With ROMA, Netflix changes its awards season strategy

It seems like Netflix has grown to understand the effort that it takes to campaign a Best Picture contender, and it has an incredible one in its hands. Now we have to wait and see if it pays off… 

Netflix has become the most popular streaming platform for movies and television content. The streaming platform is beloved by many as it sources content from all over the world and brings it right to the comfort of their living rooms. But, ever since Netflix made movie streaming mainstream, the most purists viewers have resented it for it. These critics of the streaming service say that the movie theater experience simply cannot be replicated at home, and that a movie must be released in theaters to be taken seriously. This was true for many years as the countless movies released directly to Video on Demand (VOD) services were assumed not to be good enough to be shown in theaters. So why would movies released by a streaming service be any different?

Netflix’s new theater logo

That might have been true until very recently. With lots of money in their pockets and newly acquired experience in campaigning for the Emmy awards, Netflix decided to join the Oscars conversation in 2016. In the past, Netflix acquired movies that garnered Oscar nominations (see Ava DuVernay’s 13th in 2016 and Dee Rees’ Mudbound in 2017), but despite a lot of critical buzz they failed to secure any coveted Best Picture nominations. Many pundits have blamed Netflix’s failure on their insistence to maintain an unconventional release strategy in which movies are hardly shown in theaters and then go straight to their streaming services. This is because many Academy members are purists who are unwilling to consider films that don’t follow the film festival and theater run release strategy. Now, it finally seems like Netflix is ready to bend their rules and consider playing ball with the rest of the industry, and we all have to thank Alfonso Cuaron and his latest movie ROMA for it.

Alfonso Cuaron began developing ROMA in 2016, and given the great awards success of Gravity, which was nominated for eight Oscars and went on to win Oscars, the expectations were quite high. The high anticipation compelled Netflix to take a gamble, and while the movie was rumored to be ready for the Cannes film festival they bought its distribution rights. Cannes, being one of the most conventional film festivals in the world, rejected the idea of allowing a Netflix movie in their competition. The film’s fate was sealed by Netflix not agreeing to Cannes requirement that the movie shown in theaters in France. ROMA opened at the Venice Film Festival later in the fall to rave reviews, and was shown in Mexico so that it could qualify for the Best Foreign Picture category.

Back in May, many cinephiles mourned the missed opportunity to see Cuaron’s new work, but it eventually became clear that it was Cannes’ loss not to allow the masterpiece that is ROMA into their competition. In retrospect, it is also unlikely that premiering at Cannes and fighting to maintain a sustained buzz throughout the entire year would have helped Netflix’s award strategy (although ROMA is great enough that it probably wouldn’t have mattered.) But, Netflix had a clever release strategy in mind, which consisted of bringing ROMA to pretty much every film festival of the fall (Toronto, Venice, Telluride, New York and several smaller ones such as the Orcas Island festival and IFF Boston fall festival), followed by a limited theater release and a wider Netflix release. This would give the opportunity to many Academy members and critics to watch the film in theaters. This is mainly due to Cuaron’s pressure and probably is a sign of a truce. It seems like Netflix has grown to understand the effort that it takes to campaign a Best Picture contender, and it has an incredible one in its hands. Now we have to wait and see if it pays off… 

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