First off, I want to thank everyone who has followed our blog over the past year. February was a busy month in terms of wrapping up one day job and preparing to move on to a new one, so High Contrast’s one year anniversary slipped by without any fanfare. I also want to thank our contributors for their work.
As we look ahead to what’s in store for our second year, we’ve been considering some changes to our format. For our first year, we took a try-a-little-bit-of-everything approach to see what worked. We definitely want to do more “Movies that Get Carded Now” installments, and I hope to do several more entries of “Auteur Replay.” The biggest change will come in regards to our recent release movie reviews. They are still going to happen, but with one change: We will no longer be reviewing films while they play in theaters. They will now coincide with a film’s first week of availability on streaming platforms. The reason, in no small part, is thanks to Steven Spielberg.
One of our greatest living directors, Spielberg has made headlines recently by championing the theatrical experience over that provided by streaming services. Marc Malkin of Variety reported on February 2017, 2019, that upon receiving an award from the Cinema Audio Society, Spielberg stated “there’s nothing like going to a big dark theater with people you’ve never met before and having the experience wash over you.” That belief, though not problematic in and of itself, has led the director to repeatedly take shots at streaming services and the films they carry. Then, after Green Book shockingly defeated Roma for Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards, Anne Thompson of IndieWire reported that Spielberg, an Academy Governor, had spent the run up to the Oscars promoting a vote for Green Book as “a vote for cinema itself.”
We at High Contrast have some feelings about this. First, Spielberg should have a little more understanding for directors who choose to distribute their films through services such as Netflix. It’s hard to get smaller independent films out there for a large audience, and that’s when the films are in color and the dialogue spoken in English. It’s no secret that Spielberg had to struggle to find a distributor for Lincoln. For a time, he thought the film would end up on HBO. But, almost certainly because he is Spielberg, he was eventually able to secure a distributor for his project. Not many directors can depend on their own last name as a valuable brand.
Secondly, it’s odd that in opposing Roma because it was not cinematic enough, Spielberg would choose to champion as the alternative a film that, from just about every technical standpoint, is no more cinematic than a made for TV movie. Saying Roma isn’t cinematic, so vote for Green Book, would be like if two years ago someone had told Golden Globe voters that Moonlight was too talky and too much like a play to be considered cinema, so they should vote for Fences instead (for the record, I love both Moonlight and Fences). There’s a reason, regardless of your stance on its other merits, Green Book was not nominated for Best Director or Best Cinematography. On both counts, the style is bland and workmanlike. It looks like a made for TV movie, and I’m not talking about HBO or Showtime quality. I’m talking about a CBS Sunday Night Movie. Given Spielberg’s line of thinking, it’s just laughable that the film he chose to campaign for was Green Book instead of, well honestly, any of the other nominees.
Finally, about that theatrical experience that Spielberg champions, I’ll concede that when what he’s talking about happens, it is truly remarkable. I’ll never forget going to see Dunkirk with Alex and some friends of ours the weekend it was released. It was spellbinding. The problem is, enjoyable theatrical experiences are rare. I saw about 35-40 films in theaters last year, and I can really only think of a handful of those that will truly be remembered as great experiences, regardless of how I felt about the film. To go to a nice theater, I have to burn up a couple gallons of gas to go to the Chicago suburbs, which is usually what I also have to do to see independent movies that don’t open in my town. I have to put up with annoying moviegoers talking through the film or looking at their phones. Theaters aren’t helping themselves either. My local AMC has noisy heating/cooling vents that drown out dialogue, projectors that are blurry or not formatted correctly for the size of the screen, bad audio, a thermostat set too high or too low, 25 minutes of trailers and concessions that, if Alex and I both want snacks and beverages, will cost more than my monthly phone bill.
Theaters have their place, and I don’t see them all going away anytime soon. If nothing else, fans of Marvel, animated films and even some raunchy comedies will keep them in business for years to come. But for people who like CINEMA, the art, the originality, the styles that masses used to actually pay to go see in the 1970s and earlier, that business model Spielberg keeps waxing nostalgic about no longer exists. I’m glad that he, the director of Ready Player One, is able to secure a wide release. Other directors of films that deserve a wide theatrical release aren’t going to have that luxury. Netflix and Hulu are great options for being able to deliver artistic works to a large audience. To his statement that such movies should only be eligible for Emmys instead of Oscars, I ask: Why not both? If a film adheres to feature length format and airs (on its platform of origin) without commercial interruption, why can’t it be eligible for both? The made for TV movies of years ago are rare now. The difference between cinematic films and TV movies has been blurred, and it shows in the craftsmanship demonstrated by Alfonso Cauron’s Roma, Joel & Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Dee Rees’ Mudbound. Spielberg, who is certainly not the only director with this anti-streaming view but is arguably the most powerful, just comes off as an out of touch grouch presenting a false binary.
Our move to only review films once they are available to stream is meant to push back on this binary. It’s also a concession that, after a year of chasing down films in theaters all over Northern Illinois, most people, even those who love cinema, can’t afford to do the same. Honestly, we can’t fully afford to do that. As people who also care about the environment and global warming, how is using all this fuel to see new releases consistent with a green lifestyle, when it usually only takes two to three months for new release films to be available on Vudu? The upsides to streaming are clear, and more audiences are siding with that option. Spielberg is going to find himself increasingly alone on this topic, and it is our view that he should.
My living room is dark. The TV is huge and clear. The 4K on Netflix and Vudu and the images provided by my Blu-ray player are brilliant and crystal clear. I don’t enjoy films less in that environment. We know many of you feel the same way.
We’re proud of the content High Contrast has provided over the past year, but we look forward to year two even more. Thank you for reading, and happy streaming!!!
Malkin, Marc, “Steven Spielberg Takes Veiled Shot at Streamers, Urges Filmmakers to Make Movies for Theaters.” Variety, 17 Feb. 2019, https://variety.com/2019/scene/awards/steven-spielberg-cinema-audio-society-awards-streamers-1203141954/. Accessed 28 Feb. 2019.
Thompson, Anne. “Hollywood Studios Won the Oscar Battle Against Netflix, but Will They Lose the War?” IndieWire, 25 Feb. 2019, https://www.indiewire.com/2019/02/the-hollywood-studios-oscar-netflix-green-book-roma-spike-lee-1202047272/. Accessed 28 Feb. 2019.