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Why Steven Spielberg’s Netflix deal is not as groundbreaking as Netflix wants you to think

The famed director’s 180-degree shift to make movies for Netflix doesn’t actually upend his devotion to theatrical projects.

Why Steven Spielberg’s Netflix deal is not as groundbreaking as Netflix wants you to think
[Photo: y Rich Fury/Getty Images]
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On Monday, June 21, Netflix generated the kind of headline-grabbing news that the streamer is famous for when it announced a deal with Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Partners. Just like that, the world’s biggest filmmaker had joined the Netflix mothership, a development that the media touted as nothing short of world-changing. Netflix is in the Steven Spielberg business!

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Even more remarkable: Not all that long ago—in 2018—Spielberg drew a line in the sand when it came to making movies for streaming companies, saying that those films “deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar.”    

As one producer put it: “Steven was a loud naysayer opposing Netflix. In one flick of the pen, Netflix gets the major filmmaker of our time and silences a critic. Genius.”

It certainly sounds genius. Netflix, which has committed to making 60 movies this year, suddenly has a marquee name to help bolster production and draw subscribers as it fends off competition from Disney Plus and HBO Max. And not just any marquee name, but one that resonates internationally as few such directors can, and will excite members from France to South Korea. Although the company has been aggressive about luring Hollywood’s top TV showrunners, such as Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, most of the high-profile filmmakers who have made movies for the platform have done so on a film-by-film basis. Martin Scorsese, who directed and produced The Irishman for Netflix, has a first-look deal with Apple.  

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But what exactly is Netflix getting? Amblin, after all, already has a theatrical output deal with Comcast-owned Universal, which is releasing the upcoming Jurassic World: Dominion, in 2022. Universal’s sibling division, Focus Features, meanwhile, is releasing Amblin’s Stillwater, starring Matt Damon, at the Cannes Film Festival next month. As for Spielberg and the movies he directs, he has never been one to be tied down to any single studio. His next film, West Side Story (slated for release on December 10, 2021), is for Disney. 

Universal’s deal with Amblin, as reports made clear (well below the headlines), is not in any way affected by the Netflix news. In other words, Universal will continue to release Amblin movies. So which ones will go to Netflix? It’s up to Amblin, a situation that underscores Spielberg’s long-standing position as Hollywood’s creative king. Reports also didn’t specify how many films Amblin will be making for Netflix, settling on the term multiple to describe the arrangement—which will last for who knows how many years. And how much is it worth? No idea. But given the types of deals Spielberg demands and is accustomed to: a lot.

Another assumption is that Amblin will assist Netflix in its hunt for more Oscars; it has yet to nab a Best Picture win despite throwing oodles of money at campaigns for everything from Roma to Mank. Amblin, after all, was behind Best Picture winner Green Book, and 1917, which won three golden statues. Most recently, the company produced The Trial of the Chicago 7—which Netflix released.

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But based on conversations with insiders close to the deal, the notion that Amblin will be sending its most prestigious movies—let alone the ones that Spielberg himself directs—to Netflix is questionable. Recall that The Trial of the Chicago 7  was sold by Paramount to Netflix at the height of the pandemic. And a Spielberg biopic that’s in the works—written by Tony Kushner (who wrote Spielberg’s Munich and Lincoln), with Spielberg directing—is already said to be headed to Universal. 

“When Steven wants something handled with care,” said one, “those will go theatrical. Netflix is getting (the film equivalent of) ‘Steven Spielberg Presents”—a reference to TV shows that Spielberg has produced over the years, including Amazing Stories, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Taken.  

More than anything, the deal gets Amblin into the streaming business, which “they thought they were losing out on,” said another source. It also gives the company a place to put movies that don’t fall into the blockbuster bucket that’s so crucial to Universal’s business model. So if Spielberg wants to make an arty film one year? Hello, Netflix. Ditto for all the Amblin movies that fall into the good, but not great category (note that the company’s credits also include Cats, The House With a Clock in Its Walls, Men in Black: International, and The BFG).

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Meanwhile, Netflix gets to have splashy premieres and build marketing around Spielberg’s name, regardless of how much he actually has to do with the film. And this week, it gets a great press release. 

About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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