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Steven Spielberg signs deal with Netflix in latest sign of evolving Hollywood

The deal represents a major victory for Netflix, which needs A-list talent on its roster to fend off growing competition from streaming rivals.
Image: Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg on stage during the Academy Awards at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood on Feb. 9, 2020.Craig Sjodin / ABC via Getty Images file

Steven Spielberg, a Hollywood titan synonymous with larger-than-life spectacle, cherishes the big-screen experience and traditional movie theaters.

"I want to see the survival of movie theaters. I want the theatrical experience to remain relevant in our culture," he told The New York Times in 2019.

But in a clear sign of the times, Spielberg's company, Amblin Partners, announced Monday it has signed a multiyear deal to make feature films annually for the streaming powerhouse Netflix.

Amblin, named for a 1968 short film by Spielberg, will continue to make movies for Universal Pictures. In recent years, Universal distributed high-profile Amblin projects such as "Green Book" and "1917." (Universal Pictures is a unit of NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)

“At Amblin, storytelling will forever be at the center of everything we do, and from the minute Ted and I started discussing a partnership, it was abundantly clear that we had an amazing opportunity to tell new stories together and reach audiences in new ways,” Spielberg said in a statement Monday, referring to Ted Sarandos, the co-chief executive of Netflix.

The agreement does not specifically mention that Spielberg will direct movies for Netflix, although Variety said that was a possibility. Spielberg's next project is a remake of the classic musical "West Side Story" that will debut theatrically in December via the Disney-owned label 20th Century Studios.

The deal represents a major victory for Netflix, which needs A-list talent on its roster to fend off growing competition from streaming rivals such as Disney Plus and grow its base of more than 200 million global subscribers. The pact also signals that Spielberg's alleged feud with Netflix has cooled — or perhaps that the rift was overstated in the first place.

In early 2019, Spielberg was reportedly looking to propose rule changes that would bar movies that are mainly distributed on digital platforms from competing at the Academy Awards. The reports created the impression that the Oscar-winning director was anti-streaming.

But in the end, the celebrated filmmaker behind "Schindler's List" and "Jurassic Park" did not urge the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to revise its eligibility policies. He eventually clarified his views to The New York Times, saying that while he believed in the power of the big-screen experience, he was ultimately agnostic on the question of where people watch entertainment.

“Big screen, small screen — what really matters to me is a great story and everyone should have access to great stories," he said in an email to the newspaper.

"However, I feel people need to have the opportunity to leave the safe and familiar of their lives and go to a place where they can sit in the company of others and have a shared experience — cry together, laugh together, be afraid together — so that when it’s over they might feel a little less like strangers," he added.

Netflix debuts most of its original films online, but certain projects directed by big-name auteurs have received limited theatrical engagements lasting a week or more, including Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman" and Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story," both released in 2019.

The boundaries traditionally separating the theatrical experience and on-demand streaming became increasingly blurred during the Covid-19 pandemic. Warner Bros. Pictures decided to release all its 2021 titles simultaneously in theaters and on the streaming service HBO Max, including upcoming blockbusters such as "Dune" and the fourth installment in the "Matrix" series.

Spielberg and Netflix technically worked together during the pandemic on the Aaron Sorkin drama "The Trial of the Chicago 7." The film, co-produced by Amblin, was sold to Netflix by Paramount Pictures after the coronavirus shuttered movie theaters across the U.S. (Amblin has also co-produced television content for Netflix and other streamers, including the horror anthology series "The Haunting.")

“Steven is a creative visionary and leader and, like so many others around the world, my growing up was shaped by his memorable characters and stories that have been enduring, inspiring and awakening," Sarandos said in a statement Monday. "We cannot wait to get to work with the Amblin team and we are honored and thrilled to be part of this chapter of Steven’s cinematic history.”