What is a movie?
That question has taken on new relevance in recent days, as arbiters of cinematic taste and taxonomy have drawn uncompromising lines in the sand. Over the weekend, Cannes director Thierry Frémaux announced that films produced by Netflix and other streaming services would no longer be invited to compete at the prestigious film festival unless they committed to a French theatrical release with a month-long window before becoming available on other platforms.
A few days later,
As it happens, Spielberg made that pronouncement while on the hustings for “Ready Player One,” an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel that raises its own questions as to what we’re talking about when we talk about movies. For a futuristic story that transpires mostly in the world of virtual reality, Spielberg marshals animated avatars, first-person perspective and latitudinal spatial logic to create a big-screen video game, hauling viewers on a ride that feels less cinematic than a random series of nostalgic arcade attractions.
Larded with sentimental references to movies from “King Kong” and “The Shining” to “Star Wars” and Spielberg’s own “Jurassic Park,” “Ready Player One” exemplifies the inevitable point at which video games have finally internalized the production values of movies and movies have regurgitated back a visual language seeking to replicate the seamlessly subjective experience of gaming and VR.
But is “Ready Player One” any more of a movie than Dee Rees’s classic World War II drama “Mudbound,” which played in a handful of theaters while becoming available for streaming on Netflix? Or “Annihilation,” Alex Garland’s ambitious science-fiction thriller that opened theatrically in the United States but will be available only via streaming in other countries?
As a director who probably best personifies 20th-century American filmmaking at its most narrative and mainstream, Spielberg would presumably recognize both “Mudbound” and “Annihilation” as movies — or maybe he would call them “films.” It’s a distinction the director invoked at “Ready Player One’s” premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival earlier this month, when he greeted the enthusiastic crowd by assuring them, “This is not a film that we’ve made — this is, I promise you, a movie.”
That quip tacitly acknowledged a bifurcation — both artistic and economic — in the movie business that Spielberg himself helped create, when blockbusters like “Jaws,” the “Indiana Jones” movies and “Jurassic Park” led Hollywood to embrace a business model almost entirely dependent on effects-heavy tentpole “events.”
By “film,” perhaps, Spielberg meant something like “The Post,” the journalistic drama starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks that he rushed into production last year. As the very kind of
old-school, serious-minded movie that the special-effects spectacles constantly threaten to crowd out of the marketplace, “The Post” exemplified an alternative business model that has emerged, whereby the Oscar campaign and other awards-season events provide awareness for movies that otherwise might be lost in the superhero sturm und drang.
As a smart, well-written and acted movie geared toward adults, “The Post” also exemplifies the kind of storytelling that is increasingly migrating to traditional television and sites like Netflix and Amazon, where filmmakers of Spielberg’s generation are finding money, creative freedom and forgiving time frames that are scarcer than ever at traditional studios. Even as discerning a judge as Frémaux saw fit last year to include two cable series at Cannes: Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake: China Girl” and David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.”
He also programmed “Carne y Arena,” Alejandro G. Inarritu’s deeply moving VR installation about migration that can now be seen in Washington. It was their auteurist bona fides, as well as a nod to rapidly evolving notions of visual language, that secured purchase for these projects at Cannes. It’s the same elasticity that led Steven Soderbergh, who was so alarmed at the state of film that he retired a few years ago, to return, most recently with “Unsane,” a movie he filmed on an iPhone and is now being shown in theaters.
Movie stars such as Will Smith and Adam Sandler are bypassing that step entirely, going straight to streaming with their newest releases. Audiences are choosier than ever about what will get them to a multiplex, reserving their box-office dollars for horror films, comedies and superhero thrill-rides, happy to watch the rest on alternately enormous or palm-sized home screens. Meanwhile, like Justice Potter Stewart and pornography, audiences know a movie when they see one: A singular, self-contained aesthetic event involving sound and image on a screen — whether that event tells a recognizable story, evokes an abstract emotion, immerses us in a familiar or alien environment or simply provides a few hours of escapist spectacle.
Whether gatekeepers like Frémaux and Spielberg — as well as historians, critics and the Motion Picture Academy — are making new rules or distinguishing between “movies” and “films,” the impulse is the same: to maintain control over a medium whose definition and canon have gone unquestioned for the better part of the century and are now open to debate. The means of cinematic production were democratized with the advent of digital cameras; streaming platforms and social media could now do the same for modes of distribution and exhibition that are otherwise prohibitively expensive (at least if your name isn’t Spielberg).
That’s either a promise or a threat, depending on which side of the gate you’re on: Drawing lines in the sand can be futile when it keeps shifting beneath your feet.