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Peter Bart: In Forging New Netflix Deal, Will Spielberg Find Himself Revisiting Old DreamWorks Dilemmas?

·8 min read

A man of formidable ego, Samuel Goldwyn once confided that, while he’d basically invented Hollywood, he disliked the word “movie.” It sounded “dopey and made-up,” he told me.

I wonder what he would think about the word “streamer.” Dictionaries still describe “streamer” as a strip of material, but the word defines Hollywood today, just as “movie” once did. It’s a streamer town, and it’s now Steven Spielberg who’s been positioned to help drive the action.

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Last week when Netflix revealed its new mega-deal with Spielberg, the town’s dealmakers (including rivals) agreed it was a “natural.” The filmmaker who gave us Schindler’s List and Jaws would help fulfill Netflix’s voracious appetite for content. Any content. After all, Spielberg had done it all before – that is, before streamers even happened.

When Netflix decided a decade ago that it would “create” product, rather than overpay to acquire it, House of Cards became a brilliant accident of TV history. It might still command its audience had Kevin Spacey, its star, not self-immolated in 2018.

<img class="size-medium wp-image-1202055883" src="; alt="War Machine - Credit: Netflix" width="300" height="200" srcset=" 4000w,,100 150w,,200 300w,,683 1024w,,1024 1536w,,1366 2048w,,420 630w,,40 60w,,235 352w,,600 900w,,73 110w,,190 285w,,213 320w,,427 640w,,533 800w,,853 1280w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" />Netflix

When Scott Stuber became Netflix’s movie czar a couple of years ago, he struggled to mobilize his feature slate, announcing dark titles including Our Souls at Night, First They Killed My Father (from Angelina Jolie) and War Machine. Between 2016 and 2021 Netflix turned out 133 movies for its fast-expanding subscriber list.

There have been conflicting assessments of their impact. According to a study by Ampere Analysis reported in The Wall Street Journal, Netflix original films on average registered a low-to-middling score on the Rotten Tomatoes scale. Consumers also seemed to lose interest in them faster than in movies made by major studios for theatrical release, turning them off more quickly.

To be sure, Netflix films won some nominations for filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuarón. By contrast, however, the less-ambitious films from Disney, including from its Marvel franchise, scored superior ratings from both audience samplings and even critics.

The analysis asked, “Is Streaming Making Movies Worse?” The answer was a tentative “yes,” though it’s clearly too early in the game for serious judgment.

None of this should come as a surprise to Spielberg, who encountered similar challenges in co-founding DreamWorks in 1994. In building a new studio from scratch, Spielberg and his then-partners, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, lacked a strong library or a list of franchises or even filmmaker deals. Like Netflix, the new company said it hoped to offer a mix of product, including some animation. The aim, to be sure, was to sell tickets, not build subscriber lists.

<img class="size-medium wp-image-1234785187" src="; alt="Small Soldiers - Credit: DreamWorks/Everett Collection" width="300" height="197" srcset=" 2669w,,99 150w,,197 300w,,673 1024w,,1010 1536w,,1347 2048w,,39 60w,,231 352w,,72 110w,,187 285w,,210 320w,,421 640w,,526 800w,,842 1280w" sizes="(max-width: 300px) 100vw, 300px" />DreamWorks/Everett Collection

The upshot was an array of features that resembled a “period” version of Netflix streamers. The DreamWorks list offered titles like Small Soldiers, Mask of Zorro, The Peacemaker, Mouse Hunt, Sinbad, etc. The list also embraced one lonely award winner, American Beauty, from a young director named Sam Mendes and starring Kevin Spacey.

Encountering Spielberg at an industry event in 1997, I could not resist chiding him about the worried look on his face. He was editing Saving Private Ryan at the time, but he explained that he was not at all fretful about this complex and expensive war movie, which was coming together on schedule. “What’s frustrating me is the lousy release date for my Small Soldiers,” he explained, citing a film he had executive produced, not directed. “’The distribution types keep telling me that the pipeline is too crowded.”

I appreciated his honesty but could not suppress my surprise. Why was this much-honored director taking time out from editing to pursue the release of a small science fiction effort? “I love movies,” Spielberg explained with a tight smile. “It’s good for my head to be involved in a range of titles.”

<img class="wp-image-1201878780 " src="; alt="Saving Private Ryan - Credit: Dreamworks SKG" width="325" height="180" srcset=" 1872w,,83 150w,,166 300w,,567 1024w,,850 1536w,,70 125w,,212 380w,,112 200w,,33 60w,,195 352w,,61 110w,,158 285w,,177 320w,,354 640w,,443 800w,,708 1280w" sizes="(max-width: 325px) 100vw, 325px" />Dreamworks SKG

Saving Private Ryan opened to worshipful reviews before a worldwide audience. Small Soldiers was quickly forgotten. The film likely will re-appear someday as a streamer. That would please Spielberg.

Under his new deal with Netflix, he will re-deploy his talent for summoning up titles for his vast new audience. The Spielberg logo surely will be a lure to potential subscribers. For a time it seemed to work for DreamWorks, which, however, shortly became a pure animation company.

Samuel Goldwyn might well have asked whether Spielberg was really making movies or was pre-imagining his slate of streamers. It’s now a streamer town, as everyone agrees.

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