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Spielberg’s spat with Netflix taps into fight over the future of movies

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Almost exactly a year ago, Steven Spielberg made it clear how he felt about Netflix muscling its way into Hollywood’s most illustrious event, the Academy Awards.

The streaming giant’s films are essentially TV movies, he said during a promotional tour for “Ready Player One,” and the best of them “deserve an Emmy, not an Oscar.

“Netflix, evidently, did not get the message. The company spent tens of millions of dollars on an Oscar campaign for Alfonso Cuarón’s sweeping drama “Roma,” and it finished the 91st Academy Awards with three major wins. And there are already signs Netflix will mount a similarly aggressive awards push this fall for “The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese’s big-budget mob epic.

Spielberg, who has said “the greatest contributions we can make as filmmakers is to give audiences the motion picture theatrical experience,” is not backing down. He is reportedly campaigning for film academy rules changes that could block streaming services from competing at the Oscars unless they give their movies a full-fledged run in theaters. In the eyes of many studio executives and multiplex owners, this is not some obscure bureaucratic squabble but a high-stakes fight for the future of the medium.

But the battle is not as clear cut as Netflix vs. Hollywood.

The tension and anxiety in the film industry blew out into the open in recent days, and some prominent industry figures came to Netflix’s defense. Netflix, for its part, appeared to fire back at Spielberg but has also reportedly considered appeasing some of its more vocal critics with more robust theatrical engagements for upcoming prestige projects.

The debate has been going on since at least 2006, when Steven Soderbergh became the first Oscar-winning director to release a movie in theaters and on television over the same weekend with “Bubble,” a low-budget murder mystery. The move shook Hollywood, and the Los Angeles Times asked the million-dollar question: “Is the great American tradition of going out to the movies on its way out?”

The film industry, more than a decade later, is still wrestling with that question. America’s theatrical box office was buoyed last year by a string of massive hits, including “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” and moviegoers have shown they will still turn out en masse for franchises like “Star Wars.”

But the long-term future of theatrical exhibition is far less clear. Netflix gives its more than 150 million global subscribers good enough reason to stay on the couch instead of heading out to the local theater, threatening what some top-tier directors consider a cherished American ritual.

Spielberg and Christopher Nolan, the respected director behind the “Dark Knight” trilogy, are part of a cohort of filmmakers who have championed old-fashioned theatrical moviegoing — widescreen projection, premium sound, large crowds gathered in reverential silence — amid the rise of digital alternatives and sophisticated televisions.

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