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With An Eye On Oscars, Netflix Sent 'Roma' To Theaters First

Roma, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, in being shown in cinemas across the U.S. — but for just a few weeks — before heading for Netflix streaming.
Carlos Somonte Netflix
Roma, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, in being shown in cinemas across the U.S. — but for just a few weeks — before heading for Netflix streaming.

Roma is being called director Alfonso Cuarón's masterpiece. Epic black-and-white shots, stunning performances, and an artful story line have led to speculation about Oscar nominations.

But behind the scenes, the film is part of a battle over who gets to premier movies: streaming services like Netflix, or theaters?

It's an increasingly common question in the film industry, and the stakes are high.


For movie theaters, where attendance has been at a historic low, audience attraction and retention is key. For Netflix, once one of the few online streaming services around — but now just one of many — it's also a pressing issue.

And for actors and directors, there's the question of Oscar awards. Take the movie I, Tonya. Last year at the Toronto film festival, the filmmakers reportedly turned down Netflix. They wanted I, Tonya in theaters.

The appeal of having audiences see your work in all its glory on the big screen is certainly huge. But, Scott Feinberg, an awards columnist for The Hollywood Reporter, says, "The Oscars are about rewarding the best movies, not TV shows. So that means you have to had at least what they call a qualifying run in theaters, in New York and LA."

Allison Janney won best supporting actress for I, Tonya and Margot Robbie earned a best-actress nomination. Industry insiders point to that as a turning point for Robbie's career. She soon became more of a household name, and tackled even meatier roles.

An Oscar, or even a nomination, carries a lot of weight: It garners films more audience interest. The movie gets written into the history books. And it means more money and work opportunities for actors and directors.


All this presents a conundrum for Netflix as it tries to stand out among a growing number of streaming services. (Note: Netflix is among NPR's sponsors.)

"Netflix's goal is to be a major production company that makes compelling content that is available exclusively on Netflix," says Michael Pachter, a media analyst at Wedbush Securities.

As companies like Amazon and Apple increasingly stake their claim on the streaming service landscape, he says, Netflix's goal is "to give consumers a reason to sign up and stay as subscribers."

In order to do this, Netflix needs to attract A-list talent. And A-list talent wants Oscars. Netflix has yet to get a best picture Oscar. To do so, it has to premiere its films in theaters.

In other words: Netflix needs the movie theater, to kill the movie theater.

Roma might be a chance to change all this.

On the one hand, it's directed by Cuarón, an Oscar winner. But, as stunning as it is, it's subtitled, featuring unknown actors, and spoiler alert: no leather-clad Marvel superheroes. It's unlikely to be a blockbuster hit.

Industry insiders say Cuarón needed Netflix to give Roma a wide streaming audience.

"Suddenly his film can be seen right away, in 190 countries around the world, at a potential audience of 130 million people," says Joe Pichirallo, a former executive at Fox Searchlight Pictures and a professor at NYU.

In a rare move, Netflix is showing the film first in cinemas across the U.S. — but for just a few weeks.

"And Roma is now being taken seriously," says Pichirallo, "at least right at this stage. It's still early. But right now Roma is being talked about as a serious Oscar contender."

Feinberg, from The Hollywood Reporter, says times are changing.

"People are increasingly consuming movies in other ways, thanks not only to Netflix, but primarily to Netflix," he says. "You know, people love the convenience of being able to click a few buttons and watch from their couch."

That might be so. But for the moment the way to win that best picture Oscar is still to show it on the big screen.

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