Cinema release – a twist in the tale as Netflix goes hunting for Oscars


Netflix’s Oscar-tipped Roma starts an international cinema roll-out on Wednesday as the streaming giant marks a strategic shift by using the silver screen, and the marketing power of the Academy Awards, to woo more digital subscribers.

Alfonso Cuarón’s film about a family in 1970s Mexico City and has received strong reviews, and is one of three including the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Sandra Bullock’s Bird Box that Netflix is releasing in cinemas prior to its 140 million-plus users getting to see them.

The move is a telling shift in strategy for the company, given that Ted Sarandos, the man in charge in of Netflix’s $8bn (£6.2bn) annual content budget, has been an outspoken critic of the industry convention of giving films an exclusive run in cinemas before they are aired on other platforms. But that was before Netflix decided that it wants Oscars.





A still from Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma a Netflix film



A still from Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a Netflix film. Photograph: Carlos Somonte/Netflix

For a film to be eligible for entry in the annual Academy Awards in the US it must have played in a Los Angeles county cinema, for paid admission, for a minimum of seven consecutive days. Roma is released on Wednesday in LA, New York and Mexico, before opening in London on 29 November and going worldwide on Netflix on 14 December.

However, Cuarón’s film will get just three weeks in US cinemas – the other two will disappear after only a week apiece – as Netflix fulfils the minimum requirements.

“At the moment Netflix is perhaps not quite gaming the system but it is taking advantage of rules for entry suggesting the situation is benefiting Netflix more than the Oscars,” said Richard Broughton, an analyst at media consultancy Ampere. “They are meeting the minimum requirements, the letter of the law if not perhaps the spirit.”

The Oscars rules aside, cinema owners have agreed with Hollywood studios that films run exclusively in US theatres for 90-days before moving to other platforms. The subscription video-on-demand sector, where Netflix operates, has traditionally been well down the pecking order. There are similar agreements in most other countries, but with different exclusivity periods.





Sandra Bullock stars in the post-apocalyptic Netflix film Bird Box.



Sandra Bullock stars in the post-apocalyptic Netflix film Bird Box. Photograph: Saeed Adyani/AP

Gravity director Cuarón’s film will be shown on more than 100 screens globally. It means Roma will probably top Netflix’s biggest cinema release to date, 22 July, a Paul Greengrass drama about the Anders Breivik attack in Norway. But it is nowhere near the level of a mass-market Hollywood release: the US has more than 40,000 screens and the UK over 4,000.

“Our position is that UK cinema operators would welcome anyone who brings quality film content to the market,” said Phil Clapp, chief executive of the UK Cinema Association. “However, most cinema operators would expect in doing that those bringing those films in would observe certain industry norms around a significant period of theatrical exclusivity. We would hope in due course to persuade Netflix it is in their best interest too.”

It has long been known that winning awards sells tickets – or in Netflix’s case pulls in new subscribers – but for the streaming giant cracking the Oscars is also about completing its ascendancy as the digital upstart that broke the established Hollywood model.

It has already conquered TV. In September, Netflix broke HBO’s 17-year record for the most Emmy nominations, 108, by amassing 112. It tied with the Game of Thrones maker for most wins, 23 each, for shows including The Crown, Black Mirror and Godless.

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To date, Netflix has achieved 14 Oscar nominations with two wins: White Helmets, a 40-minute documentary on volunteer rescue workers in Syria; and Icarus, a feature length documentary on the Russian sports doping scandal. Amazon, however, became the first streaming company to gain a best picture Oscar nomination for last year’s Manchester by the Sea, which won Casey Affleck best actor and was given a wide cinema release.

This year’s Oscars broadcast drew its lowest ever audience – down 20% year-on-year partly the result of changing viewing habits ushered in by the streaming revolution – it could be argued that Hollywood needs Netflix to revive interest in its awards showcase.

“This is a malleable situation that is still being figured out by both sides,” says Paul Dergarabedian, analyst at media consultancy Comscore. “However, the conundrum that Netflix faces is that while they covet Oscar consideration, their small screen distribution model eschews the movie theatre release convention. Amazon Studios has shown there are ways to bridge the gap while still being true to the streaming service mission”



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