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Netflix is pivoting to screen films in theaters. But is that enough for Oscar voters?

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” will be in theaters three weeks before its Netflix debut. That’s a big concession for Netflix, but lots of questions remain.

Netflix is pivoting to screen films in theaters. But is that enough for Oscar voters?
[Photo: CVDOP Limbocker/Unsplash]

On Wednesday, Netflix made one of its biggest concessions to traditional Hollywood by announcing that three of its upcoming movies will be released in theaters between one and three weeks before they hit Netflix. Historically, Netflix has been adamant about releasing select Oscar-hopeful films in a handful of theaters on the same day the films are available for streaming. 

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But by releasing Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Bird Box, a thriller starring Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson, in theaters ahead of their streaming debut, Netflix hopes to win points with the Hollywood community, and Academy voters specifically, as it desperately tries to win an Oscar. 

Netflix’s Oscar efforts thus far have not come close to matching its success at the Emmys. Two years ago, Cary Fukunaga’s film Beasts of No Nation was completely shut out of the Oscar race. And last year its big hopeful, Dee Rees’s Mudbound, received nominations for Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress, and some technical awards, but was snubbed in major categories like Best Picture and Best Director. 

This year, Netflix hopes to change that. Expectations are especially high for Roma, which premiered to rapturous reviews at the Venice Film Festival in late August. But almost as soon as the black-and-white, Spanish-language homage to Cuarón’s childhood nanny screened, a debate broke out over whether it would get an exclusive theatrical release. Cuarón, like many filmmakers whom Netflix is trying to do business with, wanted the film to have a traditional release on big screens. But that desire was at odds with Netflix’s streaming-only model, an issue about which head of content Ted Sarandos has been passionately vocal. 

As recently as two weeks ago, Sarandos said on a Netflix earnings call that “We believe in our member-centric simultaneous release model for our original films.” Last April, he said: “Defining distribution by what room you see [a movie] in is not the business we want to be in.” And last Oscar season, Netflix executives were adamant about never veering from the day-and-date release strategy, according to someone who worked on a Netflix awards film. 

But internally, there has been a struggle as Netflix brings on more traditional Hollywood players, such as Scott Stuber, a former Universal executive who now oversees the streaming company’s film division. One producer says that well before the Roma conversation, Stuber would tell filmmakers in meetings that he was “trying to get you a [theatrical] window.” Netflix also hired former Warner Bros. domestic distribution head Dan Fellman–a sign that the company was interested in making nice with exhibitors. Additionally, the respected Oscar campaign publicist Lisa Taback is now on Netflix’s payroll. 

In a statement, Stuber said, “Netflix’s priority is our members and our filmmakers, and we are constantly innovating to serve them. Our members benefit from having the best quality films from world class filmmakers and our filmmakers benefit by being able to share their artistry with the largest possible audience in over 190 countries worldwide.”

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Roma is set to be released on Nov. 21st in theaters in New York, Los Angeles, and Mexico, three weeks before it begins streaming on Dec. 7. (Buster Scruggs and Bird Box will receive a one-week theatrical release.) More limited engagements will follow on Nov. 29 in a few markets, including London. Ultimately, it will screen in 20 countries. As has been reported, Netflix is resorting to “four-walling” or renting out theaters one by one. This means they’ll be paying exhibitors a fee upfront rather than simply splitting box office receipts with a theater, as is typically done. The arrangement is helping Netflix secure theaters that are being inundated with big tentpole films this time of year. By four-walling, the theaters are guaranteed a pay day, whether or not Roma performs well–a legitimate fear given how niche the film is.

But many questions remain. While three weeks may be a major concession for a tech company that has prided itself on its streaming-only “North Star,” is it enough for Oscar voters? Most major theaters insist on a 90-day window before a film moves on to another platform, which is the accepted norm in Hollywood. There’s a big difference between 90 and 21 days.

Second, does the Roma release set a new precedent for which films receive a theatrical release and for how long? Why are the Coen brothers only getting one week? Notes one insider, “This is for them a Pandora’s box.” 

Netflix has not revealed whether it will report box office grosses, in keeping with its show-no-data mantra. This prompted one Oscar guru to call the news “a fake news story. It’s like, ‘Let’s do this to show ’em we’re in the game, but not report box office, not use real theaters, and four-wall them so there’s no paper trail. It’s just a sham.”

And then there’s marketing. Netflix has not traditionally spent much on traditional marketing, believing that the best way to promote a Netflix TV show or movie is simply to promote it on Netflix. That’s changing, and Netflix is now pledging to dramatically increase its traditional marketing spends. But so far it has not shown the same marketing aggression as its competitors. Says one studio exec: “Does putting movies in theaters translate to spending money? Or are they simply placating a filmmaker by saying ‘Sure, it’ll qualify [for the Oscars]—it’ll be in theaters!’?”

In the end, the success of Roma, both as a film and as an Oscar contender, will depend on audiences. As the studio exec says, “The most important thing that’s gonna matter is, how good is the movie? If it’s special, then one week [in theaters] will be enough because then we’ll talk about it.”   

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This story has been updated. 

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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