Did another citadel just fall? Has another general just presented his sword in surrender? Steven Spielberg’s production company Amblin has signed a deal to produce multiple features a year for the streaming behemoth Netflix – which is precisely that small-screen player that Spielberg seemed to be rebuking two years ago when he proclaimed the importance of the theatrical experience and implied digital streaming content should not be eligible for Oscars. (Spielberg has since disputed the way his words were reported and interpreted.)
Well, now Spielberg has joined that other celluloid master, Martin Scorsese, in taking the Netflix dollar. Of course, this is not an exclusive deal: Amblin still has relationships with other studios, including Universal, and its own producing remit, after all, is for both film and television. It is also the case that Spielberg himself, though credited as a producer on them all, may not actually direct any of the films that are earmarked for Netflix. But it is still a mighty name for Netflix to have in the bag, and his prestige and the attendant coverage are still hugely important for the big streaming service, which is hyper-vigilant in its guarding against any slowing of momentum in subscription growth. We are, arguably, another step closer to the theatrical experience being just another aspect of the content rollout – a luxury loss-leader or promotional event, perhaps, while the main action involves consuming movies on laptops, tablets and even phones. Or are we approaching a postmodern cinema, which is a new version of its nickelodeon beginnings: watching flickering images once again on a tiny screen?
Just as with Scorsese, and his Netflix deal to make gangster drama The Irishman, there is a danger of too much cultural panic here. Streaming is a perceived threat, but TV is where most of us begin our love affair with the movies. Think of any great classic – and now think of where you saw it first. On the small screen, very often. Commercial television has been showing movies with ad breaks since the 1950s, without any great cultural brow-furrowing about this disrupting, fracturing or cheapening our experience of cinema.
And there is no doubt that the streaming giants are investing in prestige and quality. Twenty years ago, there was a strong sense that TV companies did not want to spend money on costumes or production design or “development deals” for screenwriters when they could get the same ratings by going to Magaluf and making reality series featuring drunk young people in swimming costumes. But now the TV companies are the driving force behind the sort of high-budget long-form drama in which there is real creativity and artistry. So it’s no surprise that Spielberg (who made his name with the TV movie Duel) should want to get involved; it’s surprising that it has taken him this long to do it.
The danger is, however, that so many eggs will continue to go into the basket of streaming television, while the cinema becomes the preserve of franchise tentpoles. And if the streaming services saturate the subscription market, income levels off, there is a big market correction and the Netflix/Amazon/Hulu gold rush comes to an abrupt end, many film-makers will find that the production companies to which they might otherwise have taken their projects have long since been starved into non-existence. But for the time being, there is every sign that Spielberg and Netflix will give each other the kind of oxygen they need to make movies.