An unfamiliar sight at the Telluride Film Festival is Hollywood alpha male Scott Stuber. When given the chance to choose between running old-studio Paramount and new-studio Netflix, he was smart enough to choose the Silicon Valley disrupter of the entertainment industry led by Reed Hastings and chief content officer Ted Sarandos. Stuber’s still learning how to adapt, though, and what is fascinating to watch is how he is trying to merge everything he has learned at the top of the studio pyramid with the new Netflix order. There’s a struggle there, and Hollywood is watching closely to see what comes out of it.
At Telluride, it’s hard not to notice that Netflix is top dog. Sarandos and the mighty documentary content team led by Lisa Nishimura have been here before. But this time, the Netflix entourage is much engorged — including new staffers Oscar wrangler Lisa Taback and her troops (who helped Netflix outstrip HBO’s 2018 Emmy nominations). They are already pushing hard a new Netflix Original, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” which is a paradigm-breaker if there ever was one.
At a time when the Academy is desperately trying to figure out how to get people to watch an Oscar show increasingly aimed at discerning cinephiles (and postponed its announcement of eligibility rules for the so-called Best Popular Film until after Telluride), Netflix has the ultimate art film in “Roma,” a black-and-white, 65mm, Dolby Atmo sound, Spanish-language, semi-autobiographical personal journey back to 1971 Mexico City for Best-Director winner Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”).
Shot on the Arri Alexa 65 by Cuaron himself (when three-time-Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki wasn’t available), with source music and immersive sound as its expansive soundtrack, the movie is less a propulsive narrative than a series of astonishing long-take set pieces that follow a family from the point-of-view of their devoted, beloved, hard-working maid Cleo (Cuaron discovery, warmly emotive schoolteacher Yalitza Aparicio).
If Netflix can pull it off — and remember, they managed four nominations for Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” — they could nab nominations for Best Actress, Director, Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, Directing, and yes, Best Picture. That would be Netflix’s first.
What’s fascinating about Sarandos is he’s a devout cinephile who keeps trying to straddle the distinctly old order — epitomized by the Oscars — and the global digital realm that Netflix commands. Where he and Stuber collide is on the issue of how to fit a movie like “Roma” into the theatrical marketplace and keeping happy top filmmakers like Cuaron, Paul Greengrass (“22 July”), Jeremy Saulnier (“Hold the Dark”), and Martin Scorsese (2019’s big-budget “The Irishman”).
That sounds complicated, and it is. For example, plans are under way to release “Roma” in some stateside theaters, including Landmark Theatres and Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, for extended runs (longer than the prior one-to-four weeks) as well as some foreign markets. However, Sarandos told me at Telluride that they also want to book special events on screens equipped by Dolby Atmos.
Sarandos will not open the movie in any theaters earlier than December 14. That’s hard to imagine. He pulled “Roma” from Cannes over the festival’s issue with French exhibition windows, along with Telluride’s Orson Welles double feature, “The Other Side of the Wind” and Morgan Neville’s documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead,” about what took that movie so long to reach viewers.
Sarandos also withdrew Greengrass’ English-language Norway terrorist thriller “22 July,” which goes from Venice straight to Toronto. On the same route is Jeremy Saulnier’s superb Alaska noir thriller “Hold the Dark,” starring Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgard, and Riley Keough, while the Coen brothers’ western anthology film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” goes from Venice to New York.
Also on the fest circuit is two Cannes prize-winners, Lukas Dhont’s transgender dance drama “Girl,” the Belgian Oscar entry that Netflix picked up in Cannes, along with Alice Rohrbacher’s drama “Happy as Lazzaro,” a possible submission for Italy.
At a time when the younger generation cares less and less about the Oscars, clearly filmmakers like Cuaron still do — and so does Netflix. That’s because the Oscar is still the ultimate brand for quality cinema, which is something the Academy would do well to keep in mind.
Dana Harris contributed to this report.