OPINION: Spielberg is losing the Netflix debate


Cameron Hoover

Cameron Hoover

“Paddleton” is a damn incredible movie.

I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I first watched it about two weeks ago. It’s a small, contained movie. It tells the story of two neighbors who turn into unlikely best friends: There’s Michael, played by Mark Duplass, a middle-aged man dying of cancer, and his best friend, Andy, portrayed by newly dramatic actor Ray Romano, who hasn’t quite yet figured out how to deal with his friend’s mortality.

Besides those two, the film doesn’t really have any other main characters. There are no action set pieces or melodramatic weepy scenes where the music swells and the film tells you exactly what emotion you’re supposed to be feeling. For 90 minutes, director Alexandre Lehmann just shows these two friends existing, being who they are. The camera is more of a fly on the wall than a driving force of action. A majority of the film’s dialogue was improvised by the two leads, giving “Paddleton” another even more complex feeling of realism and authenticity.

We, the viewers, are just watching two men dealing with death from two angles in two very different ways, and when the film reaches its climax. “Paddleton” is art of the highest form in that it captures the human condition in a way not many films can, just allowing us to see the two friends and their emotions unfolding over time and developing as human beings.

On that same note, “Roma” is an even more incredible movie.

Director Alfonso Cuarón leaves his imprint on this film as a director, editor, cinematographer and writer, and his vision for it oozes from every scene “Roma” has to offer. The movie tells the story of Cleo, a rich family’s maid in 1970s Mexico. Cleo gets pregnant and the child’s father disappears from the picture, leaving her out to dry, scared in a world she barely feels safe in, let alone safe enough to bring a child into.

The result of Cuarón’s deeply personal, soul-baring work is what I called the best movie of last year. The movie shows Cleo in a light anyone can understand; despite the film being in black-and-white and in Spanish, there are universal truths everyone can empathize with, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religion or nationality.

Both “Paddleton” and “Roma,” in their own ways, elevate their medium to different heights, allowing accessible stories that usually don’t get told to be told to millions of people. A massive part of that comes from the fact that both of those films currently reside on Netflix.

Now, don’t get me wrong, as someone who loves movies, it’s impossible not to love Steven Spielberg. His works, mainly “Jaws,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Saving Private Ryan” played a formative role cultivating my taste for movies. But as he crosses the rubicon diving headfirst into his vendetta against Netflix, he comes across as an old man out of touch with the realities of the industry today.

For those who might not have heard, Steven Spielberg is afraid that Netflix’s accessibility and freedom to watch basically wherever and whatever device suits the viewer is going to ruin the cinematic theater experience. I get this sentiment. I had to watch “Roma” on my laptop, but I definitely would have loved to have seen it on a gigantic screen with surround sound blaring in my ears. The closest “Roma” ever came to where I live was about an hour away, and I was busy. It just wasn’t accessible in that setting, so I streamed it from home.

Netflix is shady about their algorithms and numbers, but it’s safe to say thousands of people experienced “Roma” the same way, thousands who wouldn’t have been able to see it otherwise. Netflix and other streaming giants, for better or for worse, make art more accessible for everyone, which includes film lovers and filmmakers from disenfranchised communities. The theater and studio experience is largely gentrified; most of the movies that come out of that pipeline, which Spielberg helped to create, are made by white men.

Pitch a movie like “Roma” or “Paddleton” to a major movie studio, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility for you to get laughed out of the room. Netflix, on the other hand, has a mind-boggling amount of money and seems to be willing to risk some of it on smaller passion projects for filmmakers who feel left out by traditional avenues of creating movies. Hell, Duplass even told Indiewire that Netflix is the only reason he can still make movies.

It hasn’t been into this as much as producing original content, but Netflix, once again thanks to its exorbitant, take-over-the-world kind of money, has a serious opportunity to curate older films in danger of being lost as time goes on, especially in the wake of FilmStruck’s death. (RIP.) I’m currently trying to watch all 27 James Bond movies before the next iteration next April, and luckily over half of those are on Netflix. Otherwise, they might be increasingly difficult to find.

I get Spielberg’s worries. Most of his movies are blockbuster experiences; The term was created with “Jaws” in 1975 because fans would literally line up around the block to see them. In a way, he doesn’t feel Netflix is threatening the future of cinema; he feels it’s threatening his future in cinema. With Netflix already teaming with auteurs like Cuarón, the Coen brothers and Steven Soderbergh, Spielberg isn’t necessarily fighting for cinema, but for the way cinema was. The theater experience is important, but so is accessibility.

Either way, Netflix is probably going to win this debate, and I’m not sure if Spielberg is going to look back and like what side of history he was on.

 Cameron Hoover is a film critic. Contact him at [email protected].