When a young director by the name of Steven Spielberg set his sights on breaking into Hollywood, he helmed a project which, to this day, hinged on the most contrary of premises. Rod Serling’s Night Gallery was a television anthology which revelled in macabre and at times absurd plots, ranging from a plantation owner’s attempts to exact revenge on his runaway bride using voodoo, to the unlikely romance which blossomed between a fishmonger and a vampire.
Spielberg, then just 22, found himself asked to direct an episode that was no less outlandish, focusing on a wealthy blind woman who blackmails her doctor into performing an eye transplant.
Night Gallery’s plots, it is fair to say, embraced the coarse gimmickry of the B-movie. And yet the show is rightfully held in high regard. The reason? It featured a roll call of talent coming to terms with the demise of Hollywood’s golden age and its longstanding studio system.
The likes of Orson Welles, Edward G Robinson, and John Carradine all featured in Night Gallery’s four-year run. As for Spielberg’s episode, the part of the cruel dowager was played by none other than the formidable, Oscar-winning Joan Crawford.
Years later, Spielberg recalled his first day on the set, where he was met by an antagonistic reaction from a grizzled crew. “In those days, the average age of a crew member was 50 or 55. They worked with all the great directors – Capra, Sturges, Ford, DeMille,” he said. “But I remember Joan standing up and saying she had great respect for me, and she asked the crew to treat me as well as they treated her ... I’ll never forget that.” In the end, a grudging respect allowed Spielberg to gain a foothold in the industry. He would go on to scale its heights, releasing a body of work which not only garnered critical acclaim, but rewrote the rulebook for how to market and brand the modern-day movie experience.
How disappointing it is then, that some 50 years on from his first job behind the camera, one of cinema’s elder statesman has chosen to speak so dismissively of a platform which offers a new generation of directors a chance to showcase their talents.
In a broadside against Netflix, Spielberg said the streaming service’s films should no longer be eligible for Academy Awards, and he plans to support changes to regulations which would disqualify Netflix productions from the movie industry’s showpiece awards ceremony.
Spielberg has previously said movies which are made for streaming services should be classified as television, a view which stems largely from his belief in the sanctity of the cinemagoing experience.
Only last month, he said that while he loves television, “the greatest contributions we can make as filmmakers is to give audiences the motion picture theatrical experience”.
He added: “There’s nothing like going to a big dark theatre with people you’ve never met before and having the experience wash over you. That’s something we all truly believe in.”
There should be little doubt as to the weight Spielberg’s comments carry. His CV means he automatically commands a groundswell of influence in Hollywood, but he also occupies a position of genuine power as governor of the directors branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. If it decides to endorse a change in the rule which would require eligible firms to receive a theatrical run of a month or more, Spielberg will be largely responsible.
Many people believe this would be a positive step, and their arguments are not without merit. Netflix’s vast marketing budgets – built on billions of pounds worth of borrowing – have a distorting effect, and its deluge of catch-all content can obscure those offerings of genuine quality.
But the cynical aspects of the Netflix model should not overshadow the good it has done for the film industry, and not just by delivering the multi-Oscar-winning Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s poignant black-and-white ode to his childhood in Mexico City.
What about the powerful Oscar-nominated documentary, 13th, about systematic racism in the US justice system, or Beasts of No Nation, a harrowing Golden Globe-nominated insight into the life of child soldiers, or Mudbound, the Oscar-nominated portrait of post-slavery US? Critical acclaim is not the only common thread linking these productions – they demonstrate Netflix’s willingness to take a chance on untold stories, and emerging talent, that traditional studios would deem too risky, whether it be in terms of their content or their commercial prospects.
As Netflix pointed out in a veiled response to Spielberg, it considers itself a champion of cinema, but it also prizes making cinema affordable and accessible, while providing more ways for filmmakers to share their art. “These things are not mutually exclusive,” it pointed out.
Neither is acknowledging Steven Spielberg as one of the greatest directors of his medium, while recognising that his views on streaming services are anachronistic.
The way we consume media has undergone an irreversible shift, and although there is no disputing Spielberg’s preternatural knack of understanding what clicks with audiences, his stance on Netflix seems misplaced and self-defeating.
An Oscar nomination can help attract new audiences to film they might otherwise have passed by – if Spielberg’s belief in the communal experience of sitting down in front of a 70ft-wide screen to watch a movie is so unshakeable that he is prepared to deny the legitimacy of films designed to be watched in living rooms and on iPads, he can hardly continue to call himself a true cinephile.
Perhaps it is time he remembered the wise words of Joan Crawford, a titan of Hollywood who saw one era give way to another, yet retained her faith in the thrill of the new.