In Oscar Bid, Netflix Will Release 3 Movies in Theaters First

Posted October 31, 2018 10:20 p.m. EDT

LOS ANGELES — Netflix softened its long-standing view on movie distribution, saying late Wednesday that it would release three prestige movies in a way that it had repeatedly said was a nonstarter — in cinemas first, and on the streaming service later.

A limited number of theaters in the United States and overseas will receive an exclusive period of one to three weeks to play the films, which include Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” a black-and-white drama hailed as a masterpiece by critics who have seen it at festivals. After that, Netflix will make the films available for streaming.

Netflix expects theaters to continue playing the films even after it flips them to streaming, with the number of locations dependent on ticket sales, reviews and whether Academy Awards attention materializes as Netflix hopes. The other films are “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a six-part frontier anthology written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, and “Bird Box,” a thriller starring Sandra Bullock and Sarah Paulson.

Most theater chains, including AMC and Regal, insist on a 90-day period of exclusivity. They worry that moviegoers will be reluctant to buy tickets if they know they can catch the same film just a few weeks (or days) later in their living rooms, and for less money. Single tickets cost $15 or more in New York and Los Angeles. A basic Netflix subscription is $8 monthly.

But some independent theaters have been willing to work with Netflix, even when movies are planned for immediate streaming. Netflix booked its drama “22 July” into theaters in about 20 cities in North America in October, for instance, while simultaneously adding the movie to its streaming service.

Netflix’s modified distribution approach should persuade more theaters to participate. But the move is really about winning Oscars and wooing Hollywood talent.

Academy Awards voters — unlike the Emmys electorate — have been cool to Netflix. Heavyweights like Steven Spielberg, for instance, have chafed at the company’s policy of streaming movies immediately, suggesting the service’s original films should be considered television. Top directors like Cuarón, who won an Oscar in 2014 for directing “Gravity,” also want their work to be seen on big screens, which has made it harder for Netflix to compete with studios for projects.

“Roma” will receive the longest exclusive theatrical run, rolling out in cinemas starting Nov. 21 and arriving worldwide on Netflix on Dec. 14. Netflix said “Roma” would eventually be released in theaters in more than 20 countries. Some 70-milimeter presentations are being planned.

Scott Stuber, Netflix’s film chief, positioned the exclusivity decision as an evolution and not a retreat.

“Netflix’s priority is our members and our filmmakers, and we are constantly innovating to serve them,” he said in a statement. “Our members benefit from having the best quality films from world-class filmmakers,” he added, noting that directors also benefit from the global reach of Netflix’s platform.

Netflix had a different message in an earnings-related announcement just two weeks ago: “We believe in our member-centric simultaneous release model for our original films.” When the service got into a spat with the Cannes Film Festival over theatrical exclusivity in April, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, told analysts that “defining distribution by what room you see it in is not the business we want to be in.”

Now, Netflix must explain to its many other filmmakers why their films do not merit more robust theatrical runs.