For years, Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, has claimed that his “day and date” strategy, whereby movies get simultaneous digital and theatrical releases, is “going to be more and more accepted as part of the distribution norm.” There continues to be little evidence of that, mostly because Netflix doesn’t publicize detailed viewership data for its films. Certainly some Netflix projects, such as Dee Rees’s Mudbound and this year’s romantic-comedy hits Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, have made waves with critics.
But the company has some $10 billion in long-term debt and hasn’t demonstrated that its model of pumping out content is eventually going to be more stable and profitable than the current theater model. Recent years have also seen a series of public fights over the future of cinema, like Netflix’s withdrawal from the Cannes Film Festival in May over rules barring movies without a planned theatrical release in France, or public skepticism about the company from figures like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan. A more sustainable compromise may have finally arrived.
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Roma isn’t the only Netflix film that’s screening around the United States before becoming available online. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will be in select cinemas for one week before hitting Netflix on November 16, and Bird Box will also have a one-week window of theatrical exclusivity in December. Roma’s three-week theatrical run is an acknowledgment of the film’s impressive cinematic qualities. Cuarón designed the project to take advantage of state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos sound technology, and now cineasts will have more of a chance to enjoy that presentation in full before streaming becomes the only option.
“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,” Cuarón said in a statement. “Roma was photographed in expansive 65 mm, 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.”
Some other Netflix projects vying for awards this year—such as Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life, David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King, and Paul Greengrass’s 22 July—got the nominal theater release required for Oscar consideration. But because the films went online the same day, they never had any chance of making real money at the box office. Netflix has always argued for the virtues of its widespread membership; it reported that 14 million people watched 22 July in the first three weeks after the film’s debut, more than would have been possible for a big-screen release. But the company’s new strategy is an admission that staggering a movie’s theatrical and online runs can offer the best of both worlds.