Netflix Will Put Roma In Theaters Before It Streams. Will Oscar Glory Follow?
It may only be slightly more than three weeks, but those 23 days could mark a seismic shift in Hollywood. On Wednesday, Netflix announced it would release its three strongest awards contenders this year—Alfonso Cuaróns Roma; Joel and Ethan Coens anthology, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; and Susanne Biers Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock—in theaters weeks before they hit the global streaming service. (Roma will receive the three-week window, debuting on November 21 in New York, Los Angeles, and Mexico, while both Scruggs and Bird Box will bow in theaters one week ahead of their debuts, on November 8 and December 13, respectively, on the streaming service.)
It is hard to overstate how dramatic the move is for Netflix, which has until now resolutely stuck to its day-and-date strategy, which puts new movies on its platform concurrent to their theatrical release—if they have one at all. The move is aimed at appeasing the companys filmmakers, specifically Cuarón, whos been pushing for months for a significant theatrical release in advance of a streaming debut; its also an effort to connect with the moviegoing consumer interested in seeing a prestige film on the big screen prior to being able to stream it on a smartphone. Perhaps most crucial, it is a signal to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that Netflix is serious about awards consideration and is responding to voters whove insisted that the streaming service needs to offer meaningful theatrical exhibitions if it wants to be considered for Oscar gold. After all, its some of these same Academy members who have viewed Netflixs eschewal of exclusive theater openings as the demise of their very business.
“These upcoming engagements are following the success of our theatrical and Netflix releases of Private Life and 22 July,” Scott Stuber, head of Netflixs film group, said in a statement. “Netflixs priority is our members and our filmmakers, and we are constantly innovating to serve them.”
But is this enough?
Netflix has long enjoyed the role of industry disruptor—poaching employees from the more traditional studios; offering rich pay deals to marquee talent to lure them away from TV networks; and declaring that the subscriber comes first. Why, the companys logic goes, display its films anywhere else?
But Netflix also has Oscars in its eyes and ambitious filmmakers to please, both factors in its new strategy. While filmmakers may have gotten the cash they wanted upfront from the company, some have been left wanting for a big marketing spend or detailed information on how their films have performed on the service. One competing executive said the platform has a reputation as a place where “movies go to die.” Most crucially, the company hasnt been able to prove to its filmmakers that it can get them to the Dolby stage.
Netflixs first attempt at Oscar recognition was Cary Fukunagas 2015 harrowing child-soldier drama, Beasts of No Nation, which was shut out completely. (The film was one of the few to receive a traditional theatrical release from Netflix, playing in 31 theaters for two weeks only, earning a paltry $51,003 its opening weekend and a total gross of $90,777.) Its 2017 slate was far more successful when its Sundance acquisition Mudbound, from director Dee Rees, landed four Academy Award nominations, including adapted screenplay, cinematography, and supporting actress for Mary J. Blige. Yet, it couldnt squeak into the best-picture race, a development some chalked up to Academy bias against the companys business model.
Netflix clearly doesnt want that to happen again, especially with Cuaróns Roma, perhaps the best-reviewed film in the companys short history. The black-and-white memory piece from the Gravity director has already made the rounds at the major film festivals, and industry prognosticators have it neck and neck with Warner Bros.s box-office hit A Star Is Born in this years best-picture race.
Netflix has been working mightily since the summer to play its hot hand. According to one source with knowledge of its plans, the streamer first began meeting with the big cinema chains in Mexico to shore up theatrical support for the film in Cuaróns home country. Yet, despite meetings with Cinépolis and Cinemex, the efforts fell short because of the streamers refusal to honor a 90-day exclusivity window. Roma will now play in three indie theaters in the country and could expand further as Netflix continues talks.
The company also hired veteran awards strategist Lisa Taback and her team of Oscar whisperers to promote Netflixs slate to the Oscar-voting community. Warner Bros.s longtime former distribution chief, Dan Fellman, also came aboard as a consultant to usher in the support of theaters in the U.S. So far only the Landmark and iPic chains, and the IFC Center in New York, have agreed to play Roma ahead of its debut on the service on December 14. All three chains have previously played Netflix films while they were simultaneously available on the service.
“The issue of releasing high-quality movies in cinemas isnt an issue of theatrical versus streaming, its an issue of business models,” said John Fithian, the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. “The cinema industry would love to play Netflixs best movies in a traditional theatrical-release model. Our exhibitors play Amazon titles that way. There is no reason why they couldnt play Netflix titles that way, too. “
As a workaround to theater chains resistance, Netflix said it would also rent out theaters across the country, specifically those equipped with the latest Dolby sound and visual technology. By the end of Romas theatrical run, which will continue after it debuts on the service, it will have been available in more than 20 territories globally and in 200 to 300 theaters, including those in Los Angeles, New York, and Mexico, with some playing it in a 70-millimeter film presentation, the company said. (That theater count is larger than what most art-house movies receive from traditional specialty distributors.)
That may make Cuarón happy. But it remains to be seen whether voters will treat the just-over-three-week theatrical head start as a sign of real commitment to the big screen or merely a naked attempt to curry favor.
“There are the hardliners who will never accept anything other than a traditional theatrical window,” said one voter, who declined to be identified. “But there are also the more modern Academy members who are looking for the right combination [between theatrical and streaming], and Netflix has to find something.”
And while the Roma release is a radical departure for Netflix, it isnt a traditional theatrical release. The company will be shelling out all the money to rent out some of the theaters for a limited amount of time, and the streamer wont comment about whether it will report weekend box-office numbers.
To many in the Academy, this still isnt enough. “They have a significant contender with Roma and they need to get it right,” said another Academy member. “To me, its an issue. I want to see Roma desperately, but it better have a real theatrical commitment, not a trivial one, or Im not going to support it. Other movies will get my vote ahead of their movie.”
While voters seem destined to spend the coming months engaged in such a debate, well all get an answer on Oscar Sunday.
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