proposition—a never-materialized concept that would have allowed consumers to watch new movies at home for a premium—and a string of sure-fire hit sequels and reboots had recently failed to connect with moviegoers. (Zoolander 2 was not a fever dream.) It seemed movies were once again doomed for extinction.
Sergi was brought in as a salve to the Academy’s wounds.
No, the academic said to his worried audience, the movie business wasn’t imploding. Rather, via his studies of ticket sales from 1980 to 1999 and again from 2000 to 2016, the numbers were relatively stable: 1.2 billion tickets sold versus 1.38 billion in the next 20 years. Rumors of the movie business’s demise were, yet again, premature.
In Sergi’s mind, movie-going had, in recent years, become an even more vital contributor to the overall health of society. His findings, based on user data published by the Motion Picture Academy of America, the National Association of Theatre Owners, the British Film Institute, and other countries’ film organizations, indicated that of the leading cultural activities, more people go to the movies than attend theater or dance events. While Sergi believed the business was still healthy, he warned that its demise would mean not just the shuttering of movie theaters, but a collapse of social mores. And this was even before Netflix declared its intent to spend $8 billion on content in 2018 alone. (The streamer actually ended up spending more like $12 billion in 2018, and could spend up to $15 billion this year.)
“That’s the bottom floor,” he said. “If you remove movies, people will be culturally starved. There is no country on earth that can afford that. It would be catastrophic.”
Sergi was so convincing in his reaffirmation of the work the Academy does that he prompted the group on that December night to create a task force to investigate the future of film. Headed by Little Miss Sunshine producer Albert Berger, the committee would be a study group of sorts, with the mission of speaking to various people within the Academy about where the business is going, and how they can adapt to the changing landscape. As audiences fragment, streaming services grow, and filmmakers experiment with format and form, it seemed as if this group might be able to define what even qualifies as a movie in our increasingly anarchic content economy. This was, after all, the body that oversees the various bylaws for Academy Awards. The question seemed destined to come up.
As of this week, they are still looking into it—though many thought the issue would come to a head last week, when the Academy met to discuss its bylaws. After all, rumor had it that Steven Spielberg himself was planning on proposing a rule change that would prevent films that are primarily streamed online from being eligible for Academy consideration—i.e. Netflix movies.
Hyperbole and rumor swirled around the situation, but it wound up being a bust: Spielberg didn’t show, a rule change was never even suggested, and the meeting ended as it started, with best-picture eligibility remaining as is.
“We recognize that if a film meets the minimum length of 40 minutes and theatrical-release requirements, that’s within our rules: seven days in the theater in Los Angeles County, then it is eligible,” said Academy governor Lois Burwell, who heads up the group’s award-rules committee. “The objective [of the task force], really, is to host discussions with Academy members to get points of view on the rules for Oscar feature-film eligibility and other topics.”
In many ways, the subcommittee has become the physical manifestation of the latest anxiety that’s swirling around Hollywood. While Avengers: Endgame may be pounding global box office records on a daily basis, large swaths of Hollywood are still consumed with how Silicon Valley is disrupting its business, stealing away its content creators, and eschewing traditional theatrical releases for direct-to-consumer hits.
Just look at Amazon Studios’ latest stunt with the mini-movie Guava Island, from famed disruptor Donald Glover. That 56-minute film debuted at Coachella before bowing for free on Amazon’s service, a scenario that never could have happened in a pre-streaming world. When asked for her definition of a movie, Amazon Studios chief Jen Salke said this: “Amazon customers love original movies. Whether they see them in theaters or on Amazon Prime, the same love and care goes into partnerships with artists who have compelling stories to tell that we can amplify across the world.”
But “amplify” doesn’t sound the same as “distribute theatrically.” Television, DVDs, even piracy didn’t kill the movie business—but maybe streaming finally will.
The signs of panic are everywhere. Take the recent hullabaloo surrounding Spielberg’s supposed crusade against Netflix. When the Academy chose not to address this issue, it made some in Hollywood wonder what the point of this committee and these studies were if the organization wasn’t grappling with its most crucial issue: the definition of a movie.
“I think it is absolutely the Academy’s job [to define a movie and establish guidelines], but they’ve been bought off by Netflix,” said one industry veteran who declined to be identified. “Netflix is to the industry what the drug companies are to Congress. No one wants to bite the hand that feeds them.”
