Leading U.K. Exhibitor Slams BAFTA for 'Roma' Wins

Carlos Somonte/Netflix
Netflix's 'Roma' won four awards at the BAFTAs, including for best film.

The CEO of London-based VUE says that by honoring the Netflix title, the British Film Academy "has not lived up to its usual high standards this year in choosing to endorse and promote a 'made for TV' film."

J. Timothy Richards, the founder and CEO of U.K. exhibitor VUE, has written a letter to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for recently honoring Alfonso Cuaron's Netflix title Roma with four awards, including for best film and best director.

Richards is the latest distribution exec in Europe to raise concerns that Netflix is damaging the theatrical industry by not fully adhering to theatrical windows for titles that appear on its streaming service. During this year's Berlin International Film Festival, which wrapped Saturday, the international confederation of art cinemas (CICAE), which represents art house cinemas across Europe, criticized the fest for including a Netflix film — Isabel Coixet's Elisa & Marcela — in its competition lineup. Similar complaints were aired during last year's Venice Film Fest, where Italian distributors were particularly enraged that  Cuaron's Roma won the festival's Golden Lion for best film.

"As a long-term member and former Council Member of BAFTA, I am writing to express my concern at the decision-making behind this year’s EE British Academy Film Awards," wrote Richards.

"We believe that BAFTA has not lived up to its usual high standards this year in choosing to endorse and promote a “made for TV” film that audiences were unable to see on a big screen," he added. 

Richards' letter is significant, given VUE's presence in the European theatrical space. The company is the largest exhibitor outside the U.S.

A BAFTA spokesperson on Tuesday responded to Richards' letter with the following statement: “The Film Committee is satisfied that every film in contention for this year’s Film Awards met the criteria for entry, which includes a meaningful U.K. theatrical release. BAFTA encourages public engagement with cinema-going and aims to be inclusive and supportive of the U.K. filmmaking sector as a whole. We review our criteria annually in close consultation with the industry to ensure that our eligibility criteria remain fit for purpose." 

Richards went on to point out that while Netflix did release Roma in theaters in the U.K., the release may not have been significant enough to allow the film to qualify for BAFTA consideration: "It is clear that Netflix made at best a token effort to screen Roma, screening it to less than 1% of the U.K. market solely because it wanted an award. How could BAFTA let this happen?"

At the conclusion of the letter, Richards said VUE will pull its support from the BAFTAs unless the questions surrounding Netflix are addressed: "I regret that in future we will not be able to support the BAFTA awards as we usually do unless the Academy board reconsiders its eligibility criteria."

Here is Richards' letter in its entirety, below.

As a long term member and former Council Member of BAFTA, I am writing to express my concern at the decision-making behind this year’s EE British Academy Film Awards.

As one of the largest cinema operators in Europe, Vue is a passionate believer in the role of cinema in the industry, its unique abilities to bring communities together in a shared entertainment experience and the role it plays for audiences and filmmakers in providing the best theatrical experience possible. We believe that BAFTA has not lived up to its usual high standards this year in choosing to endorse and promote a “made for TV” film that audiences were unable to see on a big screen.

This is personally difficult because Alfonso CuaroĢn is an incredible filmmaker for whom

I have a huge amount of respect. However, the four awards given to Roma – Best Film, Director, Cinematography and Film Not in the English Language do not adhere to BAFTA’s rules requiring “that the British public should have had an opportunity to see entered films and films should therefore have been screened and marketed to a public paying UK audience.”

BAFTA’s rules also state that “Films should not be screened purely to qualify them for these awards, and the film committee may not accept entry if they do not deem the theatrical release to be meaningful”. It is clear that Netflix made at best a token effort to screen Roma, screening it to less than 1% of the UK market solely because it wanted an award. How could BAFTA let this happen?

Netflix is well known for its tactics and secrecy and its release strategy for Roma in the UK was no exception. It is still unclear whether Roma was screened on more than the 13 Curzon Cinema screens representing less than 0.5% of the cinema market and for one week at the Filmhouse Edinburgh. Not knowing how many people have seen Roma, where it was screened or what level of box office it delivered is another example of how Netflix acts outside the industry whilst at the same time it craves its acceptance.

All major British cinema exhibitors abide by the ‘Theatrical Window’ that ensures cinema audiences can enjoy the launch and screening of first run feature films before they are released on small screen formats like streaming and subscription services on iPads and televisions. This practice has successfully served all sides of our industry for many decades and is one of the core differentiators that makes cinema unique.

Roma may very well have attracted a much larger audience, without affecting Netflix’s subscription base, if it had been released as a first run theatrical film. Unfortunately, we will never know.

Steven Spielberg even stated “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. You certainly, if it’s a good show, deserve an Emmy, but not an Oscar. I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”

Appealing to industry award panels and Film Festival organisers is an essential element of the Netflix business plan to attract talent and credibility. Imagine the message that could have been sent by BAFTA if Netflix were forced to abide by the rules underlining the principle that a film must have a full theatrical release, otherwise it’s just a ‘made-for-TV’ production.

On behalf of Vue International, it saddens me that the Academy has chosen to ignore the opportunity to defend this principle. I regret that in future we will not be able to support the BAFTA awards as we usually do unless the Academy board reconsiders its eligibility criteria.

BAFTA, the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and major film festivals should continue to differentiate between a “made for TV” movie and a first run feature film with a full theatrical release, as they have for the last 100 years.

Yours sincerely,

J. Timothy Richards Founder & CEO

Feb. 19, 11:10 a.m. Updated to include statement from BAFTA.