Netflix scored a major coup on Monday by signing a multipicture deal with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners — just two years after the Oscar-winning director criticized streamers for ruining the “motion picture theatrical experience” with their eagerness to bypass theaters and release movies exclusively for at-home audiences.
“Steven was a vocal holdout opposing Netflix,” one top producer told TheWrap, offering praise for Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos. “You can bet Ted showered him with beaucoup money and controls. I scarcely think he’ll be answering to (Netflix head of original films) Scott Stuber. In one fell swoop, Netflix gets an A+ filmmaker name and silences a critic. Smart.”
Others, however, are skeptical that this move represents a huge change of heart for Spielberg, who told ITV News in 2018, “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie.” In that same interview, he said he didn’t believe that “films that are given token qualifications, in a couple of theaters for less than a week, should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”
A rep for Amblin said that Spielberg remains committed to the theatrical experience, and that this new deal doesn’t change the company’s ongoing production deal with Universal Pictures, which was renewed last year to provide three to five movies annually to the legacy Hollywood studio and its indie subsidiary, Focus Features.
What’s more, neither Netflix nor Universal will get a first look at the films — allowing the Amblin team to ramp up more production and pick and choose where to place each one. While Spielberg himself could direct a movie under the new Netflix agreement, it’s unclear which movies might go that route. It’s also likely that Spielberg’s next film, a semiautobiographical movie about his boyhood starring Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen, will still land at Universal.
As former Hollywood Reporter editor Matthew Belloni snarked, “LOL, this is a deal for TV movies, exactly what Spielberg said Netflix makes. Amblin’s keeping its Universal deal for theatrical movies.”
Still, Universal — and it nascent streaming service, Peacock — are undoubtedly losers in the arrangement. “It speaks to how out of touch Universal is with respect to streaming,” a second producer said. “Peacock isn’t cool enough for Spielberg but conversely, Stuber and Sarandos know that Spielberg’s brand will retain the GenX subscribers. His name isn’t as valuable with millennials or Gen Z.”
Others noted how much higher the bar has become for studios to commit to a theatrical release for upcoming titles — even ones with Spielberg as a producer or creative force. “Makes a lot of sense because the non-‘Jurassic World’/non-Spielberg-directed films that Amblin makes these days are simply not theatrically worthy films,” one top agent said.
Outside of Spielberg’s own work as a director, Amblin Entertainment has found moderate box office success with 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose” and 2019’s “A Dog’s Journey,” which have grossed a combined $280 million worldwide against a combined $41 million production spend. The production company has also had success co-producing Oscar contenders like the 2018 Best Picture winner “Green Book,” the 2019 Best Picture nominee “1917” (through DreamWorks) and last year’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
But on the flip side, Amblin also co-produced two of 2019’s biggest box office flops with “MIB: International” and “Cats.” And the horror film “The Turning” grossed a mere $14.5 million domestically in pre-pandemic January 2020. (Upcoming Amblin titles Bradley Cooper’s upcoming Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro.”)
Spielberg isn’t the first streaming skeptic to sign up with Netflix in recent years. One Twitter user joked that between Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Alfonso Cuarón, Zack Snyder and others all making movies for Netflix, the streamer seems to be collecting auteurs “like Infinity Stones.” Perhaps the company is just a James Cameron or Christopher Nolan shy of completing their gauntlet.
And many were quick to way in what Spielberg’s new partnership with Netflix might portend. “This is what the kids call ‘big,” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough added, while Wall Street analyst Rich Greenfield noted how the deal marked “quite a turnaround” for Spielberg.
Just two years ago, Spielberg told the New York Times that while he wanted “people to find their entertainment in any form or fashion that suits them,” he wanted “the theatrical experience to remain relevant in our culture.”
“I feel people need to have the opportunity to leave the safe and familiar of their lives and go to a place where they can sit in the company of others and have a shared experience — cry together, laugh together, be afraid together — so that when it’s over they might feel a little less like strangers,” he said. “I want to see the survival of movie theaters.”
Jeremy Fuster contributed to this report.