Netflix to Give 3 Award Contenders Exclusive Runs in Select Theaters

Roma Still 1 - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of TIFF

'Roma' will be available in some markets more than three weeks before it debuts on Netflix, while 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' and 'Bird Box' will get a one-week berth.

In a major course correction, Netflix will open three of its fall award contenders first in select cinemas — including Alfonso Cuaron's Roma — ending the streamer's long-standing insistence on making its original movies immediately available to customers.

Netflix isn't collapsing the three-month theatrical window, however, and it will still be impossible to book screens in most circuits, major or otherwise. Still, offering exclusive limited runs is a significant concession on the part of the company in acknowledging that the cinematic experience is an important part of the ecosystem. It also signals to filmmakers and awards voters that Netflix is willing to bend.

Roma is getting the biggest push. It will unfurl in several cinemas in Los Angeles, New York City and Mexico on Nov. 21, more than three weeks before its official Netflix debut in mid-December. It will add additional limited engagements on Nov. 29 in a smattering of top markets and London, followed by further expansion on Dec. 7. Roma is expected to be playing in a total of 20 countries once it rolls out globally Dec. 14 on Netflix. No theater count has been provided, although 70mm runs are anticipated.

Netflix is booking a one-week exclusive berth in four cities for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a Western anthology from Joel and Ethan Coen and Susanne Bier's apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock. Both films will play in a handful of theaters in L.A., New York, San Francisco and London.

Buster Scruggs begins its limited theatrical run on Nov. 8 before debuting day-and-date on Netflix and in additional cinemas on Nov. 16. Bird Box goes out in theaters on Dec. 13, followed by its global opening Dec. 21 on Netflix and expanded presence in cinemas.

"Netflix's priority is our members and our filmmakers, and we are constantly innovating to serve them. Our members benefit from having the best quality films from world class filmmakers and our filmmakers benefit by being able to share their artistry with the largest possible audience in over 190 countries worldwide," Scott Stuber, head of Netflix's film group, said in a statement.

"Seeing Roma on the big screen is just as important as ensuring people all over the world have the chance to experience it in their homes," Cuaron said in his own statement. "Roma was photographed in expansive 65mm, complemented by a very complex Atmos sound mix. While a movie theater offers the best possible experience for Roma, it was designed to be equally meaningful when experienced in the intimacy of one’s home.”

Netflix didn't reveal whether it would report grosses.

In August, The Hollywood Reporter was the first to report that a one- or two-week exclusive run was being considered for Roma at the insistence of Cuaron, who won the best director Oscar for his last film, Gravity (2013). Roma, a sweeping black-and-white, semi-autobiographical drama based in part of the director's childhood, has major award ambitions. Participant Media produced and financed the film.

Earlier this month, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings told investors in a note that, as with its other original movies, Roma would debut day-and-date on the service and in more than 100 theaters worldwide. “We believe in our member-centric simultaneous release model for our original films and welcome additional theater chains that are open to carrying our films to provide the shared-viewing, big-screen experience to their customers who enjoy that option,” he wrote, seemingly ending speculation that the acclaimed movie would become the first Netflix title to get some sort of exclusive run on the big screen.

For years, Netflix has famously been at loggerheads with theater owners for refusing to abide by theatrical windows, saying its customers come first. As such, a majority of cinemas won't interface with the streamer. Yet having a presence in cinemas is deemed key during awards season.

Netflix has always been able to book a smattering of theaters for its original films by working with smaller independent houses, or pursuing paid partnerships with such circuits as Landmark and iPic. This fall, Netflix is working with Laemmle locations in addition to Landmark and iPic, boosting its footprint. Alamo Drafthouse could also be in the mix. In New York and L.A., Buster Scruggs, for example, will play at Landmark locations.

Hours after the Netflix announcement, the National Association of Theater Owners said the plan is hardly enough.

"It’s encouraging that Netflix has come around to recognize the importance of an exclusive theatrical release for some films. It’s a pity their 'innovation' has come up against the limits of their imagination," NATO vice president Patrick Corcoran told THR. "Theatrical audiences and theatrical filmmakers want and deserve more than a token release, but Netflix has told them ‘no.'"

Unlike the Emmys, Netflix has been largely shut out of the Oscar race on the narrative feature side, and has never picked up an Oscar nomination for best picture, director, actress or actor. Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos is intent on improving that track record, including bringing veteran awards consultant Lisa Taback in-house earlier this year. Sarandos is famous for often taking aim at theater owners, saying they stifle innovation.

Recently, Paul Greengrass' 22 July premiered simultaneously on Netflix and in more than 130 theaters worldwide.

“These upcoming engagements are following the success of our theatrical and Netflix releases of Private Life and 22 July.  There’s been an overwhelming response to all of our films this festival season, including Outlaw King, which will be in theaters and on Netflix next week, and this plan is building on that momentum," Stuber continued in the statement regarding Roma, Buster Scruggs and Bird Box.

Nevertheless, the presence of a Netflix film in theaters hasn't created much buzz to date, particularly since grosses aren't reported and they aren't included in box-office roundups. And the plan announced Wednesday could easily prompt other filmmakers working with Netflix, including Martin Scorsese, to ask for similar treatment.

Oct. 31, 8 p.m. Updated with NATO comment.