It’s even vexing the likes of Martin Scorsese, who is currently prepping his upcoming film The Irishman—which will likely be the next touchpoint in the battle to get Netflix to seriously invest in the theatrical movie business. The 76-year-old filmmaker has been passionately preserving film reels for decades, but Netflix was the only studio that would cough up $125 million for his epic gangster film starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and their digitally youthened faces. He’s now asking for the town to be patient with the streamer as it figures out its business model, telling my colleague Yohanna Desta at the 50th anniversary of the Film Society at Lincoln Center this week: “They’re gonna work it out. I want people to be patient with them, because they need to try different things . . . argue it out, because it makes you think, ‘What is a film? And how should a film be presented, especially in a new world?’”
When Sergi made a return visit to Berger’s film committee last summer, he was asked to share with them his own definition of a movie. His answer was threefold. One: at least 90 minutes of content. (Sorry, Guava Island.) Two: a belief in standards, as set by the history of the medium. Three: Creation of a social contract between the patron and the exhibitors whereby in order to experience the film, you have to leave the house, sit in a dark theater, and commune with people you don’t know. (Namaste, Spielberg!) He sees that last point as the most crucial.
“That social contract is not required by a Netflix, an Apple, or a Disney+,” said Sergi. “Consider the fact that we live in a time when we are so divided. What are the opportunities for people to go and share a communal space and enjoy an experience together, without worrying whether or not you voted for Trump or for Brexit? Almost every country right now has a fundamental issue of a lack of social cohesion and a lack of opportunities where people can remind each other that, fundamentally, we love stories. We love laughing; we love crying; we are not aliens here. If you remove that element, if you say, ‘Cinema can die, it’s not a problem, we can still watch films online,’ what you are doing is, you’re removing the social contract—and you do that at your own peril.”
Pretty heady stuff for the industry that brought us The Emoji Movie! But really, movies are a perilous business that provide filmmakers increasingly more to fret about than their obligation to the greater social good. For most, funding is the central struggle, and the luxury of a theatrical release is becoming easier to forego if deep-pocketed streamers come along.
Jonathan King, president of narrative film and television at Participant Media, had a unique vantage point to watch the debate. Last year, Participant produced two best-picture contenders, Roma and Green Book, which had very different distribution deals. Netflix streamed the former, after a brief theatrical run; the latter went to Universal Pictures and a traditional theatrical rollout. This week, I asked him what a movie is.
“The questions about how movies are distributed are certainly valid for anyone who has a stake in the movie business as a business,” said King. “But for people who have a stake in making movies as creative endeavors, which first and foremost is what we do, our intention and how you are making it is paramount. That’s the only way I can answer what is a movie.”
King himself defines a movie as a piece of programming between 90 and 120 minutes long, told in one sitting, that has something on its mind, and something to say about the world at large.
“We make every movie as a movie,” King said. “Some we make with distribution in place. Some we make independently . . . but we approach them all with the same intention.”
All told, Participant has sold three movies to Netflix: 2015’s Beasts of No Nation, Roma, and this year’s Sundance debut The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. King said that all three were made with the same purpose: to back the filmmaker’s vision and what the movie has to say.
“When we premiered Roma at the Venice Film Festival before it was released in any form theatrically, I don’t think anyone looked at it and said, ‘That’s not a movie,’” said King. “When Alfonso [Cuarón] said ‘I’m ready,’ and I flew from my vacation back east to a screening room in Los Angeles, before we decided what we were going to do about its distribution, I saw a gorgeous and moving piece of art. And it was a movie.”
Sergi doesn’t consider Netflix to be a force of evil in this business. Rather, he believes Netflix likely encourages more people to see movies because it fosters an appetite for film. It’s the same counter-intuitive notion that produced the phenomenon back in 2009 that made Avatar simultaneously the highest-grossing movie in the world and the most pirated movie in the world. He hopes to return to the Academy in October, armed with new data about how the audience for theatrical exhibition is narrowing in tandem with the kinds of films studios are releasing in the theaters, a fact that concerns him greatly. Adding to that worry is the U.S.’s stagnating minimum wage and rising cost of movie tickets. That will further narrow audiences, he said.
These topics remain areas of interest for the Academy. And the group intends to keep listening, said Burwell. But taking action is a much more challenging proposition, considering the organization’s last few efforts to make changes have gone terribly wrong.
“People are tired of the debate, and wanted to give it a break,” said the industry veteran. “There are still constituents on both sides of the fight, but I don’t know which way a new vote would go.”
Until then, grab a friend and head to the movies. Our very future may depend upon it.
What are your thoughts??