Roma's Oscars may be Netflix's last step to conquering Hollywood

Top-category wins could mark Netflix entering Hollywood's most hallowed sanctum. That may mean more Romas (and possibly more Bird Boxes) for you to stream.

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Joan E. Solsman
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Emmys? Netflix has them by the caseload. But big-category Oscars, like Roma's nomination for best picture, have been Netflix's unrequited yearning for years.


Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo in Roma, Netflix's film written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. 

Alfonso Cuarón

The streaming giant was finally united with Oscar on Sunday, when Roma -- hailed by critics as director Alfonso Cuarón's masterpiece -- won three awards and contended in 10 Academy Award categories.   

And Roma's categories are a high-end bunch. The film, a black-and-white ode to the domestic workers in a middle-class Mexican family in the early 1970s, won for best director, cinematography and foreign language film. Though it fell short of a best picture win, Netflix's lifetime Oscar haul just tripled in a single night.  

Netflix's wins at Sunday's awards show could last longer than one night of Oscar glory. Their prestige could trickle down to the future films you're able to stream there. Netflix's resume as a distributor of original films may be meaningless to viewers: You probably don't care about Netflix's attitude about theatrical release, its cold streak at the Oscars or its giant catalog swallowing up smaller titles. But what are just quirks to viewers can be irredeemable liabilities to some in the upper echelon of filmmaking (or to up-and-comers aspiring to get there).

"Theater chains are attacking Roma as being a made-for-TV movie because of its limited theatrical release," BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield said in a note Wednesday, referring to cinema chains protesting Roma's film award wins so far. "Yet, we do not hear any consumers complaining about being able to watch Roma or Bird Box at home at no extra cost."

But it means your Netflix membership has missed out on some movies you'd probably love to stream. Crazy Rich Asians? Its creators turned down a "gigantic payday" at Netflix to ensure the film had a traditional theatrical release. Amazon has been able to swipe projects like The Big Sick away from Netflix for the same reason. 

For some filmmakers , getting a shot at the silver screen or Oscar gold is worth more than a check from Netflix. The streaming giant itself has been trying to remove some of its perceived filmmaking faults, but landing prestigious Oscars has been one of the hardest boxes for Netflix to check. A big night at the Oscars for Netflix could mean more top-notch movies for you to stream down the line.  

A win data can't buy

Nothing guarantees an Oscar, particularly for best picture, but Netflix has been going all-out to put Roma in the best position for a win. 

Netflix has reportedly spent as much as $30 million on an awards-season promotional blitz for Roma. That's a squishy estimate that Netflix hasn't publicly confirmed, but it would represent twice what the movie cost to make and possibly the most expensive campaign of this kind ever. (Netflix declined to comment for this article.)

The push was presaged last year, when Netflix hired Lisa Taback, a top Hollywood awards strategists who ushered Moonlight and Spotlight to best picture Oscars. Netflix's head of content, Ted Sarandos, said at the time that the company wanted "to expand and deepen our efforts to celebrate the incredible creators and talent who bring their dream projects to Netflix.

Why such great lengths? Netflix is battling against its own history of pissing off traditional Hollywood. 

Since the beginning of its original film ambitions, Netflix has been unapologetic about releasing its movies "day-and-date." That means Netflix debuts its movies in theaters and on its streaming service at the same time. Day-and-date rankles theater owners, who see it as a threat to the traditional "windowing" schedules that give theaters months to screen films without any competition from home viewing. 

When Netflix released Beasts of No Nation on its streaming service the same day as big screens in 2015, movie chains revolted. The four biggest US operators -- AMC, Carmike, Cinemark and Regal -- refused to show it. Despite star Idris Elba winning awards known as precursors to an Oscar nomination, Beasts of No Nation failed to garner even one Oscar nod. 

It was one of the snubs that galvanized the #OscarsSoWhite backlash in 2016, as the film's entire cast is black. It was also a symptom of Netflix's alienation from traditional film institutions like the academy that runs the Oscars. 

Actor Idris Elba stands as a warlord in a crowd of gun-toting soldiers in Beasts of No Nation

Netflix's Beasts of No Nation received no Oscar nominations in 2016, widely perceived as a snub.


Netflix's initial strategy for luring Hollywood's biggest names was to to wave a giant check at them, but piles of cash haven't always been enough. As Netflix began losing out on movies like The Big Sick and Crazy Rich Asians, it has been relaxing its resolve about day-and-date release. Late last year, Netflix released Roma in theaters for more than three weeks before it began to stream; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs from the Coen Brothers and Bird Box ran in theaters for about a week before streaming.

The move didn't go far with theater owners. Major cinema chains are still doggedly opposed to Netflix films. Many refused to screen Roma alongside other best picture nominees in special Oscar showcases this year. But Netflix's move may be more successful as an overture to filmmakers, demonstrating that it's willing to concede the importance of screening in a darkened theater to the people who make the movies themselves. 


Netflix has said Bird Box was watched by more than 80 million households in its first month of streaming. 


Bird Box also played a role in quieting another criticism of Netflix movies -- that titles get lost in Netflix's seemingly infinite rows of content. In its first month of streaming, more than 80 million households watched Bird Box on Netflix. With multiple people watching Netflix from a single account, and Netflix claiming that Bird Box has "high repeat viewings" on individual accounts, its message to creators is clear: Make movies with us and they'll get seen.

But the Oscars' chilly attitude to Netflix has been one of the lingering sticking points. 

The Oscars haven't totally overlooked Netflix. The streaming giant's documentaries have netted the company a feature documentary nomination every year since 2014. Netflix took home its first feature-film Oscar last year for Icarus, its documentary about doping among competitive cyclists. 

The company also won an Oscar for documentary short film in 2017 for The White Helmets, about volunteer rescue workers in bomb-ravaged Syria. Mudbound, a period drama about one black family and one white one in rural Mississippi, received four Oscar nominations last year.

But Mudbound won none. Overall, Netflix's Oscar track record is pretty paltry for a company releasing about 90 movies every year, making it the second-biggest movie studio after Disney by production budget, according to Barclays. 

Not all top filmmakers are put-off by Netflix's dearth of film awards. Obviously, Cuarón entrusted Netflix with a film he cherishes so much he delayed tackling it until he felt he'd developed enough emotional maturity. Martin Scorsese, one of the most celebrated directors of his generation, is releasing his next two films through Netflix. (It's worth noting that Scorsese was snubbed by the Oscars for more than 30 years until 2007's best director statue for The Departed.) Guillermo del Toro, director of last year's best picture winner, and Steven Soderbergh also have movies coming out on Netflix. 

But others among Hollywood's elite filmmakers remain resistant -- Steven Spielberg, for example. 

With Roma on Sunday, Netflix may finally enter filmmaking's most hallowed winner's circle. That could quiet one of the last remaining points of hesitation for filmmakers of all stripes and could trickle down to the very selection of future films Netflix can score for your binge-watching pleasure.

First published at 11:15 a.m. PT. 
Update, Feb. 24., 8:36 p.m. PT: With awards results. 

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