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What is a movie and who gets to decide?
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, Steven Spielberg told ITV News that he didn't think Netflix films should qualify for Oscars. "Once you commit to a television format, you're a TV movie," Spielberg said, adding that "if it's a good show, (you) certainly deserve an Emmy. But not an Oscar".
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 internalised 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' classic World War II drama Mudbound, which played in a handful of theatres 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?
Spielberg, as a director who probably best personifies 20th-century American filmmaking at its most narrative and mainstream, would presumably recognise 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 alternate 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 well-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.
This sort of elasticity 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 that is now being shown in theatres.
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, 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 story, evokes an emotion, immerses us in a familiar or alien environment or simply provides a few hours of escapist spectacle.
The means of cinematic production have been democratised 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.
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. WP