by Gary Meyer
The film industry is watching closely to see if Alfonso Cuarón’s ROMA changes everything. The award-winning director clearly made his movie to be seen on the big screen in theaters with the best possible sound and projection. But it was financed by Netflix, a company that wants their films and shows to only be seen on their streaming platform.
They have been willing to show selected features at film festivals and in a few cinemas to get a buzz started and qualify for the Academy Awards. Cuarón was assured his movie would get a proper theatrical release but many other directors have been told the same thing and it barely happened if at all.
ROMA has received almost unanimous raves since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Netflix felt this might be their chance to win major Oscars and decided to mount something different than they have done before. Though not happy with the prospect of showing it in cinemas, highly respected film distribution expert Dan Fellman and Oscar marketing superstar Lisa Tayback were hired and convincingly argued for the importance of a proper release. Not so easily done as several of the world’s largest theater circuits refuse to show movies without a 90 day exclusive theatrical window before streaming. In Cuarón’s home country, Mexico where the film is set, the largest circuits also refused. This was a potential boon for many independent art cinemas who were open to showing ROMA. Not all agreed and there has been controversy within that community. But many who booked it have had long and successful engagements.
Tayback’s company LT-LA was bought out by Netflix so she and her team would have no distractions in their quest to leave nothing to chance. She has obtained amazing press coverage (though she prefers to be out of the spotlight herself— the New York Times did a front page article about her campaign) and the media has not challenged Netflix despite reporting some questionable numbers of viewers for selected films on Netflix. Generally they do not report numbers except when they want to impress everybody. The theaters showing Netflix films are not allowed to report their box office receipts to the service that tracks grosses. Attendance has been speculated based on advance ticket sales.
Netflix has sent gifts, including a box of Oaxacan dark chocolates with a note signed by Yalitza Aparicio, the actress who plays the nanny Cleo in the movie, a glossy $175 ROMA coffee-table book, and a ROMA poster signed by Cuarón, rolled or framed per the recipient’s preference. There was a ROMA immersive experience on a Hollywood production stage and Netflix hosted cocktail parties celebrating the film– by Angelina Jolie hosted one. They have purchased an incredible amount of ads—billboards, newspapers, magazines, digital and television including a two-minute commercial on CBS Sunday Morning, rumored to have cost $170,000. Though the media reports the campaign has cost $25 million, an insider tells me it is closer to $50 million.
Getting Academy voters to see ROMA on the big screen is an essential part of the strategy. Anecdotally many people from voters to the general public report turning off ROMA on Netflix after fifteen minutes because it is a black and white, subtitled art film with an arty slow opening. But see it on the big screen (in 70mm if possible) with great sound (preferably Dolby Atmos) and it is immersive, powerful and clearly a work of art. I saw an advance screening in September at the Dolby Theater in San Francisco and it can’t get much better than that. We talked about it over dinner for several hours.
There are a lot of people who are conflicted about the awards, myself included. I love ROMA and the filmmaking of Alfonso Cuarón but I’m not so sure I want it to win the top awards. If it does win Best Picture will that result in many filmmakers feeling they will make movies for Netflix even if it means no traditional theatrical runs? If Academy members in all production categories see Netflix, Hulu, Apple, Amazon, Google and other streaming services as offering more jobs—and they will—voting for ROMA is enticing.
If they don’t have theatrical to bring attention will they get lost on the Netflix platform as happens to so many films and shows there? Using algorithms with no curation results in this as so much drops on Netflix with many people not even knowing of their existence.
Theater operators are going to have to accept the new reality that many young people want to see content when and where it works best for them. And there will be adjustments. I appreciate the theater circuits taking their stand but they will eventually agree to a compromise. But so must Netflix.
Amazon has proven that an exclusive theatrical window before a film lands on Prime is an effective strategy. If it isn’t working in theaters, they can cut their losses in marketing and get it onto streaming quickly.
Not everybody subscribes to Netflix and many might never sign up, especially with so many competitive streaming services ahead of us. If Netflix’s Sarandos would think about it, his company could use those theatrical runs to get new customers and subscribers will watch it again on Netflix after the proper big screen exposure.
For some other films it could have resulted in a higher awareness. Would BUSTER SCRUGGS or SHIRKERS have been helped in terms of “best lists” and awards recognition, not to mention numbers of viewers on Netflix? Could it have hurt THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND to allow art houses, museums and colleges play it for special events? Producer Frank Marshall was confident there would be some “theatrical” but a handful of film festivals was all that happened despite theaters begging to show the saved and restored Orson Welles’ film.
The next big test will be Martin Scorsese’s THE IRISHMAN starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin, and Ray Romano. It is the biggest budget film ever for both Scorsese and Netflix at $105 million. Scorsese admits it is a big risk.
At the opening of Il Cinema Ritrovato in June 2018 the director talked at length about the importance of the theatrical experience. I bit my tongue as I wanted to yell out, “And what about THE IRISHMAN?”
And recently in interviews Scorsese admits that he hopes for more but only expects to show in a few very large theaters. We will all have to see what happens.