TORONTO — With director Alfonso Cuaron’s sweeping epic “Roma” floating on a cloud of positive buzz, the Netflix film seems destined to be a major awards contender.
But unlike other best picture Oscar bets “A Star Is Born,” “Black Panther,” and “Widows,” it’s angling to get there without playing theatres across the country.
Despite a critically acclaimed premiere at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, Netflix is only screening the Spanish-language film by the Oscar-winning director of “Gravity” at a small number of theatres in Canada.
Only Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are scheduled to play “Roma” at this point, with the possibility of other cities showing the film if it’s a hit.
And just one theatre is actually screening it before the streamer does — Toronto’s downtown arthouse TIFF Bell Lightbox premieres “Roma” on Thursday. Montreal and Vancouver theatres don’t get it until Dec. 14, the same day “Roma” makes its global debut on Netflix.
The strategy reflects big screen Oscar ambitions that don’t actually include a strong commitment to movie theatres.
“For Netflix it all comes back to the monthly subscription,” says Katie Bailey, content director at film industry trade publication Playback.
“They build their revenue $9.99 at a time.”
Netflix acquired the rights for Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical tribute to his native Mexico with the purpose of putting it on the small screen.
Reed Hastings, the company’s chief executive, has long accused movie exhibitors of being unable to think outside the multiplex boxes. He’s called for Hollywood to release more films for home viewing the same day they open in theatres.
That position has put Netflix in a tough spot as exhibitors distance themselves and some within the film industry see the company as a competitive threat.
Netflix has managed to pick up Oscars for both documentary feature and short in recent years, but has failed to score gold in the major awards categories.
It’s hard not to view the company’s Oscar campaigns as half-hearted at best.
Theatrical runs for “Mudbound” and “Beasts of No Nation” — which are required to qualify for the Oscars — were booked at the smallest theatres in Los Angeles and New York, making it tough for even the local audience to find.
Neither film turned Oscar nominations into wins.
Now “Roma” is being showered with near unanimous critical praise, with cinephiles revelling in its black-and-white cinematography and surround sound. During TIFF, Oscar prognosticators saw potential nominations for Cuaron, newcomer actress Yalitza Aparicio and best picture.
But Canada’s biggest exhibitor Cineplex isn’t interested in showing a film that will head to the small screen in mere weeks.
“We are more than happy to play their films if they abide by the same rules as everybody else,” CEO Ellis Jacob says in a recent interview of Netflix.
Cineplex has long held a 90-day window policy between a movie’s theatrical debut and its appearance for rental or streaming at home.
It’s a niche, art house film that only a small audience will pay full price to see, suggests Bailey.
“Two people — $30 easy. Plus popcorn,” she says.
“You can get a lot of Netflix for that.”