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Justice Department Joins The Cast Of Those Debating What Makes A Movie


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is trying to define what is a movie, and now an unexpected voice has weighed in, the U.S. Department of Justice.

Here's a story. Some filmmakers, like Steven Spielberg, argue that if a film doesn't have an exclusive run in a movie theater, it shouldn't be eligible for awards like Oscars. On the other side of the debate are streaming services, like Hulu and Netflix, which produced "Roma," winner of several Oscars this year.

To explain what the Department of Justice has to do with all this, Kim Masters of the Hollywood Reporter joins us. Hi, Kim.

KIM MASTERS: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: So the Justice Department sent a letter to the academy. Variety got ahold of it. Explain why the U.S. Department of Justice is joining the debate over what makes a movie.

MASTERS: I cannot explain that, Ari. I don't know. It is odd.

I mean, the Justice Department is saying that this is some kind of an antitrust problem, which would be anti-competitive, which would suggest, I guess, in this scenario, that streaming services are going to be the victim of some kind of anti-competitive effort by the studios to shut them out of Academy Awards.

SHAPIRO: Which is a little bit surprising because there was this big Fox-Disney merger, where the Justice Department did not intervene. Is it obvious that this would be something they would weigh in on?

MASTERS: Not really. I mean, the Justice Department decided to fight AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner. That was reported to be politically motivated because Donald Trump doesn't care for CNN, which is part of Time Warner. They certainly fought it out, and they lost every step of the way.

And meanwhile, as you say, a huge entertainment company buying another huge entertainment company - Disney buying Fox, which, of course, is the Rupert Murdoch-owned entity - that didn't raise any eyebrows at the Justice Department. So now they're back, and they are concerned about the academy and Academy Awards.

SHAPIRO: This tension between movie studios and Netflix has been building for a long time. Explain the fault lines.

MASTERS: Well, a lot of people - it's not just the studios. I mean, I'll point out that the academy is not an organization of studios. That's the Motion Picture Association. The academy is made up of people who make movies. You know, the biggest component is actors.

A lot of people feel that they want the theatrical experience to be preserved - that they don't want every, quote, "movie," close quote, to be available for you to stream in your living room the day of its release. That is the Netflix model. That's what Netflix has fought for. Now, we saw this last go-round with "Roma." Netflix wants awards as well. You know, they want all the eyeballs and awards.

SHAPIRO: So they did release "Roma" briefly in theaters, just to qualify.

MASTERS: Well, they released it because Alfonso Cuaron, that auteur director of "Roma" with whom they wanted to be in business, basically said, it's my way, or forget it. And Netflix bent to his will.

So we are seeing the studios - and not just Netflix. Obviously, Amazon and Apple is getting into the game. They're in a big battle for eyeballs. But at the root of it for a lot of people who are moviemakers is the idea of preserving the theatrical window, and maybe not just for, you know, "Captain Marvel" or comic book movies.

SHAPIRO: How much weight do you think the Justice Department will have here?

MASTERS: I have to say, from where I'm sitting, with the reaction I'm hearing, I think that people think it looks a bit foolish. You know, Netflix can continue to exist if it doesn't have an Oscar, or if it just has to release movies in theaters to compete like the studios do.

SHAPIRO: That's Kim Masters, who hosts The Business on member station KCRW. Thanks, Kim.

MASTERS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARION BROWN'S "MAIMOUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.