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‘Roma’ Drives Netflix to Break Its Own Rules About Theatrical Release

It took a foreign-language Oscar entry from Alfonso Cuarón to push the giant streaming service to embrace a platform theatrical release strategy.

Roma Oscars

Marina de Tavira, Yalitza Aparicio, and Alfonso Cuaron.

Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Now that Netflix’s $20-million Mexican art film “Roma” could be a Best Picture contender as well as a likely foreign-language Oscar-winner, the global streaming service is finally overhauling its theatrical release strategy. It will include exclusive platform openings in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday, November 21, with more cities added December 7 ahead of its streaming and wider theatrical release on December 14.

It took a black-and-white, 65mm, Dolby Atmos, Spanish-language, semi-autobiographical personal journey back to 1971 Mexico City for Best-Director winner Alfonso Cuarón (“Gravity”) to push the streaming giant back to the future. “Roma” has played the fall film festival circuit from Mill Valley, Calif. to Middleburg, Va., ever since the film’s August Venice debut, where Cuarón won the Golden Lion. Under pressure from the filmmaker, Netflix is showing the movie on the big screen to as many audiences as possible — along with Netflix’s new animated logo. That’s clearly where it should be seen.

Alfonso Cuaron receives the Golden Lion for Best Film Award for 'Roma'Award Ceremony, Arrivals, 75th Venice International Film Festival, Italy - 08 Sep 2018

Alfonso Cuaron receives the Golden Lion for Best Film Award for ‘Roma’ at the 75th Venice International Film Festival

Awakening/REX/Shutterstock

“Seeing ‘Roma’ on the big screen is just as important as ensuring people all over the world have the chance to experience it in their homes,” stated Cuarón. “‘Roma’ was photographed in expansive 65mm, complemented by a very complex Atmos sound mix. While a movie theatre offers the best possible experience for ‘Roma,’ it was designed to be equally meaningful when experienced in the intimacy of one’s home.”

The precise shape of Netflix’s “Roma” release strategy has been the subject of much speculation. Well, now we have the facts. The biggest question was whether Netflix CEO Reed Hastings would be willing to break the streaming site’s long-term policy to never release a Netflix Original Movie in theaters before its availability on the site.

December 14 was the announced day-and-date release for “Roma” in theaters and streaming. Now the film will open at two prime Landmark Theatres on November 21 in Los Angeles and New York, and expand to more theaters on November 29 and to 10-12 cities on December 7. The film will also play in Mexico, the U.K., Germany, and Italy. In total, the film will have a theatrical release in more than 20 territories around the world, including several 70mm presentations.

Netflix Original Films chief Scott Stuber has been instrumental in changing the new release strategy, working with Content chief Ted Sarandos, with support from a squadron of top filmmakers. Also getting platform releases are the Coen brothers’ Venice screenplay prize-winner “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which was originally commissioned as a series but turned into a six-part anthology film, and thriller “Bird Box” from foreign-language Oscar-winner Susanne Bier, starring Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson.

“Netflix’s priority is our members and our filmmakers, and we are constantly innovating to serve them,” said Stuber. “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.”

“Scruggs” will go out November 8 in Los Angeles (The Landmark), New York (The Landmark at 57 West), San Francisco (Embarcadero Center Cinema), and a to-be-determined London Curzon cinema. The film will be released globally on Netflix November 16 and will have an expanded theatrical release in additional U.S. cities, Toronto, and theaters across Europe.

Exclusive limited theatrical engagements for “Bird Box” start December 13 in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and London. The film will be released globally on Netflix on December 21 and will have an expanded theatrical release in additional theaters in the U.S., and Europe.

Tim Blake Nelson is Buster Scruggs in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

Netflix

The drive to win awards for “Roma” has forced a bigger push into the theatrical marketplace not only for Cuarón but also for top filmmakers like Tamara Jenkins (Sundance and New York Film festival entry “Private Life,” October 5), Paul Greengrass (Venice and Toronto-screened terrorist thriller “22 July,” October 10), and David Mackenzie (recut Toronto opener “Outlaw King,” November 9), which will play in the country’s top 15 markets as well as the U.K. and Scotland, where tickets are already sold out. Well-reviewed Sundance entry “The Kindergarten Teacher” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal opened in Landmark theaters October 12.

Joe Pesci and Martin Scorsese on the set of "The Irishman"

Joe Pesci and Martin Scorsese on the set of “The Irishman”

Philip Vaughan/ACE Pictures/REX/Shutterstock

How these movies work in theaters and drive Netflix eyeballs will determine strategies for the future for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” starring Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, as well as new films from Dee Rees (Joan Didion adaptation “The Last Thing He Wanted,” starring Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck and Willem Dafoe), David Michod (Shakespeare adaptation “The King” starring Timothée Chalamet and Joel Edgerton), and Steven Soderbergh (“High Flying Bird,” starring Andre Holland).

Private Life

“Private Life” writer-director Tamara Jenkins and Paul Giamatti

Seacia Pavao/Netflix

Domestic drama “Private Life” and real-life terrorist thriller “22 July” have performed well enough to extend many of their runs in North America; “22 July” was shown in 132 theaters globally. Netflix may put “22 July” back in theaters with Greengrass Q&As in December.

Certain theater chains (Landmark, Alamo, Laemmle, IFC), some of which boast Dolby Atmos, were willing to book “Roma,” knowing the film would hit the streaming site well ahead of the usual 90-day theater exclusive window. (Netflix is negotiating higher-than-usual rental terms and revenue splits, including extended runs in success.) Netflix is working with chains on local marketing and taking out giant print ads in the New York Times with lists of available theaters.

Netflix is a Silicon Valley company that looks at numbers and results, which will determine their strategies going forward. That doesn’t mean they will share them. Netflix never reveals its box-office numbers, but may let the filmmakers know what they are. (Sarandos is still smarting from the bad box-office reports on Landmark’s release of “Beasts of No Nation.”)

“22 July”

Netflix

The streamer is particularly happy with the performance “22 July” on its site: According to Netflix, the Norway drama starring a local cast has been seen by over 14 million people in the first three weeks, a much larger footprint than it would likely have received in theatrical-only play. “Roma” will only be larger, with Netflix’s awards team led by Lisa Taback working full-time to build its awards profile.

Shot on the Arri Alexa 65 by Cuarón himself (when three-time-Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki wasn’t available), with source music and immersive sound as its expansive soundtrack, “Roma” is less a propulsive narrative than a series of astonishing long-take set pieces that follow a family from the perspective of their devoted, beloved, hard-working maid Cleo (warmly emotive preschool teacher Yalitza Aparicio, a Cuarón discovery).

If Netflix can pull it off — and remember, they managed four nominations for Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” — they could nab Oscar nominations for Best Actress, Director, Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, Directing, and yes, Best Picture. That would be Netflix’s first.

"Roma"

“Roma”

Netflix

Ultimately, the theatrical push for “Roma” is designed to enhance its branding on the streaming site as well as its profile as a year-end critics’ awards and guild contender en route to the Oscars. All of which has moved the Netflix strategy closer to the full-throttle theatrical releases favored by Amazon Studios for “Manchester by the Sea,” “The Big Sick” and current contenders “Cold War” and “Beautiful Boy.”

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