No sooner did Roma receive 10 Oscar nominations on January 22 did North America’s two largest theater chains — AMC and Regal — put out press releases announcing that they would refuse to play the Oscar Best Picture nominee as part of their annual pre-awards marathons. The reason for this unprecedented move, of course, is Netflix.
This seemingly knee-jerk response stems from their stated policies of never playing a film that doesn’t honor the 90-day theatrical window. In the words of AMC, “Roma” was never licensed to play at their venues, implying that Netflix didn’t want them. The reality is somewhat different, according to multiple sources: The chains rejected repeated offers to negotiate terms, but the divergence in policies made it impossible. In the meantime, “Roma” has played in significantly more than 100 theaters, covering most cities across the country. While Netflix won’t release numbers, we estimate a gross approaching $3 million.
As a former exhibitor, I am sympathetic with the chains’ legitimate concerns and the threat of day-and-date play. But in this decision, I see the earmarks of temper tantrum, punishing “Roma” for being a Netflix movie rather than ceding ground for the benefit of their customers.
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So here is some unsolicited thoughts on why AMC and Regal should reconsider:
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It comes (mostly) after 90 days of release
The dates of the all-nominee marathons are either close to the 90-day window (AMC’s one-day event on February 23 marks 90 day, while Regal’s runs from Feb. 15-24.)
And with the new normal of Oscar nominees being rushed to standard streaming after 90 days, before the Oscars and overlapping the marathons, expect several contenders shown to be available at home already. “Black Panther” is even showing on Netflix, free of cost with monthly membership.
Furthermore, the 90-day policy isn’t firm. Premium streaming now starts with many films after 75 days. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is available as of now, just a bit over 75 days after its debut, on iTunes for a premium $19.99. Many of these chain theaters are continuing to show it. You can’t be half-pregnant.
It doesn’t weaken the chains’ position
These marathons have become a celebratory event. It allows regular moviegoers to be part of the Oscar excitement, with some theaters making them special events with red carpets and other showmanship elements that can be fun for staff and ticket buyers. Denying a film to be part of this does nothing to help the chains; it’s absurd to think “Roma” would somehow depreciate exhibitors’ ongoing battle with Netflix — and likely soon with other services, including those from the very studios that supply other films. If I were still contributing to decisions as an exhibitor, I’d suggest lightening up.
Showing “Roma” would help theaters make their point
Everyone outside the Netflix corporate suite who has seen “Roma,” including Alfonso Cuaron, says it should optimally be seen in a theater, preferably with great sound. Here’s an idea: Play the film, and make a point about how a film this acclaimed deserves exhibition the way theaters can do. Suggest people who have seen it at home come out and experience the difference. They are rejecting marketing gold.
I suspect they could get Cuaron and other principals to show up at some screenings and do publicity for the marathons. Yes, Netflix and “Roma” are a threat — but flip the script by pushing the superiority of what theaters can do.
This makes the chains look petty
Exhibitors get varying degrees of sympathy for their position. This oddball Oscar season, with no clear frontrunner, could well hinge on backlash to a movie, or even the backlash to a backlash (see: “Green Book”). But this petty action manages to make “Roma” and Netflix sympathetic, and the theaters small. That’s not easy. To judge by initial social media reaction, chains look like the bad guys here.
And here’s how it plays into Netflix’s plans: Oscar campaigns are efforts to create public opinion. I suspect Netflix would like the Best Picture race to come down to a simple question: Which movie do you think is best? Not where the film played, how it was released, or who made it. The theaters’ action declares that “Roma” isn’t good enough to play not because of quality, but because of a business plan. That’s something Netflix can work with, I suspect.
This is a chance to expose a theater-chain audience to a subtitled film
Of course, even the biggest subtitled successes only see a small portion of their grosses from AMC and Regal, but theater chains want to appeal beyond mass-market films. Oscar marathons are an opportunity to do that with films like “Moonlight,” “The Phantom Thread,” or “Hell or High Water.” Show “Roma” in the marathons and maybe some previously reluctant viewers might reduce their resistance.