Donald Clarke: Is Spielberg returning to TV? Yes and no

The auteur’s Netflix deal is more a case of making peace with an evolving hybrid form

Before making an argument about a beautiful circularity in the film business, we should dampen down some of the overheated chatter about Steven Spielberg's new love affair with Netflix. If you only read the headline you may be under the impression that the great director met Ted Sarandos, Netflix chief executive, at the crossroads and sold his soul for a casket full of bitcoin. From now on, all Spielberg films will, the chatter went, be released on the dominant streaming service. Here ends the history of a medium.

The truth is less dramatic. Amblin Partners, Spielberg's production company, has signed a deal to deliver at least two projects a year to the streamer for an unconfirmed period. "It is possible that Spielberg may even direct some of the projects," Variety said in sober-up fashion. Dig deeper and you discover the company is not dissociating itself from the parent medium. Amblin, which also has a production deal with Universal Pictures, will maintain its offices on that grand old studio's lot in the San Fernando Valley.

The more Faustian version of the story seemed particularly delicious as, in 2019, it was reported that Spielberg had expressed concerns about Netflix releases competing for Oscars. This was, however, later denied. "I talked to Steven about this yesterday," Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder with Spielberg of DreamWorks Pictures, explained at the time. "He said: 'I absolutely did not say that.' "

Still, it would be wrong to suggest there is nothing to see here. Even before Covid struck, the industry was in a state of turmoil as it sought to accommodate the streaming revolution. Disney bought 21st Century Fox, partly to secure a tasty back catalogue for its Disney+ service. Amazon is seeking to purchase the venerable MGM. WarnerMedia is in the process of merging with TV company Discovery, Inc. Not since the great studios consolidated the American film industry a century ago have they been in such a state of churn.


Symbolic value

Amid all that shuffling, Amblin's deal with Netflix seems like a fairly modest rearrangement, but the symbolic value cannot be underestimated. Steven Spielberg is as much a creation of television as he is of cinema. Given half a chance, he will speak articulately of his passion for David Lean, Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick. But he grew up in the first golden age of American telly and it was the newer medium that gave him his first break. In 1969, still only 24, he directed Joan Crawford in one part of an anthology TV horror for Universal called Night Gallery. "It was immediately obvious to me, and probably everyone else, that here was a young genius," Crawford later wrote (no small praise from such a stern taskmaster).

He went on to direct the first, feature-length outing for Columbo, among the greatest of all American TV series, and further episodes of Marcus Welby, MD; Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law; and The Psychiatrist. In a rare blurring of codes, his brilliant 1971 TV movie Duel, in which a killer truck pursues Dennis Weaver, ended up receiving a cinema release in the United States and Europe. By the time he released Jaws in 1975, Spielberg's name was already one to conjure with. A year before that, his old colleagues at Columbo had named a child genius Steve Spelberg [sic] in his honour.

Return to TV

The temptation to declare that Steven Spielberg has, after nearly half a century, returned to the world of TV movies is not worth resisting. The comparisons are just too delicious. Yes, he has frequently come back to the smaller screen – working as executive producer on such series as Band of Brothers, Under the Dome and Taken – but he has not directed a television feature since Savage (among the most obscure titles on his CV) back in the flared wilds of 1973. It seems likely that, as Variety tentatively suggests, he will avail of the current deal to helm a TV movie for Netflix. You know? A TV movie like Roma or The Irishman or Marriage Story. Here is acknowledgment that a once-disdained medium has come of age.

No, the argument doesn’t really hold up. It’s not just that all three of the films mentioned above debuted at prominent film festivals – Roma won the Golden Lion at Venice – and went on to theatrical runs and Oscar nominations. We must also accept that the high-end streaming feature has, in its tone, ambition and production values, bridged the two media in a way that frustrates the definitions that served us in the 1970s. Spielberg isn’t returning to anything. He is making peace with an evolving hybrid.

Netflix will profit from the contributions of an established master. They still have deep enough pockets to employ a few more. But one question must nag at Ted Sarandos. Can his company discover and nurture a young auteur who the world could still be discussing in 50 years? When they manage that we will know the torch really has been passed.