'Roma' Targeting Major Theatrical Release in China

Beijing-based distributors E Stars and Joy Pictures are aiming to release the awards contender on nearly 2,000 Chinese screens.

Alfonso Cuaron's awards-season favorite Roma remains somewhat hard to find in movie theaters across most of the U.S., despite Netflix's unprecedented decision to give the film a limited theatrical run in select cities domestically and overseas.

Movie lovers in China, however, could soon enjoy the luxury of seeing the critically acclaimed film on the big screen with far greater ease. 

E Stars, an influential film distributor based in Beijing, has acquired the Chinese theatrical rights to Roma from Participant Media, which produced the film (Lionsgate International brokered the deal). The Chinese company is laying the groundwork to release the film on at least 1,800 screens — way more than the total number of screens currently showing Roma everywhere else in the world.

Because Beijing regulators have blocked Netflix from launching its service in China, the country is the only major territory where the streaming giant doesn't own the rights to Roma's fate. E Stars, famous in China for building a vibrant market for Bollywood cinema, has submitted the film for approval by Beijing's Film Bureau and hopes to secure a release date prior to the Oscars in February, sources with knowledge of the plans tell THR.

The commercial potential of Roma remains something of an uncertainty in the Middle Kingdom, a market known for its love of superhero franchises and effects-heavy action flicks. But the tastes of Chinese filmgoers, particularly in big cities, have rapidly diversified in recent years, leading to the emergence of a niche specialty market — one scaled to China's population of 1.4 billion citizens. 

E Stars is partnering on the Roma release with Joy Pictures, the indie film marketing specialist behind the successful China launch of La La Land last year. Despite a poor track record for musicals and specialty titles in China, La La Land opened just prior to the 2017 Oscars and earned a healthy $36 million.

The trend has continued this year, with Japanese art house drama Shoplifters, winner of the Cannes Palme d'Or, earning an impressive $14.1 million. Earlier in 2018, Oscar best picture winner The Shape of Water pulled in $16.6 million and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri earned $10.3 million.

Late last month, Netflix announced it was abandoning its strict day-and-date policy in favor of giving the company's awards contenders a limited berth in theaters. Roma got the biggest lead by far, since it won't debut on the streamer until Dec. 14 (Netflix's The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Bird Box got just a one-weekend exclusive run in four cities).

By the time Netflix turns on the online switch for Roma on Dec. 14, the film will have opened in more than 100 U.S. theaters and about 500 theaters in 40 other countries.

Cuaron wrote, directed and served as director of photography of Roma. Considered an Oscar frontrunner, the acclaimed black-and-white memoir film is set in the 1970s in the upscale Mexico City neighborhood of Cuaron's upbringing. It centers on his memories of the live-in nanny who cared for him as a boy. 

The Hollywood Reporter's review of the film calls it "a memory film of unusual beauty that pushes to the foreground what is commonly left in the background."