Why Is Netflix Waging a Pointless War on the Box Office?

Courtesy of Netflix
Alfonso Cuaron's 'Roma' was given an exclusive theatrical run by Netflix, and is considered a contender for the best picture Oscar.

There's little to lose for the streamer in enthusiastically granting exclusive theatrical runs for key releases like 'Roma,' and bragging about grosses could win over Oscar voters, too, writes Hollywood Reporter editor at large Kim Masters.

Alfonso Cuaron's Roma opened strong at the specialty box office Nov. 23, just behind Fox Searchlight's The Favourite. At least we think it did; no one knows exactly what the film grossed because Netflix doesn't reveal numbers. That performance, plus glowing reviews, mean that in Cuaron's reminiscence of his youth in Mexico City, Netflix has a very serious awards contender.

But when it comes to the big one — best picture Oscar — some influential Academy members are not prepared to hand a victory to a disrupter that theater owners and some AMPAS members regard as a mortal enemy of the movie business. Those "Never Netflix" voters won't endorse Roma, period. But for those on the fence — who love the film but may not love Netflix — well, Netflix isn't making it easier for them to overcome their misgivings.

Well before Roma's release was announced, there were rumors that Netflix film chief Scott Stuber had to push hard to get chief content officer Ted Sarandos to give the film more than just a day-and-date release. Now Roma is getting a three-week exclusive window in some theaters before it drops on the streaming service Dec. 14, an almost heretical decision from Netflix's point of view. But the company's manifest reluctance to yield on this point only encourages movie-business insiders to see Netflix as an adversary.

Does Netflix still need to act like it's passing a kidney stone when it agrees to an exclusive theatrical run? Maybe it made sense when the company was establishing itself as the dominant streamer. Subscribers had to be trained to stay on the sofa; "Netflix and chill" had to be proven as a thing. But now it is very much a thing.

And if Netflix craves the validation and marketing power of awards — it clearly does, as it's spending big to win them — it's hard to understand why the streaming service still finds it so hard to bend when circumstances warrant. Maybe it should try a bit of a rebrand, signaling that it is thrilled to embrace theaters. Will that placate theater owners? Oh, hell no. But it might make it easier for conflicted Academy members to deliver the votes that Netflix needs.

Given a series of record-setting weekends at the box office this year, it seems safe to conclude that there's room in the world for both movie theaters and streaming services. Yes, the studios are going through big, even existential challenges, and the business has struggled through some unfortunate changes. But people still want to go to the movies. So Netflix isn't going to kill theaters — and an exclusive theatrical run for a select number of movies isn't going to kill Netflix.

Many people won't run to a multiplex to see anything, especially a black-and-white, subtitled period piece that unfolds in its own good time. But for those people, Roma's run in theaters is effective marketing. Sure, a theatrical run for another movie could backfire for Netflix if the film doesn't lure audiences. But Netflix has the luxury of being very selective about which chances it wants to take, and it doesn't have to be rushed into making decisions as to which films will get that luxury.

Of course, every filmmaker will want the same treatment that Cuaron is getting (though if the film fails to win best picture, don't be surprised if Cuaron starts to hint that Netflix could have done much better). But this is a subject for negotiation, and very few directors have Cuaron's clout.

Is the Roma precedent a problem for Netflix as it deals with A-list talent? Potentially. But that could be solved if the streamer simply admitted it is actually just as interested in the trappings of Hollywood success as its traditional rivals. That means winning old-school awards, giving its prestigious films an exclusive run in theaters and, if it wants to win Oscars, trumpeting its box office successes as loud as possible.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.